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It was not immediately clear Thursday how the McQueen company would move forward without its namesake founder and creative director. A Gucci Group spokeswoman said the company was not making any business-oriented or forward-looking statements. Balenciaga designer Nicolas Ghesquière recalled that he arrived at Gucci Group around the same time as McQueen. “I always had a big respect for his talent. My thoughts are with his family and his colleagues,” he said.
“Lee was a fashion genius. I don’t say that lightly, and it is a total shock that I am referring to him in the past tense,” said Stella McCartney, whose London-based fashion house is a joint venture with Gucci Group. “He was a real friend. I will miss him as a mate, a peer, and as a true British talent, full of life and energy in everything he ever did.”
“I have always admired Lee,” said Gucci creative director Frida Giannini. “He had a way of approaching fashion — both as a tailor and as an inventor — that was all his own. He was an enormous talent whose creative genius will forever remain in the history of fashion.”
The son of a taxicab driver and self-described “big mouth East English yob,” McQueen rose to the highest peaks of the fashion world. Ignited with his seminal and controversial Highland Rape collection of 1995, cobbled together with remnants from fabric shops, McQueen’s talent attracted the attention of Europe’s biggest luxury titans. In 1996, Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, tapped the then-27-year-old wunderkind to awaken Givenchy, one of the most storied names in French fashion, where he succeeded Galliano, who Arnault had shifted to Christian Dior. McQueen wrestled with the decision whether to take the Givenchy job, but eventually saw the opportunity it gave him to increase his expertise and raise his profile. Nonetheless, after five years at Givenchy, he eventually would have a major falling out with Arnault, at one stage even turning up to a press event wearing a Gucci hat.
Marion Greenberg, owner of Marion Greenberg Inc., who represented Givenchy before and during the McQueen era, recalled, “He [McQueen] was just coming off the success of his own label. He was a force. “I think he did have an addictive personality. He might have had some issues. He was so talented. The whole Givenchy thing was so complicated. I worked with John [Galliano] and they were grooming him for Dior. They brought in Alexander McQueen and he was really raw. He was very gutsy. He cared so much, and his manner was wild. He was outrageous,” she said.
Greenberg said at times, McQueen went missing and she had to go find him. Often he would be located in New York at Miguel Adrover’s apartment, where he sometimes stayed. Adrover recalled, “He was with me at my home [in Majorca] when he got the contract for Givenchy.” McQueen rented a house in Majorca for two months every summer for about three years. “He was a very strong person, but at the same time very weak. When he’d come to New York, he’d be staying at the Four Seasons, but he’d spend the whole week with me in my basement,” said Adrover, who used to go to London three weeks before McQueen’s show and help him do research. “I learned from him a lot about the industry, the pressure, the creativity and being very true to yourself. He’s really like the person who changed the Nineties for me. Without him, London is nothing. He made London and made it really powerful. His presentations were not just about clothing. He made dreams come true and nightmares come true,” said Adrover.
McQueen’s tenure at Givenchy was a rocky one. His eclectic collections — space aliens one season, rockabilly the next — failed to galvanize the house, and the designer was often vocal about his discontent with large corporations and commercial fashion. However, the exposure to the capabilities of a French couture atelier would have a lasting impact on his business, with garments in his recent ready-to-wear shows resembling couture in workmanship and price, usually made-to-order.
LVMH’s rival, Gucci Group, then led by Domenico De Sole and Tom Ford, swept in in 2000 and bought a 51 percent stake in McQueen’s company, setting the stage for expansion via signature boutiques in London, New York, Los Angeles and Milan; a secondary line called McQ licensed to Italy’s SINV; men’s wear and leather goods, and collaborations with brands including Puma and Samsonite. (A McQ presentation slated to take place Thursday afternoon in New York was canceled.)
The designer was showered with accolades throughout his career. McQueen won the British Fashion Awards’ British Designer of the Year four times and won the Men’s Wear Designer of the Year award in 2004. In 2003, he received the CFDA Award for Best International Designer and was honored with a CBE from Queen Elizabeth II for his services to the fashion industry.