Alexander McQueen's life story was one of irresistible contradictions the taxi driver's son who made clothes for some of the richest people on the planet, the foul-mouthed ruffian with a sublime eye and adroit hands. His death on Feb. 11 at the age of 40 was in keeping with this theme: on the cusp of showing a new collection at Paris fashion week, the head of his own profitable label could apparently see no joy in what lay before him. McQueen died the same way he did everything else: unexpectedly, controversially and as unbelievably as possible.
His body was found, reportedly hanged, in his Mayfair, London, home. Although it is difficult even for intimates to discern why anyone would choose to extinguish his future, many McQueen theories abounded. His Twitter feed suggested he'd been having some dark times. His mother died just a week ago. His mentor and friend Isabella Blow had taken her own life a few years ago after a diagnosis of ovarian cancer.
In his short career, McQueen was named British Designer of the Year four times and Designer of the Year in the U.S. once, and was working as creative director for Givenchy when he was very publicly poached by Tom Ford to do the same for Gucci. His label was making inroads in the U.S. market, and he recently launched the slightly cheaper McQ and went into partnership with Target. Last year he became the first major designer to do a live webcast of his show. Everything suggested he was a man who had hit his stride.
The youngest of six children from London's East End, Lee McQueen, as he was known to friends and family, famously dropped out of school at 16 to become an apprentice on Savile Row. He worked for a few designers before applying to teach at London's prestigious Central Saint Martin's College of Art and Design. He didn't get the job, but he was offered a coveted space in the graduate program. In 1992, by then discovered and championed by Blow, he started his own line upon graduation.
Either innately or through study, McQueen understood that he was a story: working-class wonder boy, hooligan of haute couture, aesthetic thug. He seemed to enjoy scandalizing journalists telling them he didn't care for their publication, showing them artwork of something repellent, talking like a longshoreman (he used to scrawl obscenities underneath the linings of coats he made), badmouthing his bosses. The loutishness made his talent seem purer and rawer and more exciting.
McQueen's clothes were as profanely original as his language. Most famous for his bumster pants, which took low-rise jeans to a whole new low, he combined a gothic, almost romantic sensibility with a robust dose of street attitude. He was a master cutter, structuring garments to change the shape of the body, accentuating what he found sexiest. "There are very few real designers who have a craft, which is to say a sense of cut, proportion and tailoring," fellow British designer Paul Smith said in 2001. "Alexander has it."
And he knew how to put on a show. In one, he sprayed models with paint as they walked; in another, he had them in rings of fire; in another, they were blood-spattered. Wild makeup and hair are runway standards, but McQueen put his models in those lobster-claw shoes Lady Gaga favors, as well as antlers. He gave his shows ribald names and once sent down a completely naked model carrying a transparent box of moths which was then shattered, releasing the panicking winged insects. He mooned the audience and went out in a bunny suit (although not in the same show). And he did all this while sending down one jaw-droppingly beautiful garment after another.
His attitude was not without its downside. His five-year stint at Givenchy was a disaster from the moment he set foot in the atelier and started badmouthing its namesake. Although popular in Britain, he struggled to create collections that Main Street America could sell. Having formerly eschewed accessories and perfumes, he eventually acceded to the ways of the market and released both.
But these struggles between commerce and vision are familiar to anybody who makes anything. McQueen's departure is a signal moment in an era when creators of fashion are losing prestige and influence to wearers of fashion, people whose personal style is copied and aped. McQueen was eccentric and provocative and pig-headed enough to be one of the remaining designers who could inspire people to dress in a new way, and to insist on it.