March 17, 1969 – February 11, 2010
Alexander McQueen’s humble beginnings from a childhood in low-income East End public housing, to life as one of the word’s leading fashion designers was a success story that inspired many – and contributed to the shock at the news that the rich and famous designer had committed suicide at age 40.
Known as the “hooligan of English fashion”, the foul-mouthed, course and talented designer had astounded the fashion world audiences with his infamous, abrasive designs (blood-spattered clothes, lobster claw-like shoes, and butt-revealing trousers) and theatrical shows that had featured background films of snow storms, disabled models with wooden legs, prop robots, and a hologram of Kate Moss. McQueen scoffed at political correctness and created provocative collections in shows that explored themes of death, masochism and violence.
Lee Alexander McQueen was the youngest of six siblings born to East End taxi driver, Ronald, and stay at home mom, Joyce. He grew up living on the 21st floor of a council tower block in Stratford, East End, London. At age 3 he began drawing, and at age 12 he was reading books on fashion design and sewing dresses for his sisters. His mother and his Aunt Dolly were always supportive of his talents in both his early and later years. Mother McQueen could be seen clapping and cheering at her son’s shows – and reportedly was never afraid to tell him to “shut up” when he needed it.
“I was sure of myself and my sexuality and I’ve got nothing to hide. I went straight from my mother’s womb onto the gay parade.”
McQueen told his family that he was gay at age 18 – and after a rocky period – they accepted his sexuality. He left school at age 16 in 1985, and became an apprentice in a Savile Row fashion firm. In 1990 he pursued a MA in fashion design at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design – and two years later, fashion stylist, Isabella Blow, bought his entire graduation collection for £5,000. She became his mentor, champion and muse. She persuaded McQueen to go by his middle name Alexander. It soon became apparent that McQueen was a technical genius with rigorous tailoring skills – and also a creative one. In his runway productions he would cast models as witches, rape victims and mental patients – celebrating beauty in the grotesque. His shock shows and their media buzz gathered his earliest financial backers.
In 1992, McQueen’s “bumster” low-cut trousers put him on the map – and created the fad of butt cleavage…which led to the early 2000’s sight of exposed “muffin tops” (fleshy exposed midriffs) and “whale tails” (the rear view of thong panties) in low-slung jeans. As the fame and money flowed in – McQueen replaced his missing teeth and lost his beer gut paunch. He was now part of the A-list, but his working-class East End origins were never far from the surface. He was often abrasive, offensive and dismissive to the press who dubbed him as “l’enfant terrible” of the fashion world. Alexander McQueen told the press that he was delighted with his new life but it brought him bouts of melancholia and epic booze and drug use. He generated many a dramatic headline in the British tabs by insulting the likes of Madonna, Posh and Becks, and Prince Charles. In 1996, just four years after graduating, McQueen was appointed head designer at French couture house Givenchy.
“I’m mad in the front of my mind, but business-minded in the back.”
Alexander McQueen was named British Designer of the Year four times between 1996 and 2003 and was awarded the royal honor title of CBE (“Commander McQueen”). He left Givenchy after his contract ended in 2000, and sold 51% of his private company to Givenchy’s arch-rival Gucci. McQueen became a very rich man in his thirties. By 2007, there were Alexander McQueen boutiques in New York, London, Los Angeles, Milan and Las Vegas selling his trademark skull-motif silk scarfs and clutch bags.
“I can design a collection in a day and I always do, cause I’ve always got a load of Italians on my back, moaning that it’s late.”
McQueen was briefly “married” to TV-producer and documentarian, George Forsyth. The couple met in 1999 at a North London bar. Forsyth, a son of an architect and magistrate, was 22 when he moved in with McQueen just 5 weeks after they met. Forsyth recalled to the press being caught up in McQueen’s party lifestyle: “The hedonistic parties would go on and on. They were hard-core – staying up for days, either drinking or taking drugs.” Forsyth recalled one trip in a private jet for drinks in Paris, dinner in Spain, and Amsterdam for nightclubbing. The couple were married on a celeb-filled yacht off the coast of Ibiza in 2000. Although the wedding was not legally recognized in the UK, the couple regarded themselves as married. The pair split in 2001, and after not speaking for 18 months after the break up – they reconciled and salvaged a friendship. Forsyth described his former lover to the press as “a beautiful bloke, a really beautiful person with a big heart.”
