Long Live McQueen

McQueen's tribute to Isabella Blow, 2007.Photo: Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum

When Alexander (Lee) McQueen showed what we now know to be his final women’s collection, in Paris last October, he seemed to be a designer with an eye to what’s next. The show was streamed live to the Internet, the clothes were experimental and modern. The takeaway was that McQueen, in addition to reaffirming his genius, had established himself as someone who was taking the rapidly changing medium in stride, that he was able to find inspiration in the tumult of technology.

His creative excitement about the possibilities of the future is just one of the reasons that his death by apparent suicide last week was all the more shocking. Just months ago he was fantasizing to the New York Times about holograms that would allow anyone anywhere to see his collections in three lovely dimensions.

There are not many designers in any generation with the ability to do what McQueen did, which is to marry a rich and epic imagination with mind-blowing technical skill. The son of a London cabbie, he began his career as a teenage apprentice on Savile Row. He was young, but his wicked sense of humor was already intact; asked to work on a suit for Prince Charles, he etched something beneath the lining (I AM A C**T, apparently). He applied to be a pattern-cutting tutor at Central Saint Martins, but the school’s administrators recognized his talent and suggested he enroll as a student instead. So he did, in 1990, and two years later the legendary fashion editor Isabella Blow bought his entire thesis collection for herself. In 1996, when McQueen was 27, Bernard Arnault installed him as the head designer at Givenchy, and McQueen began to explore his interest in pushing society’s more-polite buttons. At one show, he had two robots spray paint on a dress. At another, he engaged a double-amputee to walk his runway on wooden legs. In 2001, he left Givenchy, announcing that LVMH was constricting his creativity, and found a home with the Gucci group.

If McQueen’s creativity was constricted again, it would be hard to tell. One season, he covered his runway in water, in another he rigged it to burst into flames. His models marched through (man-made) blizzards and rain, and one time they were accompanied by wolves. He was able to make clothes that performed that magic dualism of dynamism on the runway and wearability in the shops. McQueen was as famous for his razor-sharp tailoring as he was for his gothic imagination. He popularized “bumster” pants; he named a collection “Highland Rape.”

McQueen was unquestionably devastated by the 2007 suicide of his mentor and friend Blow, who had even moved him into her house and encouraged him to sew. That she complained publicly about his treatment of her (she felt that he had failed to look after her once he’d hit it big) was difficult. He devoted his next show to her: models in pencil skirts and elaborate hats, the air scented with Fracas, her favorite perfume. He consulted a psychic, and reported that Issie was okay in the afterlife, that she was spending time with her grandmother, who was a cannibal and completely great.

But he was determined to move forward. “I wanted to put a stop to the darker side,” he told Vogue in 2008. “I had realized after Isabella died that it is not all doom and gloom.” He renovated a properly adult house for himself in shiny, glamorous Mayfair. He ended a long-term relationship. He told the New York Times in September that he’d “never been happier.” His most recent public sorrow was the February 2 death of his mother.

To casual observers, the fashion world often looks entirely glamorous, the domain of the intimidating, the beautiful, the chic. But it can be a very dark place, and not because of status or material lust. In a lot of ways, fashion offers an unusually accepting home for people who’ve spent their lives feeling othered and odd, for those anxious to treat their internal darkness with external fantasy and flair.

It’s impossible, and futile, to attempt a diagnosis of the demons that tortured McQueen. His friends, his family, and his many, many admirers will mourn him for quite some time. This is a loss of seismic proportion, and it comes with the horrible knowledge that all that beauty was created in the midst of a great deal of pain.

Long Live McQueen