What Will Alexander McQueen Be Without Alexander McQueen?
Friends and fashion elite gathered at St. Paul’s Cathedral (London) yesterday to remember late British designer Lee Alexander McQueen. Sarah Jessica Parker, Kate Moss, and Daphne Guinness were among the high profile crowd brought together to commemorate McQueen’s life and work.
McQueen committed suicide at age 40 in Feburary shortly after his mother’s death. He was found hanging in his London flat after ingesting a mix of cocaine, tranquilizers, and sleeping pills. The designer had a history of anxiety, depression, insomnia, and two drug overdoses.
Vogue Editor-In-Chief Anna Wintour spoke at the service, fondly recalling the sometimes startling influence his design genius had on the fashion world. Citing his first U.S. presentation, the Dante Autumn/Winter 1996 collection, she paid tribute to McQueen’s infamous extreme low-rise “bumster” pants, “One (model) turned to give me an extremely prominent close-up of her mostly naked back view,” remembered Wintour, “Well, after that collection it was a done deal. Everybody lowered their trousers everywhere.”
Model Kate Moss simply told Retuers reporters outside the cathedral, “I loved him.”
Hailing from a working-class London neighborhood, McQueen dropped out of school at age 16 and secured an apprenticeship with the traditional Saville Row tailors Anderson and Sheppard. He eventually moved on to Gieve and Hawkes and earned a masters degree in fashion design from the competitive Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design (London). The highly influential stylist Isabella Blow bought his entire graduate collection; however his collections soon became famous for pieces everyone wanted, but never actually produced.
In 1996, McQueen took over as head designer at Givenchy. In true McQueen fashion, he wasted little time before insulting the house’s founder, calling him “irrelevent.” His first Givenchy collection was unsuccessful, with even McQueen himself calling it “crap” in a Vogue interview. Acclaim for his work picked up and he stayed with Givenchy until completion of his contract in 2001 although he was unhappy there. McQueen claimed the contract constrained his creativity and even dared Givenchy to fire him in an Arena magazine interview. After leaving Givenchy he partnered with Gucci and focused on his own label.
McQueen’s genius often manifested itself in shocking and dark themes. This earned him the nickname “l’enfant terrible” of British fashion. Among his more controversial collections was the Highland Rape collection of 1995 featuring dishevelled, partly nude, and battered-looking models. The show was McQueen’s commentary on the rape of Scotland by the British, but was viewed by some as a misogynistic celebration of the sexual violation of women. His Autumn 1998 show featured car-robots spraying paint over white dresses and double-amputee model Aime Mullins strutting the catwalk on artfully carved wooden legs. Other shocking shows featured an insane asylumn theme, women bound in plastic, and models’ mock electrocution. McQueen was famous for his eccentric pesonality, workaholic tendencies, and flare for showmanship. His runway shows always enterained with extravagant one 0f a kind backdrops, including a replica shipwreck (Spring 2003), human chess game (Spring 2005), and life-sized hologram of Kate Moss (Fall 2006).
McQueen won the “British Designer of the Year” award four times between 1996 and 2003, and was one of the youngest designers to do so.
The Gucci Group, still majority stakeholders in the Alexander McQueen label, committed to keeping the brand alive despite his sudden death. The label now faces the daunting task of standing and succeeding on its own without McQueen’s grand personality and unparalled creative mind. This challenge has been put in the hands of McQueen’s deputy, Sarah Burton, who took over as creative chief of the label four months ago. She will reveal her first full women’s wear collection in Paris on October 5, 2010. She remains largely unknown as a designer and has yet to hint at whether she will continue McQueen’s legacy of controversy and darkness.
Burton will undoubtedly need to shake some things up, as the McQueen label has struggled financially and just broke even for the first time in 2007. To find success, she has to maintain the foundational artistry and showmanship expected from McQueen while moving its designs into more commerically-attractive looks. No line can succeed long-term without some profitability, and the McQueen brand won’t either unless designs start making it to store racks. On top of all this, Burton needs to define herself as a designer while paying hommage to the fresh memory of her predecessor. The best way to do this may be focusing on maintaing and growing the label’s niche market rather than aiming at exploding McQueen into the mass market. The business also has a secondary label, McQ, which could be a useful vehicle for more mainstream expansion. Only one thing’s for sure: Burton has one tall task and amazing opportunity ahead of her.