Lee Alexander McQueen, CBE (17 March 1969 – 11 February 2010) was a British fashion designer and couturier best known for his in-depth knowledge of bespoke British tailoring, his tendency to juxtapose strength with fragility in his collections, as well as the emotional power and raw energy of his provocative fashion shows.He is also known for having worked as chief designer atGivenchy from 1996 to 2001 and for founding his own Alexander McQueen label. His achievements in fashion earned him fourBritish Designer of the Year awards (1996, 1997, 2001 and 2003), as well as the CFDA’s International Designer of the Year award in 2003.
Born on 17 March 1969 in Lewisham, London, to Scottish taxi driver Ronald and social science teacher Joyce, McQueen was the youngest of six children. He grew up in a council flat in a tower block in Stratford. He attended Carpenters Road Primary School, started making dresses for his three sisters at a young age, and announced his intention to become a fashion designer.
McQueen later attended Rokeby School and left aged 16 in 1984 with one O-level in art,going on to serve an apprenticeship withSavile Row tailors Anderson & Sheppard, before joining Gieves & Hawkes and, later, the theatrical costumiers Angels and Bermans. The skills he learned as an apprentice on Savile Row helped earn him a reputation in the fashion world as an expert in creating an impeccably tailored look.
While on Savile Row, McQueen’s clients included Mikhail Gorbachev and Prince Charles. At the age of 20 he spent a period of time working for Koji Tatsuno before travelling to Milan, Italy and working for Romeo Gigli.
McQueen returned to London in 1994 and applied to Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, to work as a pattern cutter tutor. Because of the strength of his portfolio he was persuaded by Bobby Hillson, the Head of the Masters course to enroll in the course as a student. He received his masters degree in fashion design and his graduation collection was bought in its entirety by influential fashion stylist Isabella Blow, who was said to have persuaded McQueen to become known as Alexander (his middle name) when he subsequently launched his fashion career.
It was during this period that McQueen relocated to Hoxton which housed other new designers, including Hussein Chalayan and Pauric Sweeney. It was shortly after creating his second collection,“McQueen’s Theatre of Cruelty”, that McQueen met Katy England, his soon to be “right hand woman”, when outside of a “high profile fashion show” trying to “blag her way in”.He promptly asked her to join him for his third collection, “The Birds” at Kings Cross, as “creative director”. Katy England continued to work with McQueen thereafter, greatly influencing his work – his “second opinion”.
McQueen designed wardrobe for David Bowie‘s tours in 1996-1997, as well as the Union Jack coat worn by Bowie on the cover of his 1997 album Earthling. Icelandic singerBjörk sought McQueen’s work for the cover of her album Homogenic in 1997. McQueen also directed the music video for her song “Alarm Call” from the same album and later contributed the iconic topless dress to her video for “Pagan Poetry McQueen’s early runway collections developed his reputation for controversy and shock tactics (earning the title “l’enfant terrible” and “the hooligan of English fashion”), with trousers aptly named “bumsters” and a collection titled “Highland Rape”. In 2004, journalist Caroline Evans also wrote of McQueen’s “theatrical staging of cruelty”, in 032c magazine, referring to his dark and tortured renderings of Scottish history. McQueen was known for his lavish, unconventional runway shows: a recreation of a shipwreck for his spring 2003 collection; spring 2005’s human chess game; and his fall 2006 show “Widows of Culloden”, which featured a life-sizedhologram of supermodel Kate Moss dressed in yards of rippling fabric.
McQueen’s “bumsters” spawned a trend in low rise jeans; on their debut they attracted many comments and debate. Michael Oliveira-Salac, the director of Blow PR and a friend of McQueen’s said, “The bumster for me is what defined McQueen.” McQueen also became known for using skulls in his designs. A scarf bearing the motif became a celebrity must-have and was copied around the world.
McQueen has been credited with bringing drama and extravagance to the catwalk. He used new technology and innovation to add a different twist to his shows and often shocked and surprised audiences. The silhouettes that he created have been credited for adding a sense of fantasy and rebellion to fashion. McQueen became one of the first designers to use Indian models in London.
McQueen also designed a range of dresses under the name of “manta”, priced at around £2800. The line, named after the manta ray, was inspired by a holiday McQueen took to the Maldives in 2009. The designs have been worn by various models and celebrities, including Lily Cole.
The president of LVMH, Bernard Arnault, caused a stir when he appointed McQueen head designer at Givenchy in 1996, succeedingJohn Galliano. Upon arrival at Givenchy, McQueen insulted the founder by calling him “irrelevant”. His first couture collection with Givenchy was unsuccessful, with even McQueen telling Vogue in October 1997 that the collection was “crap”. McQueen toned down his designs at Givenchy, but continued to indulge his rebellious streak, causing controversy in autumn 1998 with a show which included double amputee model Aimee Mullinsstriding down the catwalk on intricately carved wooden legs.This year also saw McQueen complete one of his most famous runway shows previewing Spring/Summer 1999, where a single model, Shalom Harlow graced the runway in a strapless white dress, before being rotated slowly on a revolving section of the catwalk whilst being sprayed with paint by two robotic guns. Givenchy designs released by Vogue Patterns during this period may be credited to the late designer. McQueen stayed with Givenchy until March 2001, when the contract he said was “constraining his creativity” ended.
McQueen’s most celebrated and dramatic catwalk show was his 2001 spring/summer collection, named VOSS. The centre piece tableaux that dominated the room was an enormous glass box. But because the room outside the box was lit and the inside of the box was unlit, the glass walls appeared as large mirrors, so that the seated audience saw only their own reflection. Finally, after an hour, and when the show began, lights came on in inside the enormous glass case and revealed the interior to be filled with moths and, at the centre, a naked model on a chaise longue with her face obscured by a gas mask. The glass walls then fell away and smashed on the ground.
The model chosen by McQueen to be the centre of the show was the British writer Michelle Olley. (The show also featured Kate Moss and Erin O’Connor). McQueen said that the tableaux was based on the Joel Peter Witkin image Sanitorium. The British fashion photographer Nick Knight later said of the VOSS show on his SHOWstudio.com blog:
“The girl in the box was Michelle Olley. She modelled for me in a story I did called Sister Honey… She was a writer and I remember she wrote a great piece on being the Butterfly Girl in the middle of that (McQueen) Glass Box show. I was sat on the front row, inbetween Alexandra Schulman and Gwyneth Paltrow. It was is probably one of the best pieces of Fashion Theatre I have ever witnessed.”
Alexander McQueen later described his thoughts on the idea used during VOSS of forcing his audience to stare at their own reflection in the mirrored walls for over an hour:
“Ha! I was really pleased about that. I was looking at it on the monitor, watching everyone trying not to look at themselves. It was a great thing to do in the fashion industry—turn it back on them! God, I’ve had some freaky shows.” 
In spring 2011, Michelle Olley was asked by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to contribute to their Alexander McQueen exhibition, Savage Beauty. She was interviewed by The Met about VOSS for the audio guide to the show. Olley’s detailed diary/journal of modelling for McQueen – written between 18–27 September as the show was being planned and staged – was included in the Met Museum website coverage of the Savage Beauty exhibition. The VOSS diary relates details of the show and encounters with McQueen, ending with how Olley returned home after the show to find:
“…a MASSIVE bouquet of flowers has arrived, with a note [from McQueen] saying, “Thank you for everything – you were beautiful! – Lee xxx”