Alexander McQueen, The Edward Scissorhands of the Eastend

Suzanne Harrington reviews Blood Beneath the Skin by Andrew Wilson, a new book on the life of fashion’s enfant terrible, Alexander, ‘Lee’ McQueen,  whose personal life was marred by drugs and depression. 

Alexander McQueen, The Edward Scissorhands of the Eastend

When Lee Alexander McQueen was four, he was going to the park with his mum in East London.

“Mum, I can’t wear this,” he said of the trousers and anorak she’d put him in. “It doesn’t go.”

Lee grew up to become Alexander McQueen, a designer regarded as a visionary genius, a sculptor who worked in fabric; “a wild bird who made clothes fly”, according to Isabella Blow, the woman who discovered him.

He in turn referred to her, his aristocratic muse and patron and Vogue editor-at-large, as a “a piece of public art”.

Then, five Februarys ago, aged 40 and at the top of his game, Alexander McQueen — Lee to his mates — killed himself.

There were 1,500 mourners at the funeral, including Anna Wintour, Kate Moss, Sarah Jessica Parker, Daphne Guinness, Michael Nyman and Bjork, who performed Billie Holliday’s ‘Gloomy Sunday’.

McQueen’s family — ordinary people in ordinary clothes — sat apart from the fashion crowd. He was buried on the Isle of Skye, near the grave of an ancestor, another long dead Alexander McQueen.

His mother Joyce, who died nine days before her son, had traced the family tree northwards and Lee’s imagination was captured by his Scottish roots. He died the day before her funeral.

Several events mark the fifth anniversary of McQueen’s death— a show of his work, Savage Beauty, at London’s V&A, and a biography, Blood Beneath The Skin, by Andrew Wilson. And while the designs are astonishing, the person who created them was even more so.

His work, as McQueen once said of himself, was “eclectic verging on the criminal”, while his attitude to life was “criminal verging on the eclectic”.

There were three Lees, according to his friends: The shy, sober, unhappy boy; the funny jokey genius; and the drunk, drugged, nasty suicidal man.

“I don’t know whether I can survive the fashion world without murdering someone,” he said, early on in his career — in the end, he and Isabella Blow killed themselves — she a few years before him.

In his twenties and thirties he had been named British Designer of the Year four times, and in 2003 International Designer of the Year.

He had more talent than he knew how to handle. What made him extraordinary were his extremes — extreme talent, extreme output, extreme hedonism.

He sucked in culture —Munch, Dante, Bunuel, Leigh Bowery, madhouses, Jack the Ripper, birds, bodysnatchers, Patrick Suskind’s book Perfume — and processed his own demons into the creations he sent down the catwalk.

He was driven, gifted, able to cut a perfect pair of trousers straight from fabric using nothing but chalk, scissors, and his eye. People would watch in awe as he, a chubby Eastend Edward Scissorhands, cut a perfect garment to run up on his sewing machine.

By the time he was 23, Isabella Blow — who persuaded him to use his second name rather than his first — was referring to him as Alexander the Great.

Lee McQueen was born the youngest of six in 1969 and grew up in a Stratford council house, long before any Olympic regeneration. His dad, a cabbie, had a breakdown around the time of his birth, from overwork.

He adored his mum Joyce, who encouraged his creativity — he began drawing aged 3, and made a fancy dress outfit involving bandages, a walking stick, a fake black eye, and a box of chocolates: “All because the lady loves Milk Tray”. Even as a kid, he was thinking like a conceptual artist. He realised early on he was gay –— “the pink sheep of the family.”

Never much good at school, apart from art, he collected glasses at a local Stratford gangster pub and dreamed of escape. He didn’t want to be a cabbie or a brickie like his dad and brothers.

After a brief stint at West Ham Technical College, in 1986, aged 17, he walked into a Savile Row tailors without an appointment, and despite not having much charm or social skills, was hired as an apprentice on the spot when they saw what he could do.

Following Savile Row, he had a brief stint in Milan, aged 20, learning from Romeo Gigli, who again hired him immediately — and with whom he fell out. He was always falling out with people.

