From High School Drop Out to World-Renowned Fashionista
As a closeted goth (which wasn’t exactly cool in Bronx public schools in the late 90s) who scribbled dark and depressing poetry on the margins of her notebooks, I found a kindred spirit in Lee Alexander McQueen. I saw “Savage Beauty” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art at least three times. I liked that he did not fit the prototype of a fashion designer. Yes, he was gay but he was not well polished nor did he ooze with the sophistication of an Oscar De La Renta or a Tom Ford. He was a slightly chubby and brash working class kid from East London who looked more likely to push you around the school yard than to stich beautiful fabric together. McQueen entered the fashion world in the early 1990s when logomania reigned supreme and Paris, the birthplace of haute couture, was losing its ground to looks inspired by the hedonistic rave and acid club subcultures of London and to the urban sportswear craze influenced by the hip hop styles of New York City. McQueen was a complicated person: a creative genius and an overbearing boss, someone who held on to deeply buried childhood trauma and that soothed depression and a long suspected bipolar disorder with drugs and promiscuity. He loved animals and left his three dogs Minter, Juice and Callum a small fortune. Most of all he was an extremely hard working designer who struggled with love and self-acceptance in an institution that flaunted class distinctions and glorified individualism.
Today when haute couture has become nothing more a scheme to sell horrid overpriced handbags, the new documentary on Alexander McQueen, by co-directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, reminds us of the craft and artistic vision that separate high fashion from mass produced ready to wear clothing. The pretentiousness we find in Gucci or in any of the runways of Paris and London are the exact opposite of the emotions that McQueen’s clothes evoke and unleash: fetishism, despair, mania and death. His shows were not your traditional catwalk, they were performance art pieces. So, it’s no accident that the media has dubbed him “the East End boy who ruffled the feathers of Parisian haute couture.” He took his place among that era’s most important fashion players which included Marc Jacobs and his arch-nemesis John Galliano, a fellow working-class kid from South London turned fashionista. The new documentary seeks to uncover the creative energy, personal life and struggles of the most important fashion designers of our time. Like Whitney Houston, he also had two personas: he was Lee to his family and close friends and McQueen to the public. It’s these two people that the documentary seeks to reconcile through five main frames named after titles of his shows. The filmmakers appropriate the skull that McQueen became famous for (which first appeared in his 2003 collection), a symbol of the dark underside of his aesthetic focus and which also foreshadows his untimely death—suicide by hanging at the age of 40.
Marx begins Capital with an analysis of linen which he first introduces to explain use value, exchange value and then the commodity form to describe the entire artifice of capitalism as a system. In fact, he called the poorest of all workers lumpen—cloth or rag. Unlike Marx’s time, today in the West with the rise and growing popularity of fast-fashion, the labor process by which clothes are produced is hidden from the consumers. Instead they appear to us as if my magic and also, not to add, very cheap! Unlike the mass-produced white plain t-shirts sold at H&M for under $12, haute couture promises us constant consumption and production at an exorbitant price. In haute couture, fashion, design, aesthetics, labor, raw materials and consumption come together in interesting ways that merit a deeper Marxist analysis that I am perhaps ill-equipped to handle. But what is interesting is that McQueen’s craft that is centered by the documentary filmmakers also ironically points to the work it takes to give a commodity what Braudillard called “sign value” which is what distinguishes and differentiates a McQueen from a Gucci. We see Lee drawing, cutting, sewing and totally engrossed in the details of his designs. Like Charles Worth, the 19th century designer and founder of the first haute couture house in Paris, McQueen too was a self-taught impoverished outsider from England.
Lee McQueen grew up in the 1980s with five other siblings in a housing project in Lewinsham, East London. His father was a cab driver and his mom a teacher. In early interviews with him, he expresses his disdain for school which he left at the age of 16, preferring instead to spend his time drawing and sketching. His mother urged him to go look for work on Saville Row and there he found a job as an apprentice for the tailors, “Anderson and Sheppard”. His parents were constantly supportive of his dreams and stood by him even when he came out as gay. In the documentary, various former employers talk about his ambition and drive to learn the craft. While he was admitted to the prestigious Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design without an undergraduate degree, he was mostly self-driven and constantly pushed himself to learn and acquire different skills. McQueen’s graduate project, “Jack the Ripper”, was released at a time when the post-punk scene heavily infiltrated life in London. He didn’t have any money and relied on unemployment benefits to buy materials for his shows. It was also the first time he used the name Alexander to not get caught by welfare authorities. The documentary shows that he later adopts the name at the prodding of his mentor and friend, Isabella Blow, who argued the name was “posh” for a fashion designer.
