Georgio Armani and Alexander McQueen together at a charity gala.
BY RICHARD WOODS
The London Times
About two weeks ago Alexander McQueen had a meeting with a fashion photographer that took an unexpected turn. The pair were due to discuss a promotional campaign for next season’s designs and McQueen, known to his friends as Lee — Alexander was his middle name — was far from enthused.
“Lee was saying he wasn’t interested in fashion any more, that he hated it — this was in a professional meeting. Not interested. He seemed to be declaring he was over fashion,” said a source with knowledge of the incident.
“As soon as I heard that, I thought it sounded ominous. The thing he has always managed to fall back on has been his design genius. Without that . . .”
The boldest, bravest British designer of his generation had long been outspoken. In a world notorious for air-kissed insincerity, he did not pull his punches. Was he just having a perfectionist’s bad day? Or was he really sickening of the milieu that had made him rich and famous?
A few days later his beloved mother died and McQueen, 40, retreated from work and public view. Last Thursday he was found dead at his central London flat, having apparently committed suicide.
For nearly 20 years he had fashioned fantasies for a generation of celebrities, and the eulogies flowed. Kate Moss was said to be “shocked and devastated at the tragic loss of her dear friend”. Naomi Campbell declared “his talent had no boundaries”. And Anna Wintour, high priestess of Vogue magazine, judged that “his passing marks an insurmountable loss”.
The consensus for public consumption was that his suicide was down to grief over his mother’s death. To many fashionistas there was more to it than that.
A stylist who knew him said: “He was a truly gifted person, but there’s a part of genius that comes near to madness, and Lee had his times with that.”
Another simply said of McQueen’s suicide: “To be perfectly honest, I don’t think it has come as a great surprise.”
Although the word genius tends to be overused, there’s no doubt McQueen was special.
Sue Whiteley, UK managing director of Louis Vuitton, saw his talent at close quarters when she was chief executive of McQueen’s fashion company in the early Noughties.
“The first time I experienced his genius we were all at the Gucci factory in Milan … and a model came out wearing a finished sample,” she recalled.
“Lee ripped off the sleeves, asked for some scissors, cut right into it and asked for some cashmere. He cut right into the sample and pinned in these pieces of cashmere.
“Other designers might have pinned a bit here or there. He completely restructured the garment. It was magic.”
To Whiteley, McQueen had such talents that “he could have been an artist, an architect, a sculptor”.
Such flair was all the more wondrous given McQueen’s modest roots: the son of cab driver, he grew up in a London tower block and left school with one O-level. Nor was it easy being gay, with a penchant for dressmaking, amid cockney laddism.
He found an outlet for his creative impulses first in Savile Row and then at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London. There Isabella Blow, the former Sunday Times stylist, “discovered” him and bought his entire graduate collection.
His passion for creation drew a small, fiercely loyal band of followers. “In the early days they worked in a cold flat in London because they couldn’t afford to put the heating on,” said Whiteley. “Their lives were completely immersed in his energy and vision. He was a difficult character, but there was absolute devotion at the core.”
At just 26, McQueen was plucked to replace John Galliano as head designer at Givenchy, one of the great names of French luxury. It was not a comfortable experience. He told Vogue that his first couture collection for Givenchy was “crap” and later raged about constraints against his creativity.
“I don’t think he was quite ready and nor were they ready for him,” said Whiteley. The East Ender in him did not make concessions to hauteur. As his friend and client Meg Mathews told The Sunday Times: “The things I loved about Lee were his untouched accent, his straight talk, no punches pulled. He could be brutal, but showed me such sensitivity.”
For all his brilliance and invention, he was ill at ease with aspects of high fashion. “Sometimes he had that little boy vulnerable look,” said Whiteley. “I remember once in a restaurant in LA, they were disrespectful to him. He didn’t know which wine to order.”
Breaking free of Givenchy, he set up on his own and gave full vent to his imagination. He amazed audiences with shows featuring disabled models, monster heels, a model spray-painted on the catwalk, a hologram of Moss and themes ranging from death to evolution.
Although on the surface the shows could appear designed to shock, Richard Gray, an illustrator who worked with him, said: “He was incredibly deep thinking. Not frivolous.”
When preparing a show, said Whiteley, “he was always very troubled by what that vision was going to be”.
Success put a strain on his relationship with Blow. “Like many creative people they carried heavy emotional burdens,” said Detmar Blow, Isabella’s former husband. “Some can carry them, some cannot.”
They both had a tendency towards depression, although McQueen told Vassi Chamberlain, the society writer: “It’s just that I’m in tune with my melancholy side.”
Their personal bond remained strong but, professionally, Blow and McQueen grew apart. “They loved each other to the end,” said Detmar Blow. “But Issy had money issues. She would have liked to have been on the [McQueen company] payroll.”
For his part, McQueen came to resent Blow’s role in his success. Chamberlain recalled: “In an unguarded moment he muttered that he was sick and tired of always being referenced as having been ‘discovered by Isabella Blow’.”
In 2007, after several failed attempts, Blow committed suicide by drinking weedkiller after discovering she had cancer. The perpetually casual McQueen appeared at her funeral in formal Scottish dress. He wept and left without a word.
Like his catwalk extravaganzas, McQueen’s personal life was unpredictable, veering towards extremes. A glamorous civil union, conducted with Moss as bridesmaid, did not last. Another relationship ended when, returning from a trip to India two years ago, McQueen went straight to his boyfriend’s office and told him: “We’re over.” Later he took up with a porn star whom he met online, known as Mr Stag.
More recently he had apparently split up with an Australian lover, whose name he had reportedly had tattooed on his arm. In an interview yet to appear in the Australian Harper’s Bazaar, he apparently said: “He was a bastard who went back to Australia and I was left looking at his name.”
A stylist who knew McQueen observed: “Maybe you can’t save someone from killing themselves, but if there had been a person he could have had a really intimate relationship with, then maybe it wouldn’t have happened.”
If he needed comfort, too often he seemed to find it in oblivion. Some of his friends, alleged one fashionista, were “drug monsters”. She added: “He was so intense and he looked at the dark side. The themes throughout his work are macabre, he was unrelenting with that.”
Another said: “He was a depressed character, and large amounts of drugs don’t help.” One fashion industry source recalls him attending a party “with a bucket full of cocaine”.
The tower block boy had ended up living in a Mayfair flat, but he still faced huge demands to succeed. His companies were surviving thanks only to tens of millions in loans from Gucci.
The latest accounts of one, which had broken into profit after a loss the previous year, specifically noted that it was a “going concern, notwithstanding net current liabilities of £23m”. Another had net current liabilities of almost £10m and had made a loss of almost £2m.
Were the pressures getting to him? In an interview with the French magazine Numéro last year, he aired some frustrations. Fashion journalism, he said, was “a thinly veiled exercise in marketing”. Of the British Fashion Council he said: “It doesn’t know what the f*** it’s doing.”
Perhaps most tellingly, he was lacerating about the social side of fashion, saying: “People who move in [fashion] circles never have anything to say. You know it’s hard enough doing this job, I don’t have to f****** live it as well. I’d rather sit at home watching Coronation Street.”
Whiteley believes he had come to feel trapped and wanted to move on. “He was a true artist. The advantage of being an artist is that you can do one show and then wait,” she said. The work of painters and sculptors enjoys longevity: “In the fashion industry, you finish one show and then you’re on to the next. You’re only as good as your last show. It’s relentless.”
In an interview last year conducted by his mother, McQueen was asked what was his worst fear. “Dying before you,” he replied. With her passing, that fear was gone, but not his other demons.
In a tribute to him posted online last week, the model Olivia Inge, who worked closely with McQueen, reflected on his genius and his torments. “A man after my own heart, he was happiest diving in the Pacific,” she wrote. “That sense of being without gravity and inconsequential to the fish, free from the tyranny of money, business, fame and capitalism.
“I hope Lee is happy now that he can float till his heart is content in the big ocean in the sky.”
See Related: LONG LIVE McQUEEN
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