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."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Maths Teacher

    £110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

    Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

    £40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    ***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

    £30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    ***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

    £35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker