When you think of revolutionary designers that irrevocably changed the game, the first name that pops into mind is likely Alexander McQueen. Born Lee Alexander McQueen, the man was a visionary who was known for his exquisite tailoring and avante-garde designs that forced the industry into new frontiers. He was awarded the British Designer of the Year award by the British Fashion Council four times between 1996 and 2001, and named International Designer of the Year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 2003. In that same year, he was also awarded a CBE for his contributions to the fashion industry.
But beyond his many accolades, McQueen was renowned for his ability to ‘speak’ to his audience through his garments and instigate raw emotion in them. This was a singular ability that both garnered praise and was denounced by the fashion industry as being too “aggressive and disturbing.” McQueen achieved this effect through depictions and radical representations of historical events. In the 2008 BBC television series British Style Genius, he was quoted as saying, “I like to challenge history.”
McQueen challenged history from the very first collection, titled “Highland Rape”, of his eponymous label in 1995. Highland Rape referenced the horrific clearances of the Scottish highlands undertaken by the British forces in the 19th and 20th century which evicted numerous tenants from their homeland. The collection was not initially well-received. It comprised dresses in slashed lace, Scottish tartan, and provocative tailoring that exposed models’ breasts and buttocks. The models’ also walked the runway in “blood-splatter” makeup that referenced the gruesome murders that characterized the highland clearances.
In 1998, McQueen’s catwalk show at London Fashion Week was titled “Joan” after the French Martyr Joan of Arc. The collection drew on the themes of persecution and martyrdom throughout history. One of the most famous pieces in this collection was a sequinned top that referenced the persecution of the Russian imperial dynasty by the Bolsheviks in 1918. McQueen (маккуин in Russian) used a black and white photograph of three of the Russian Imperial Romanov children to create a print that overlaid the sequinned top. The result was a hauntingly beautiful piece that immediately brought to mind the tragic end of these children, juxtaposed by the privileged upbringing they were afforded as royalty.
But it wasn’t only after emerging as a successful designer that McQueen took such risks with his designs. His fascination with history, and re-interpreting it, seems to be an inherent characteristic of his fashion DNA. His culminating thesis project at the prestigious Central Saint Martin’s art school in 1992 was titled “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims.” The collection referenced the Whitechapel murders of Jack the Ripper, the East End serial killer who terrorized London in 1888. The collection included garments with locks of hair sewn into them, perhaps referencing the Victorian custom of prostitutes selling their hair to lovers, as a nod to the serial killer’s victims.
McQueen didn’t only reimagine history with his designs. He also contributed to the future of the industry through his innovative and theatrical fashion shows. He was one of the first designers to adopt high technology in fashion shows, using two robotic arms from a car manufacturing plant to spray paint a model live on the runway, in his 13th collection titled “No.13” in 1999. In 2001, his show titled “Voss” was centered around a glass box that referenced a psychiatric facility with its padded white interiors. The show was concluded by a nude model whose face was obscured by a gas mask covered with live moths. The show tackled sanity and McQueen stated that “it was about trying to trap something that wasn’t conventionally beautiful to show that beauty comes from within.”
He was also a forerunner of integrating fashion with the digital and was the first designer to debut a fashion show on a live broadcast over the internet. The popularity of the idea is evidenced by the high influx of viewers which caused the site to crash. It was later called “the most dramatic revolution in 21st century fashion” by the critic Suzy Menkes.
Alexander McQueen’s brilliance and contribution to fashion is one that cannot be understated. His anti-establishment attitude and daring, well-tailored designs were traits that endeared his brand to the masses as well as critics. While he was nicknamed “l’enfant terrible” (the terrible child) of the fashion industry early on in his career, his subsequent shows and collections have cemented him as an icon of the industry, and one who was respected by his peers. Sadly, McQueen took his own life in 2010 at the young age of 40, a few days after his mother’s death. But his legacy is one that still lives on and inspires numerous fresh creators.
The Alexander McQueen label is now headed by Sarah Burton, McQueen’s Head of Womenswear since 2000, and his close collaborator.