Alexander McQueen was born in London on 17 March 1969 as the youngest of six children. The son of a taxi driver and a social sciences teacher, over the years much has been made of his modest East End upbringing and his 'bad boy done good' narrative, that flew in the face of the accepted notion that family money and a private education were required to succeed in the rarified field of fashion.
McQueen left school aged 16 to take up an apprenticeship at Savile Row tailor Anderson and Sheppard, before moving down the road to Gieves & Hawkes (where, it is rumoured, he embroidered a suit for the Prince of Wales with the legend ‘I am a c**t’ in the lining). Both masters in the art of technical clothing construction, it is here that McQueen learned the intricacies of fitting, cutting and classic tailoring methods. This education was cemented during a stint at theatrical costumier Angels and Bermans, where McQueen was schooled in six different methods of pattern cutting, from historic 16th Century melodramatic silhouettes to contemporary sharp tailoring, and developed the dramatic style which would go on to become his signature in later years.
The next two years would see McQueen employed by Koji Yatsuno in London and the famed Romeo Gigli in Milan before enrolling on the prestigious MA Fashion course at Central Saint Martin’s, after being turned down for a teaching post at the school. It is here he caught the eye of Europe’s fashion elite, with Isabella Blow famously buying his entire 1992 Jack the Ripper-inspired MA collection, bringing his name to the attention of the international fashion press and buyers.
Growing his label and joining Givenchy
Instead of following the traditional route and finding employment with a big design house, McQueen capitalised on his new found renown and set up his own house straight out of university. Within ten years his ethereal, romantic and powerful staging had made his shows a highlight of every fashion season while his designs themselves, imbued with a respect for British tailoring, French couture craftsmanship and fine Italian manufacturing, rocketed to the top of every sartorial wish list. Of course, hailed as the latest Enfant Terrible of the British fashion scene, his clothes weren’t without controversy. His ‘bumster’ trousers and infamous Highland Rape collection sparked plenty of debate about decency and the line between what is art and what is simply offensive - but the fashion world couldn’t get enough.
Accordingly it wasn’t long before the big fashion houses came knocking and, in 1996, just four years out of design school, McQueen was appointed to replace John Galliano as chief designer at Givenchy. He remained at the house until 2001, while still working on collections for Alexander McQueen, of which he became creative director when a 51% stake was acquired by the Gucci Group for a reported $80 million in 2000 - a deal which infuriated the Givenchy-owning LVMH.
life under the gucci group
With big money comes big plans and, with the backing of the Gucci Group (now owned by luxury conglomerate Kering), the McQueen brand expanded rapidly both in terms of collections - which by now included women’s ready-to-wear, men’s ready-to-wear, accessories, eyewear and fragrances - as well as internationally with new boutiques in New York, London, Milan, Las Vegas and LA. McQueen also took on personal collaborations with household names including Puma and Mac.
Freed from his unhappy relationship with Givenchy, McQueen’s collections shifted. Still inspired by the dark and frightening (asylums, Lord of the Flies and the psychology of chess games have all provided starting points), they were lifted by decorative touches, light, pretty prints and the kind of commercially friendly silhouettes that saw everyone from Anna Wintour to the world’s most influential buyers singing his praises anew. His Hitchcock-inspired SS05 collection, characterised by razor sharp pencil skirts and elegant cocktail dresses, for example, marked a distinct maturation from his rebellious early designs while retaining the depth and nuance which made his clothes so seductive.
However, while his business was booming, McQueen’s personal life was more turbulent. The 2007 suicide of his patron and friend Isabella Blow had a big impact on the designer, who dedicated his entire SS08 collection to her memory. And, while his SS10 collection - famed for its reptilian prints and alien-inspired make-up - was hailed as his best yet, with hindsight it is clear that all was not right beneath the fame and success. On 11 February 2010, just a few days after the death of his mother, Alexander McQueen passed away aged 40 of a suspected suicide. He was succeeded at the helm of the brand by his right-hand woman Sarah Burton, who had worked alongside McQueen as Head of Design for Womenswear for 14 years. In her nearly decade-long tenure she has taken the brand from strength to strength and remains creative director to this day.