Carola Long: Alexander McQueen's down-to-earth manner untouched by acclaim of celebrity world

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The sheer drama, grandeur and exhilarating bravery of Alexander McQueen's designs and fashion shows may never be surpassed. No other British designer has turned such an idiosyncratic vision into their own internationally acclaimed brand. His ordinary background and down-to-earth manner stood out in an industry full of extravagant characters and carefully constructed personas.

While McQueen's designs might have showed a wild imagination, and scaled the greatest heights of fashion fantasy, Lee, as he was known to his friends, came across as less of a diva than a bloke. He wore baggy jeans and jumpers, and his three dogs appeared as motifs on his clothing. He was free from fashion's customary hauteur, approachable and unaffected. This affability was mixed in with a shy, private side and a riotous sense of fun. His humour could also be dark, however, and it was this sense of the menacing side of life that gave his clothes such bite.

McQueen's autumn/winter show in Paris last March was certainly brooding – almost apocalyptically so – and the designer has said that his shows reflect his emotions at the time. A pile of rubbish was heaped on the catwalk and the models wore exaggerated lipstick, giving them a sinister air. "I find beauty in the grotesque, like most artists," he said. "I have to force people to look at things."

McQueen worked as an apprentice on Savile Row, and his training was used to the full. His angular, often historically inspired tailoring reflected influences such as the MGM costume designer Adrian, Christian Dior and Thierry Mugler. An exaggerated take on the female form was integral to his designs and his "Highland Rape" and "The Birds" collections used corsetry by famous Parisian lingerie maker Mr Pearl to cinch the waist and emphasise shoulders.

His current spring/summer collection, which is surely set to acquire a tragic cult status, is no less arresting. The dome-shaped "armadillo" shoes designed for the show were almost a foot high, and stood out as one of the most striking and imaginative creations of the season. They were also designed to attract attention, which McQueen excelled at. He knew how to stage a memorable spectacle and his shows explored new boundaries in presentation.

For spring 1999, there was Shalom Harlow's graceful performance as the dying swan, while she was sprayed with paint by a pair of robotic arms. Then there was the snowstorm peopled by models ice-skating in fur-trimmed brocades and, in spring 2004, the darkly glamorous dance marathon. No one who saw the larger-than-life-size holographic image of Kate Moss floating above their heads in 2006 would forget it.

Born in 1969, McQueen left school at 16. He worked as an apprentice at prestigious gentlemen's outfitters Anderson & Sheppard in Savile Row. He then moved to costumiers Angels & Bermans, where he worked on shows such as Les Miserables and honed his showmanship.

In 1990 he enrolled for a fashion MA at Central St Martins, where his contemporaries included Stella McCartney and Hussein Chalayan. His graduate collection was bought by journalist Isabella Blow, to whom McQueen remained close until her death in 2007.

After graduating McQueen founded his own label, creating a small collection for a Chelsea boutique, which included the "bumster" jeans. McQueen's "Highland Rape" collection for autumn/winter 1995, looked to his Scottish ancestry, and explored the treatment of the Scottish by the English, though some of the press were more concerned with the dishevelled and battered-looking models than the beauty of the clothes. Presented in a warehouse on the outskirts of London it was a far cry from the usual pristine marquees of London Fashion Week.

McQueen went on to become designer-in-chief of the French couture house Givenchy in 1996, aged 27. He replaced fellow St Martins alumnus John Galliano and his appointment at such an iconic French institution was hailed as a golden era for British fashion. But his tenure at Givenchy was controversial; upon arrival, McQueen called the house's founder "irrelevant". After leaving Givenchy, McQueen concentrated on his own label, selling a 51 per cent stake in it to the powerful Gucci Group.

McQueen is not only cherished as a visionary within the industry, but he is also the designer of choice for discerning stars. Gwyneth Paltrow, Cameron Diaz, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga have worn his dresses on the red carpet. McQueen said: "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." He himself was a rare talent, and his legacy as a designer will be felt as keenly as his loss.

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