In May 2007, McQueen lost his friend and former mentor, Isabella Blow. She discovered she had cancer, and after several suicide attempts, finally succeeded by drinking weedkiller. McQueen and Blow had reportedly grown apart in recent years. Colleagues told the press that Issy had money issues and she would have liked to have been on his company’s payroll. They confided that McQueen had once muttered he was sick and tired of always being referenced as having been ‘discovered by Isabella Blow’. McQueen appeared at her funeral in formal Scottish dress, wept openly and left without a word.
In his final months, McQueen was being treated by psychiatrist, Dr. Stephen Pereira, for mixed anxiety and depressive disorder. McQueen usually experienced a huge comedown after a show and had attempted 2 drug overdoses (“cries for help”) in May and June of 2009. The shrink said McQueen repeatedly missed appointments to discuss his condition. In 2009, McQueen’s beloved Aunt Dolly died and his mother began battling cancer. After the death of his beloved mother on February 2nd 2010, McQueen was overcome with grief and retreated to his bed.
Other reports say the designer had recently been jilted by an Australian boyfriend. An unpublished interview with the Aussie edition of Harper’s Bazaar revealed the designer talking about his last relationship. “(He was) a bastard who went back to Australia and I was left looking at his name (tattooed on his right arm)”, said McQueen. McQueen tweeted on Sunday, Feb 7 saying he had an “awful week” and needed to “pull myself together”. With his Mother’s funeral planned for Friday, February 12, McQueen remained in a very dark place.
At 9:30 am on Thursday, February 11, 2010, McQueen’s housekeeper, Cesar Garcia, arrived at McQueen’s Mayfair flat (#1) on Green Street and found the front door chained from the inside.
He got in through the utility room and heard McQueen’s dogs whining. The main bedroom was messy and he discovered McQueen hanging in the wardrobe of a second bedroom where a lit candle was still burning on the floor. An inquest later revealed that McQueen had hanged himself with a “favorite brown belt” and had tried slashing his wrists with knives: a ceremonial dagger and a meat cleaver. An ambulance was dispatched but the paramedic found that rigor mortis had started and there was no chance at resuscitation. Police found a note scrawled on the back of a book titled “The Descent of Man”. McQueen ended the note with “Please look after my dogs. Sorry, I love you. Lee. PS Bury me in the church.” His sister, Janet, was called to identify the body. A private ambulance arrived to take away his body at 4:30 pm.
McQueen’s father and siblings were shocked by the suicide but pushed forward with mother Joyce’s funeral services which were already planned for the day after McQueen’s body was found.
The inquest into his death revealed that the designer had hanged himself after taking cocaine, sleeping pills and tranquilizers. The Westminster coroner, Dr. Paul Knapman, said: “(McQueen) killed himself while the balance of his mind was disturbed.” The inquest revealed McQueen had a history of depression, anxiety and insomnia and had researched suicide on the internet prior to taking his life. The search browser on his laptop contained the phrase “When someone slits their wrists how long does it take for them to die.”
A postmortem found the causes of death were asphyxia and hanging.
McQueen’s funeral was held at St. Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, West London on February 25th. He was cremated with ashes scattered on the Isle of Skye – off the coast of the Scottish Highlands. His September 20, 2010 public memorial at St. Paul’s Cathedral was attended by Bjork, Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Stella McCartney, Anna Wintour and Sarah Jurrasica Parker.
His estate was worth 16 million pounds ($25 mil USD) and in his will he left £50,000 to his three beloved bull terriers: Minter, Juice and Callum. He left the same amount to his two housekeepers, Marlene and Cesar Garcia. McQueen left £250,000 each to his three sisters and two brothers, £50,000 to his godson, and £400,000 to animal charities. The remainder of estate went to his Sarabande charitable trust.
McQueen’s longtime assistant, Sarah Burton, took over as new creative director of his brand – owned by Gucci.
Wanna see his mailbox?
By Mark Langlois – photos by Dan Clegg