Overall, the documentary does a good job at showcasing McQueen’s ambition and drive to improve his technical skills and craft, which have always been an important part of haute couture since its establishment in 1858. As the sewing machine made possible mass production in clothing, haute couture allowed the Parisian bourgeoisie to attach a new meaning to appearance, to distinguish themselves from the working class and thus further cement class distinctions. In his book Fashioning the Bourgeoisie, Philippe Perrot (1994) traces the longue durée of haute couture and locates its birth in the larger socio-political development of 19th century France: the rapid rise of the bourgeoisie made possible by a growing textile industry, the birth of department stores and improved living standards. Luxury or high fashion in this way became a central marker of class status. While initially, coutures or dressmakers were “subordinate, at least in principle to the wishes of their individual consumers,” (Lipovetsky 1994: 75) over time they would rise as autonomous artists with control over the labor process. With fashion shows and live models, haute couture established itself as the luxury counterpart to department stores (Lipovetsky, 77) and expressed itself as a movement against the uniformity of fashion that was available to working class women. The technical aspects of dressmaking: drawing, sewing, stitching are not hidden under the veiled process of garment production but revered as handwork. The documentary in many ways brings this labor process to life through McQueen’s designs. Yet the technical craft is only part of a longer and darker story that is McQueen’s life. In many ways it’s a façade for deeper struggles that beset him.
Underneath a crafty hand and a rough physical exterior, McQueen was a deeply insecure romantic. The words of Shakespeare’s “Midnight Summer Dream” were tattooed on his right arm and throughout his short life he struggled with his body image (particularly his teeth and weight). On his 30th birthday, he emerged to the world much slimmer after undergoing liposuction surgery. In his work, romance, decadence, death and decay were intertwined to produce a unique aesthetic and brand that can be traced to the height of the new romantic movement in Britain in the 1980s. Influenced by the glam fashion of David Bowie (who McQueen was close to), this movement found new expression in Duran Duran and Boy George. While some of his contemporaries like Galliano embraced this aesthetic, McQueen exposed its darker side. This is perhaps because he was less interested in being accepted by the haute couture aristocracy and was instead absorbed completely by the London underground club scene. It was in the dim lit corners where MDMA softened the edges of reality and the touch of a stranger fueled euphoric feelings of intimacy and connection that McQueen found his inspiration and flirtation with seduction and death.
The documentary filmmakers do not offer any insight into how the time spent in the gay clubs of London and New York City influenced McQueen’s vision. Instead, the focus is strictly on the technical aspects of his creative process, his industrious nature, the ways in which he was able to pour his subconscious into the patterns that still shock and awe us. In an interview with Dana Thomas, the author of one of the few biographies on McQueen, Thomas argues that he was like the sort of artists “who paint beautiful pictures, and those who invest their soul, who use their work to tell their own personal story, like parables — who essentially vomit out these creations.” He brought together material that wouldn’t necessarily be found in clothing such as bird feathers, twigs from a tree, animal parts, wooden prosthetics. In his collections, McQueen bared the dark side of the union between nature and human: horns emerging from women’s shoulders, birds grabbing a model by the collar, butterfly headdresses made of hand painted turkey feathers balanced on a thin frame. His work bridged the gap not only between art and fashion but also engaged with larger societal transformations such as the rise of computer technology in the 1990s. For instance, for his 13th collection in 1998, model Shalom Harlow appeared in the middle of the runway dressed as a ballerina turning on an axil and being spray painted by robots on either side. McQueen would foresee the effect that computerized technology would have on the fashion industry (today many designs are drawn by computers, not hands).
When asked about his creative visions he would respond: “I don’t want shows you come out of like you had Sunday lunch, I want you to be repulsed or exhilarated…If you leave without emotion, I’m not doing my job properly.”
