Long live McQueen: British fashion's great maverick

Lisa Markwell celebrates the extraordinary legacy of designer Alexander McQueen
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The Independent Online

Alexander McQueen, whose death last Thursday stripped Britain of one of its most creative talents, was a wonderful example of the successful blend of art and commerce. Many fashion designers have created tricky, almost wilfully complicated clothes, but few manage the knack of making them actually wearable.

The critics who opine that British designers in particular don't make clothes for "real" women could always be pointed in the direction of McQueen, whose show-stopping tailoring and ethereal fabrics flew out of shops and on to the backs of celebrities and businesswomen alike, even with his jaw-dropping price tags.

As well as balancing healthy accounts with the admiration of the fashion industry – whose tributes last week tirelessly repeated the words "genius", "influential" and "inspirational" – McQueen, 40, also deftly juggled his down-to-earth roots with a flamboyant social circle. He was as at home with his East End family and cabbie father as with the socialite heiresses who clamoured for his skull-print chiffon and bondage leather bodices. Even his name reflected this dichotomy – Alexander was, in fact, his middle name – perfect for the mores of the "daaahling" world he inhabited, but friends and family knew him as Lee, his given first name.

McQueen committed suicide less than a week after the death of his beloved mother Joyce, whose unwavering support and no-nonsense warmth must have been a safe haven for a man whose adult life was spent being fawned over one moment, and having to negotiate with his label's backer, the Gucci group, the next – to say nothing of the gruelling regime of creating the collections, accessories and headline-attracting catwalk shows that became his trademark (and attracting headlines is a large tool in the success of a fashion label). Everything from live butterflies to car-paint spray guns was utilised in making these shows remarkable. A hologram of Kate Moss, or a double-amputee model with handcarved prosthetic legs? If that was what was required to articulate the (usually dark) aesthetic of that season's collection, McQueen found a way to do it.

But surely they're just clothes. The painstaking research and groundbreaking technical advances in a McQueen collection reveal a talent every bit as important as our most chameleon-like actor or dedicated sports hero. It is right that his death receives as much attention as those of, say, Helen Mirren or David Beckham might.

Alexander McQueen, who was made a CBE in 2003, has influenced a huge array of what we all wear now, from the aforementioned skull-print that found its way on to high-street scarves, handbags, T-shirts and jewellery, to the low-waisted jeans that we all take for granted as being flattering and stylish. When, back in 2004, McQueen showed his "bumster" trousers (so low that a new architecture of underwear was required), they were greeted with a commentary of "unwearable" and "pornographic". Now, adjusted to the figure and lifestyle of the unsupermodel-ish majority of the population, they are ubiquitous. Note: it's hardly McQueen's fault that many choose to wear them with visible G-strings or muffin tops. Did he wince, seeing these high-street bastardisations of his creations? Probably not, for he was reported to have a well-developed sense of fun and a lack of pomposity.

But McQueen must have been deeply troubled to have killed himself – leaving behind his five siblings and a large, deeply committed workforce. For now, we can only speculate about why he didn't feel able to continue living and why the fashion itself, which gave pleasure to so many, wasn't enough to lift his spirits and inspire him again.

The Gucci group has not yet decided whether to continue with the label without its figurehead – commerce will win that argument over art – but as the 1,400 per cent hike in sales over the past two days shows, many women want to own a little bit of the real McQueen.

Overleaf are the show-stopping creations that made the transition from the catwalk to the red carpet, and beyond.

From the catwalk to the red carpet... How Alexander McQueen made his influence felt

The catwalk dress takes flight

Many swooned for this floaty, butterfly-print chiffon dress on the catwalk, but for what occasion could mere mortals carry it off? As ever, the showpiece made its way to the McQueen store adapted for reality. Here Princess Beatrice wears the knee-length version to the wedding of her cousin Peter Phillips in May 2008.

An ensemble fit for glittering prizes

A painstakingly constructed glittering microdress, from spring/ summer 2009, would appear unwearable in the real world. But with clever nude panels at the bust and hem, it became the perfect choice for Cate Blanchett – no stranger to high fashion – at the premiere of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in September 2008. The colour pre-empts the current vogue for 'grubby gold'.

Beauty in his dark materials

Now a scarf beloved by celebrities and fashionistas the world over, the skull print made its debut at a special 'black' fashion show McQueen held in June 2004. Kate Moss, a long-term muse and close friend of the designer, had the right mix of beauty and edginess to show it to best advantage.

Cuts that create a sexy silhouette

Almost from his first collection in 1991, women who wanted the spotlight were drawn to McQueen's clothes. By 2002 the message had reached Jennifer Lopez, whose heralded curves were well matched to the ruffled and embellished ensemble she wore to the MTV Awards that August.

A very modern highland fling

Not everything Alexander McQueen designed was an innovation: tartan was a recurring favourite, and he often wore a kilt to important events. Here, in September 2006, the classic pencil skirt was tailored to the extreme in a way which showed his skill for flattering shapes, as worn by Victoria Beckham to New York Fashion Week.

A kaleidoscope of bright ideas

A cerise silk, cunningly sculptural cocktail dress looked wonderful on its willowy model for spring/summer 2008. However, yet again, the design translated brilliantly into a wildly daring choice for a chat-show appearance by the US actress Lucy Liu, diminutive and curvy.

Confection for a sweet ingénue

Stars and their stylists had Alexander McQueen's showroom on speed dial. If they wanted to stand out from the rest of the A-list crowd on the red carpet, what better than an optically arresting, figure-hugging creation, such as the one rising actress Camilla Belle wore to the premiere of 2012 in November last year (a piece from the current collection)?