Genius of Alexander McQueen: How the boy from Stratford become the reigning monarch of British style

On Monday, the fashion world will celebrate the complex life and mourn the tragic death of its brightest star
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Next Monday morning, with London Fashion Week in full flow, more than 1,000 of fashion's great and good will gather at St Paul's Cathedral to attend a memorial service for the fashion designer, Lee Alexander McQueen. While the details are under wraps, it is likely to be an audacious affair – and quite a crowd is expected. Alongside McQueen's close family, collaborators and friends will be the world's most high-profile photographers, models and fashion editors – and, of course, his fellow designers – all in attendance to pay their respects. But then McQueen always packed in the names. In the mid-Nineties, as he took the world of international fashion by storm, everyone who was anyone travelled to London to see what the (then) ragamuffin star had to offer. McQueen's twice-yearly ready-to-wear presentations – featuring a circle of fire one season, a larger-than-life-size snowstorm the next, shattering glass cases, caged butterflies, padded cells and more – were simply unmissable and all created on the tightest of budgets.

McQueen himself was an intensely private person who eschewed the social shenanigans that so often go hand-in-hand with his chosen craft, as if his existence depended on it. It would be good to think, though, that somewhere, somehow, the designer, who took his own life in February this year, will be looking on. And laughing. "St Paul's Cathedral! Respect! " he might roar with glee, conceding that the tightly-knit team he always worked with – and pushed relentlessly to ever-more ambitious heights – had excelled itself this time. You really can take the boy out of Stratford, then, it seems – although Stratford never left this particular boy.

In fact, McQueen had a love-hate relationship with the rags-to-riches tale that inevitably sprang up around him and, in particular, with the hugely clichéd "bad boy" tag with which he was branded. But that is not to say that, in the early days at least, he didn't exploit it for all it was worth.

"I was three-years-old when I started drawing," he told me more than a decade ago. "I did it all my life, through primary school, secondary school, all my life. I always, always wanted to be a designer. I read books on fashion from the age of 12. I followed designers' careers. I knew Giorgio Armani was a window-dresser, Emanuel Ungaro was a tailor. People just ignored me. That was fine. I was doing it for myself. But I always knew I would be something in fashion. I don't think you can become a good designer, or a great designer. To me, you just are one. I think to know about colour, proportion, shape, cut, balance is part of a gene. Yeah, there has been this big thing about the 'East End yob made good' but, you know, the press started that, not me. And I played on it. It's the Michael Caine syndrome, Pygmalion . But at the end of the day, you're a good designer or not and it doesn't matter where you come from. The East End boy who worked on Savile Row. The East End boy who worked wherever ... Whatever ..."

Still, McQueen's legacy – and his inspirational ability to propel himself from humble beginnings to stratospheric heights – surely furnishes future generations with the belief that, with enough talent and determination, they too might overcome budgetary constraint, well-heeled competition and the continuing influence of the British class structure. Indeed, in many ways, that legacy serves as a metaphor for the very best of British fashion – and indeed British culture as a whole.

It is well known that the designer grew up in east London, the youngest of six children (two brothers, three sisters). He used his middle name, Alexander, rather than his first name, Lee, because he was signing on when he started out – and he refused to be photographed because "I didn't want to walk into the dole office one day and be recognised because I'd been in The Sunday Times."

He went to school at Rokeby, the local, all-boys comprehensive, leaving at 16 with one O-level and one A-level, both in art – though, ironically, that wasn't enough to earn him a place at art school. To earn money, he worked, as a pot-boy in pubs until, in 1986, his mother saw a television report on how Savile Row, the historic home of British tailoring, lacked apprentices and was threatened with collapse.

"I went straight down there. I hardly had any qualifications when I left school. So I thought the best way to do it was to learn how to make the stuff, learn the construction of clothes properly and go from there."