It’s hard to watch McQueen’s collections (in 2010 he became the first fashion designer to live stream his shows) without getting sucked into a maelstrom of emotions: shock and awe of the beauty of his creations, rage and pity for his models trapped in the various contraptions of his vivid imagination, and the element of surprise that shrouded each show. His creativity was his greatest love and in the collections you can see the range of emotions that one has when faced such strong feelings: hunger, drive, ecstasy alongside anger, jealousy and despair. Discussing his creative process McQueen would state: “… In one way, one side of me is kind of really somber and the other side of my brain is very erratic and it’s always this fight against the other and I choose so many different things.” This inner struggle touches on something the documentary doesn’t get into: the fact that many of his close friends and co-workers suspected that he was bipolar. The highs and lows of love guided his work and his creative genius which initially brought people close to him and but that also, after some time, alienated them and pushed them away. For example, the documentary interviews people who jumped at the opportunity to work with him but who overtime would drop out because of being over-worked by a tyrannical boss.
Beyond the dresses and the catwalks, McQueen collections incorporated aspects of performative art unlike any other fashion designer. For instance, there were the models adorned in bondage straps, blood and worm filled bustiers for his 1996 collection “Hunger” and those turned into wild animals by sporting animal skins, their hair twisted into animal manes for the 1997 collection “It’s a Jungle Out There.” Or one of my all-time favorite collections titled “Joan”, (1998) named after the historical figure and Catholic saint Joan of Arc, which ends with a masked model dressed in red making her way to the center of the runway only to be trapped by a ring of fire as Diana Ross’ “Remember Me” plays in the background.
These outlandish performances relied on the model’s capacity to endure the pain and torture that McQueen creations necessitated. His last show before his suicide, “Plato’s Atlantis” (Spring/Summer 2010), was predicated on the not too far-fetched idea that the ice caps would melt and thus humanity would be forced to return to the sea and to the lost world of Atlantis. On the runway, models appeared in 12-inch shoes carved out of wood. It’s remarkable that they could even walk. It’s not clear how many of his models protested his creations or if they threw their shoes at him in the dressing rooms. We do know that he was very close with models Annabelle Nielso and Kate Moss but that he generally shied away from the party life of the fashion world preferring instead the gay club scenes of London and New York City.
Watching his many collections, I couldn’t help but think about the complex relationship that McQueen has to female models: he dresses them in powerful gear that would make anyone think twice about approaching them, defends them in the public as symbols of strength and resilience, but yet simultaneously tortures them through clothing that has historically been a symbol of gender confinement for women through the centuries.
So, what drew an East London working class kid like McQueen to the romantic, the dramatic, and the painful? How did this high school drop-out come to be embraced by the world of haute-couture and bourgeois fashion elitism that he despised so much? These were some of the questions I had as I watched filmmakers trace McQueen’s his genius ability to transform material, clothing and human bodies into works of art.
Relying on interviews with his family and friends, the documentary feels like an investigation into the trauma and struggles of Lee’s childhood that could possibly explain how this creative genius was pushed to take his own life. His family plays an important role in his life; he is very close to his mother who, besides pushing him to pursue his dreams. also inspires in him an interest in the family’s Scottish ancestry. Through his first show, McQueen befriends Isabella Blow, who becomes his mentor and close friend. She was an established magazine editor (formerly at Vogue) when she met McQueen and purchased his entire graduate collection. Her quirky and flamboyant style had an influence in the fashion world and the two became fast friends. But perhaps the fact that Isabel “discovered” him would haunt McQueen and he eventually tried to break free of the dynamic of their friendship. When he sold his brand to Gucci, he left Isabella out (she was the one who allegedly brokered the deal).
What struck me most about in the documentary was McQueen’s insistence on making female models appear tough and fierce. In the documentary, filmmakers highlight his controversial show “Highland Rape” (1995), inspired by the English invasion of Scotland (14th century) which would catapult him into fame. The collection featured women in tattered clothing looking like they had been battered; others walked on the runway in a drunken-like stupor and some, like this image below, in full body armor. The documentary plays old clips of McQueen replying to his critics that accused him of being a misogynist: “I want to empower women. I want people to be afraid of the women I dress,” he says in the documentary. The filmmakers reveal why this particular collection was so important and special for him (he even bought the models homemade sausage rolls).
Highland Rape 1995 Collection
When he was just 9 years old, Lee was sexually abused by his sister Janet’s former husband, Terence Hulyer. Lee also watched him beat Janet mercilessly–leading her to suffer two miscarriages as a direct result of the physical and emotional violence. Like Whitney Houston, Lee also kept the abuse a secret from his family. He chose to tell his sister only just before his death in 2010. This abuse marked him deeply and, in his shows, female models wear material that would make them unapproachable or at least instill fear: crocodile heads coming out of shoulders, their heads engaged in metal and sharp objects emanating from their body parts.
McQueen was only 27 years old when he took over the creative design at Givenchy. It was his first entrance into Parisian couture. In the 1990s, McQueen and Galliano were the only working-class kids breaking into high-fashion. The documentary unfortunately does not delve into their bitter rivalry which is one of the subjects of Shane’s biography. After all, the job at Givenchy was first given to Galliano who instead took a job at Dior. Unlike McQueen’s elaborate creative attempts at Givenchy, his show was not considered a success. Galliano on the other hand was praised for his Dior collection. Working at Givenchy gave McQueen his taste for the rich snobs he would spend his life around. In the documentary, his friends and co-workers share their amazement of the new glamour of the new working spaces they have. Lee, they argued, was being treated like a King. Yet, “he wanted to be like a regular person” and in one scene in the documentary his co-workers recount how he went to eat in the workers’ cafeteria which was unheard of at that time. His co-workers laugh recalling how awestruck the Givenchy workers were.
McQueen had a complicated relationship to the fashion world. While he was working for Givenchy in Paris, he never bothered learning French and throughout his life he was apprehensive towards celebrity culture. He famously derided it even as every collection made him more famous and very much part of the popular circles he viewed with disdain. His clothes never achieved the commercial fame of a brand like Gucci and he would perhaps be happy that today he is more known for his contribution to bridging the worlds of art and fashion. He often found affinity with historic and contemporary figures that challenged authority and social norms. His mom interviewed him in 2004 for the Guardian, UK. When she asked him what person would he choose to dine with, he answered Elizabeth I. In that interview he also stated his preference for “politically correct police” on the streets of London who “weren’t racist or homophobic.” He was close to David Bowie which the documentary does not get into. Bowie wore the fashion designer’s union jacket coat for his Earthling album cover. In a 1996 joint interview appearing in Dazzed and Confused, David Bowie asked McQueen “Are you gay and do you take drugs?” to which he answered in the affirmative. The documentary unfortunately does not get into McQueen’s sexual identity or how the gay club scene of the 1990s shaped his creative designs. In the film, it is revealed that he was HIV positive at the time of his death.
The documentary however does show that at the end he started to break under the stress and pressure of being a creative genius. He began to turn heavily into drugs (cocaine) and anonymous sex to deal with the tide of emotions and deeply buried childhood trauma as well as the constant pressure to produce. One of his friends revealed on camera that McQueen shared with him that he had planned to blow his own brains out at the end of one of his shows. In February 2010, McQueen was found hanged at his home by his housekeeper. At his service, Bjork sang “Gloomy Sunday” and Anna Wintour said of him “He cared what people thought of his clothes but not of him. He never appeared at ease with himself and hated to travel from his beloved London.”
McQueen’s and Whitney Houston’s life remind us that underneath the brands that the world made of them, they were complicated people with buried childhood trauma who were often moody, erratic, depressed and a bit manic. These documentaries allow us to take a moment and look deeper into the lives each led, how they grew up, the music and fashion they created, with whom and how they made love and when they broke down–all of which form part and parcel of the everyday in the Braudelian sense of connecting to the material life as opposed to deeds of great men and women. These two documentaries allow us a glimpse into these daily details that make up the trying times and despair of all of our lives, not only those of the rich and famous.
 The term comes from Fernand Braudel, a historian who used the concept to understand long-term historical change. He first came up with the concept while writing his book The Mediterranean while locked up in a German prison camp.
 The most comprehensive exploration of class aspects of luxury is Thorstein Veblen’s (1899) Theory of the Leisure Class, where he describes how late 19th century upper middle class Americans flaunted their wealth. Luxury for Veblen was a symbol of the status of this so-called leisure class.
 Gilles, Lipovetsky 1994. The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy,translated by Catherine Proter and Introduction by Richard Sennett Princeton University Press.
 See Dana Thomas 2015 Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano Penguin Books