Susannah Frankel: The McQueen I knew

In the 15 years since she met him, Susannah Frankel got to see a man who was as sensitive and charming as he was bullish and childlike. This is her tribute to a much-loved friend

I first met Alexander McQueen 15 years ago when he was still a fledgling designer working in a basement in Hoxton. Having only the media image of the man to go by – this was the so-called bad boy of British fashion and one more than ready to call a spade a shovel – I was somewhat fearful, and so found myself asking nervously: "Where do you think your genius comes from?"

"Is that supposed to be a serious question?" he roared, looking at me as if I was demented, and laughing – Alexander McQueen laughed a lot – before introducing me to his dog, Minter, a Battersea mongrel who was just as warm and full of the joys as his master, it seemed. Here, after all, was a man on the cusp of fame, who nonetheless took the time to rush around his studio picking up garments – a tiny brocade jacket inspired by the 18th-century silhouette that he loved, for example – and helping me into them with a tenderness that made me feel like a princess one minute, only to undercut any ceremony with the most down-to-earth (if not plain filthy) joke the next. "Do you want to borrow a gimp mask to wear with that? Why not?"

Still, any self-deprecation aside, to most people working in the fashion industry – indeed, anyone with more than a passing interest in the subject – he was, without question, about as close to genius as a fashion designer is ever likely to come. With tremendous courage, McQueen poured his life and soul into each and every collection, mining his personal experience and sometimes troubled emotions on a six-monthly basis to create clothing that was not only beautiful but profoundly innovative and which was set against the most spectacular backdrop the world had ever seen.

Alexander McQueen showered his Plexiglas catwalk with rain one season and caused it to burst into flames the next. He created a larger-than-life snowstorm, peopled by the world's most glamorously attired ice-skaters, a mirrored padded cell where models stalked the catwalk in fragile feathered garments as butterflies and moths fluttered all around, an elevated glass wind-tunnel through which a lithe young model made her way in a heavily embroidered kimono that billowed behind her like a cloud. It was not uncommon for McQueen's audience – and his unswervingly loyal team – to be reduced to tears by the sheer loveliness and audacity of his vision. He himself said he wasn't sure what all the fuss was about, rolling his eyes with just a touch of the indulgent patriarch. Only one show made him cry. For spring/ summer 1999, former ballerina Shalom Harlow played the dying swan as her white gown was spray-painted by a pair of menacing robots borrowed from a Fiat car plant. It was the most perfectly choreographed, darkly romantic image and one that was a privilege to witness.

McQueen's was a hugely complex – and ultimately very fragile – nature, which is best exemplified by his aesthetic that, like the man himself, was as delicate and refined as it was raw-edged and fierce. To those who watched on in admiration McQueen, with his plain-spoken nature and unaffected appearance, was single-handedly revitalising international fashion. His friends, meanwhile, who called him by his first name, Lee, knew that he was as likely to be found at home with his dogs – after Minter came Juice, an English bull terrier, and Callum, a Rhodesian Ridgeback – watching TV and cooking dinner for a small circle of intimates. He moved from the East End to Mayfair recently, he said, because he wanted to be close to the Queen when he received his knighthood. McQueen never kow-towed to the air-kissing social whirl to which he could so easily have belonged, however. He was as gentle, complicated, sensitive and charming as he could be bullish, childlike and even rude. Most importantly, this was a man who demonstrated the determination to achieve the ambition he had nurtured ever since he was a small child.

"I was literally three years old when I started drawing. 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. At school, people just ignored me. That was fine. I was doing it for myself. But I always knew I would be something in fashion. I didn't know how big, but I always knew I'd be something."

It is the stuff of fashion folklore that, aged 16, McQueen began apprenticeships first at Anderson and Sheppard and then at Gieves and Hawkes, then moved on to theatrical costumiers Angels and Bermans before completing placements with Koji Tatsuno and Romeo Gigli. It was only then that he enrolled on the celebrated fashion MA course at Central Saint Martins.

"He came in for a job teaching pattern-cutting," Bobbie Hillson, founder-director of the course once said. "We didn't have one. I thought he was very interesting, and he clearly had terrific talent." More impressive than this, though, 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."

"I don't think you can become a good designer, or a great designer, or whatever," McQueen, for his part, said. "To me, you just are one. I think to know about colour, proportion, shape, cut, balance is part of a gene."

At work, McQueen, more often than not wearing slippers, boasted a level of technical expertise and ability to create a garment on the body single-handed that is highly unusual. That is not to underestimate the value he attached to his team, many of whom he had worked with since he launched his label. "They guard the name and what it stands for," McQueen said of this mutually protective relationship. "They know how it started and understand that it's about passion and integrity."

Kneeling on the floor he would cut his own pattern at lightning speed, pin it to a model, sometimes in a matter of minutes – although more complicated designs were worked on for hours and even days – and there it would be: a dress – or "a fuck-off dress" – as those around him were wont, quite justifiably, to call it. Although there was always an un-harnessed energy to the proceedings, there was great finesse, too. The designer's assistants wore armfuls of pins with different coloured heads. "When I'm doing something with white fabric, I want a white pin. Or if it's black, I want a black pin. I don't want to see a red pin on black fabric. That bothers me," McQueen, the perfectionist, explained.

"You know, you hear all these stories about how the women in the Givenchy atelier were terrified when Lee got his scissors out," the photographer and long-time McQueen collaborator Nick Knight has observed, "stories about how he cuts and slashes. He's doing all this to incredibly loud techno music [more recently it was as likely to be classical], and he's sweating and so focused, slightly scarily focused, other-worldly, if you like."

Given the intensity of work that went into the creation of a McQueen collection – from first fittings to the final blockbuster performance – it is perhaps small wonder that while lesser designers have been known to pay Hollywood A-listers to attend their shows, McQueen was as likely to refuse them entry.

"I can't get sucked into that celebrity thing because I think it's just crass," he told me. "I work with people who I admire and respect. It's never because of who they are. It's not about celebrity, that would show a lack of respect for the work, for everyone working on the shows, because when the pictures come out it's all about who's in the front row. I'm interested in designing for posterity. People who buy McQueen are going to hand the clothes down to their children and that's very rare today."

In a similar vein, while it is customary for the creator to meet and greet his audience backstage after the event and be showered with the requisite compliments, for years McQueen always had a car waiting and disappeared seconds after taking his bows.

"People always ask me why I don't stick around after the show, but stick around for what? After the last show I went back to the hotel and watched a film. I rarely go to my after-show party. I've done all that madness. Things change. I know what kind of world I work in and I find the social and political side of it incredibly stressful. I'm now in a position where I don't have to do that and I choose not to. I visit. I don't stay."

Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Life and Style
Jodie Stimpson crosses the finishing line to win gold in the women's triathlon
Commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan stars as Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey movie
filmFirst look at Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey trailor
Life and Style
Phillips Idowu, Stella McCartney and Jessica Ennis
fashionMcCartney to continue designing Team GB Olympics kit until 2016
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Biomass Sales Consultant

    £20000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitment Company...

    Java Developer

    competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My Client are a successful software hous...

    Senior Analyst - Financial Modelling

    competitive: Progressive Recruitment: This really is a fantastic chance to joi...

    MS Dynamics NAV/Navision Developer

    £45000 - £53000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: **MS DYNAMICS N...

    Day In a Page

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game