Lee Alexander McQueen CBE, 1969-2010: portrait of a restless genius Featured

Wild beauty
by 16 February 2010

Wild beauty. In this moment of tragedy, anecdotes on Alexander McQueen abound, and most of these regard his rebellious and unconventional approach to his work in the fashion industry. But far more important in his work is his aesthetic approach based on a solid foundation of hard work and experience in many areas of the clothing trade. He started making dresses for his three sisters even when he was a child, and by the time he was 20, he had already amassed a remarkable heritage of fashion skills.

Possibly remembered for his extreme fashion ideas, he also created many beautiful and superbly wearable clothes, with brutally sharp tailoring, rigorously geometrical suits, pencil-straight skirts.

His garments are a result of stark contrasts, between fragility and strength, tradition and modernity, fluidity and severity. His collections express his expert knowledge of bespoke English tailoring, French haute couturier and the superb finish of Italian clothing manufacture. He introduced many original motifs and ideas, above all his "bumsters," ultra-low slung trousers that led to the coining of another term, "muffin top," referring to the overhanging hip flesh caused by the low-riding waistband. Then there were those 10-inch heels, so high that in December 2009, four top models refused to wear them because they seemed so precarious. Other garments are breathtaking for their cool, tightly-honed perfection and succinct visual motifs. It has been said that he did much to revive the flagging British fashion industry after the period of dormancy that followed the punk movement in the 1970s. His last show, October in Paris, featured complex, carefully structured cocktail dresses, well received by critics.

Lee Alexander McQueen was born in Lewisham, London on 17 March 1969, the youngest of six children. He left school at the age of 16, and he was immediately offered an apprenticeship at the Savile Row tailors Anderson and Shephard, and later at Gieves and Hawkes nearby. Here he learnt a great deal about the technical construction of garments.

From there he moved to the theatrical costumiers Angels and Bermans, where he learnt different historical pattern cutting techniques. When he was just 20, he was taken on by designer Koji Tatsuno, before moving to Milan a year later, working as Romeo Gigli's design assistant. In 1994 he returned to London, where he completed a Masters degree in Fashion Design at London's top fashion design school, the Central St. Martins College of Art and Design. His degree collection was purchased complete by fashion stylist Isabella Blow.

After leaving St. Martins, he went on to become one of the most famous fashion designers in the world. His early work was without doubt controversial, as expressed by a collection named "Highland Rape," in which tattered dresses and bloodstained models were accompanied by one of his major style motifs: bumsters. His "bumsters" were ground-breaking, super low-slung jeans that went on to become a part of youth look worldwide. Another famous McQueen hallmark was the skull, and this quickly became a must-have, widely copied all around the world. It was used on scarves, bags, garments and other items. His fashion shows were theatrical performances, and he was also a pioneer in streaming his catwalk shows live on the internet. In 1998, former Paralympian athlete Aimee Mullins, double amputee, modelled on the catwalk wearing a pair of hand-carved artificial legs. Nonetheless, he was named British Designer of the Year four times, in 1996, 1997, 2001 and 2003. In October 1996 he was made Chief Designer at French Maison Givenchy, where he remained until March 2001.

Further awards include International Designer of the Year from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (2003), Commander of the British Empire (CBE), from Queen Elizabeth II, and British Menswear Designer of the Year, 2004.

His Spring 2008 show was a tribute to his friend and mentor Isabella Blow, who died in May 2007.

He recently opened flagship stores in New York, London and Milan, two fragrances, Kingdom and MyQueen, and a denim collection, McQ. His October 2009 show, entitled "Plato's Atlantis," reflected one of his hobbies, scuba diving.

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Gieves & Hawkes, epitome of traditional tailoring