McQueen started at Anderson & Sheppard, where he worked on trousers, then Gieves & Hawkes (jackets). From there he moved to the theatrical costumiers Bermans & Nathans and placements at Koji Tatsuno and Romeo Gigli before applying for a job at Central Saint Martin's College of Art and Design.

"He came in for a job teaching pattern-cutting," recalled Bobby Hillson, founder-director of the by-now legendary Saint Martins postgraduate fashion course and teacher of, among others, John Galliano and Rifat Ozbek. "We didn't have one. I thought he was very interesting, and he clearly had terrific talent." More impressive still was McQueen's drive. "To have left school at 16, studied at Savile Row, gone to Italy alone and found a job with Gigli – that was incredible. He was also technically brilliant, even though he'd never actually studied design. And still only 21 or 22." While McQueen's natural aptitude for his craft was clearly never in question, few at that time could ever have imagined that less than five years later he would be the biggest name at the London collections by far.

All hype aside, London Fashion Week, which starts today, remains the poor relation of New York, Paris and Milan, at least in terms of business. Despite the fact that the British capital has no shortage of bright young designers with even brighter young ideas, the story here is all about "youth culture" – much and often the best of it anti-establishment – flying in the face of considerable adversity. If the great French and Italian designers spring, with notable exceptions, from bourgeois or even aristocratic stock, that is not so often the case with Britain's home-grown talent. And that has often worked to a young designer's advantage. With the economic ceiling lowered, there is a place here for those straight out of college and penniless, to show what they can do at an extremely early stage in their career. By contrast, it is impossible to imagine any of the more monied fashion capitals – where internationally recognised names rule with absolute power over a burgeoning show schedule – providing a showcase for emergent talent the way London does. In the Sixties, London had Mary Quant; in the Seventies, there was Barbara Hulanicki's Biba; and in the Eighties, Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano and many more made their mark at the London collections.

"When Lee [as the designer was known to friends and colleagues] and myself were designing in the mid-Nineties there was the space for it," McQueen's contemporary, Hussein Chalayan, told The Independent earlier this month. "Galliano and everyone had left to show in Paris. There was a recession, we were poor, so we had to find other ways of being creative. It was a great moment to create a new energy, a moment in which there was room for new-ness. All the ingredients came together and there was such excitement around it ... It was a 'moment', I think."

That was something of an understatement, as it turns out. Both Chalayan and McQueen overturned the notion of the traditional catwalk presentation entirely in favour of elaborately conceived and choreographed events that had more in common with an art installation than anything seen on the runway up until that point. And while, way back when in France, Yves Saint Laurent was driven by memories of his socialite mother dabbing expensive scent behind her ears as she got ready to go out to any number of fashionable soirées – and the one-time enfant terrible Jean-Paul Gaultier recalled his vocation arising out of nothing more outré than knitting teddy bears with his grandmother – in 1993, Chalayan buried his degree collection in a friend's back garden, allowing it to decompose before showing it. A year earlier, McQueen's Saint Martin's MA show was inspired by the bloody crimes and impolite adventures of Jack the Ripper. McQueen's breakthrough collection, meanwhile, was autumn/winter 1995's Highland Rape, which with its torn lace and blatantly sexual content was as disturbing as it was beautiful, as challenging as it was clearly highly accomplished. And that was precisely the point. The level of inventiveness that arose at least partly out of the desire to make an impact without financial support was a potent force.

For the designer Giles Deacon, who returns to London Fashion Week this season following a year showing in Paris, the collections here are a breath of fresh air. "Weirdly, Paris does bring you to a broader audience," Deacon says when we meet at his Brick Lane headquarters over the summer. "As much as we'd like to think that everybody knows everything about everyone in London, they don't really, and showing in Paris, in a certain way and for certain people, validates something. It's not that Paris is more important than London – I don't believe that at all. It's more that it gives another angle to everything and works well commercially. It was a good experience but, you know what I'm like, I'm over the moon to be back doing it here."

