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

Saturday 13 February 2010 01:00

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."

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