He also spent time working backstage in a West End theatre , which he hated, although this experience would influence his own shows. which were sensory theatrical spectacles, rather than just models stalking up and down runways.

What steered McQueen’s life towards the world of couture was his acceptance onto the MA fashion course at Central St Martin’s.

This was the ultimate art school, whose graduates included Lucian Freud, Anthony Gormley, Peter Blake, John Hurt, Mike Leigh, Jarvis Cocker, PJ Harvey, half of the Clash, and John Galliano.

His tailoring experience made up for his lack of qualifications; as a student he sneaked into a Givenchy show and declared it “crap”—five years later, aged 27, he would be its creative director in Paris. He said, “I wanted to learn everything, everything, give me everything.”

At his St Martin’s degree show in 1992, Isabella Blow was in the front row, and bought the lot — she paid him in cash, because he was still signing on the dole, and he packed the collection in binliners.

Meeting Blow was his turning point. Plum Sykes, Isabella’s assistant at Vogue, remembers him as “smelly, sweaty, grubby.” He was fat, with bad teeth and gingivitis, and distinctly unfashion-y. Then he invented the “bumster” and trousers dropped to the hip for a decade.

His work was often misunderstood. His Highland Rape collection in 1995 was labelled misogynist, despite the rape in question being of Scotland by England, a sort of anti-Vivienne Westwood statement against the romanticisation of tartan.

Later accusations of misogyny, when he sent models out bruised and bloodied, or with faces covered in metal, were actually the opposite: “I like men to keep their distance from women,” he said. “I like men to be stunned by an entrance.”

There was a reason for this. His older sister, to whom he was close, had been married to a very violent man who had also sexually abused Lee from the age of 10 until the abuser’s death in a car crash when Lee was 14 .

Lee never told anyone — at least, not properly. “It had robbed him of his innocence”, said Isabella’s husband Detmar Blow. “It bought a darkness into his soul.”

Which is why he would send women down the catwalk eight feet tall in antlers:

“I’ve seen a woman nearly get beaten to death by her husband,” he said of his sister, who had no idea her violent husband was also her little brother’s sexual abuser. “I know what misogyny is. I hate this thing about fragility and making women feel naïve…I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.”

He sent bruised and bloodied models down the catwalk, writes Andrew Wilson, “carrying traces of both his sister and himself.” Once McQueen began working for Givenchy, the money came rolling in. No more living in Hoxton lofts and dodging tube fares.

The unmaterial boy became loaded, almost overnight. He had passionate dramatic relationships, but none lasted.

His output was punishing, having to turn out collection after collection. By the mid 90s he was dressing David Bowie, and working with Dennis Hopper, and putting on shows where Anna Wintour was in the front row. Everyone agreed he was the most exciting thing in fashion, a true artist. And haunted.

Alexander McQueen had it all externally, but inside he was still Lee, the fat kid from Stratford now presenting as a sleek, rich internationally-feted designer of godlike talent.

He was doing loads of coke, and having loads of sex. When he went to Givenchy, Isabella Blow had hoped for a job as his assistant but he didn’t take her with him — he distanced himself.

Some time later, suffering from ongoing bipolar disorder, she drank weedkiller and died. McQueen was haunted with guilt and remorse.

And his own depression worsened. He treated it with cocaine and sex – he was spending around £600 a day on drugs, estimates his biographer, and discovered he was HIV positive.

Then his beloved mother Joyce became terminally ill. Lee, the Eastend bruiser turned haute couturier, the man who used to say things like: “If I shock people, that’s their problem”, shocked everyone by killing himself.

Ironically, perhaps Lee would have been shocked to see his name being used on that most establishment garment of all— a royal wedding dress.

Kate Middleton walked down the aisle in Alexander McQueen in 2011, a year after his death. You’d wonder what he would have thought. Would he have regarded it as the last laugh, or would he have turned in his grave?

* Alexander McQueen: Blood Beneath The Skin by Andrew Wilson, pub Simon & Schuster £25

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