Deacon goes on to point out that London Fashion Week is very different now to how it was when he first started showing in 2003. "It was in a bit of a rut at that point of time. Stella [McCartney], Hussein and Lee had gone to Paris and it was a quiet time. Still, there was always this distinct thing, the London look, or whatever you want to call it. It's about a different viewpoint that is very specific to this city. It's a bit more creative than the majority of places. Now, there's something gorgeous from Chris [Kane], something gorgeous from Erdem. They're a bit more unique, maybe, and have a more quirky outlook."

Bernard Arnault, the visionary chief executive of LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy), France's largest luxury-goods conglomerate, was quick to pick up on this quirkiness – and, in the case of McQueen, his outright sensationalism. In October 1996, having employed John Galliano as creative director of Christian Dior, Arnault installed McQueen at Givenchy. Both designers' ability aside, this was a publicity coup of unprecedented proportions. The mere idea of Galliano (the son of a plumber) and McQueen (the child of a London cabbie) taking over at two of France's best-known fashion houses was enough to ensure headlines that ranged from the ecstatic (in Britain) to the apoplectic (in France). In McQueen's case, it came as little surprise that much of the fuss focused on his East End patter and apparent antipathy towards towing the line, while the fact that he was also preternaturally gifted was ignored. However much that must have grated, the designer now had the skills of the legendary petites mains who staff the French haute couture ateliers to call upon – not to mention a handsome salary, which was duly poured back into his own label. And he continued to show his signature collection in London, giving rise to the most extraordinary fashion theatre in history.

With thinly veiled references to both the Dying Swan and the sexual climax, McQueen installed menacing robots that sprayed the former ballerina turned model Shalom Harlow with brightly coloured paint. His interpretation of the martyrdom of Saint Joan saw the catwalk burst into flames. His virtuosity as a technician, meanwhile, went from strength to strength until, in December 2000, he went into partnership with the Gucci Group, which bought a 51 per cent stake in his business for an undisclosed sum thought to be worth in excess of $20m (£12.8m) with a view to establishing it as a fully-fledged (and globally recognised) brand. From that point onwards, like many others before him, McQueen, having outgrown the London catwalk, showed his twice-yearly womenswear collections in Paris, and his menswear in Milan – but he always said that was a business decision. It is not insignificant that he never lived anywhere other than London, moving from Islington back to Stratford and finally to Mayfair ("so I can be close to the Queen when I get my knighthood"). McQueen's studio was – and still is – based in the city, and references to British culture, from the Savile Row tradition and aristocratic and military dress to street style, were always integral to his aesthetic.

By the time of his death, McQueen was among the world's most highly-respected and valued creators. He had long since come to understand the refinement of French fashion and had the impeccable production values of the Italian ready-to-wear industry at his fingertips too. He never veered from the path of plainspoken-ness, however, and while he was extraordinary in so many ways, it was perhaps the contrast between that and any self-proclaimed "normality" that ensured his appeal reached far beyond the fashion arena. Moreover, his spirit – in terms of sheer bravery, irreverence and a refusal ever entirely to play the game – remained proudly anarchic to the core.

"Having money hasn't changed me," McQueen once said. "I'm a clever designer. I can do what the client wants. But I'm prepared to forget about money if it affects my creativity because, remember, I started off with nothing, and I can do that again. I always knew how to market myself. It's always been part of my strategy to give people something they recognise, an attitude they can recognise. Some designers are so airy-fairy, people can't connect with them, and that's where my working-class background helps. People can relate to me, to a normal person who just happens to be a fashion designer. I think I'm someone who knows what the world is about. I have a point of view. Sometimes people might not like it but then it's not the designer's job to care about what people think. It's just a point of view. And it's a valid point of view. People can take me as they find me. Whatever else I've done, I've never tried to be something I'm not."

As preparations continue to commemorate the life of Lee Alexander McQueen, and given the many still struggling to come to terms with his loss, these words might serve as inspiration not only to any young British fashion designer but also to us all.