While known for theatrical and transporting shows — aggressive one season, ethereal the next — McQueen was hardly disinterested in business. Even from his early days, he would talk about his desire to be known as much for commercial clout as for creativity. He was proud of the fact that he never went bankrupt and that his clothes amounted to more than just showmanship. In an interview with WWD in 2006, he trumpeted the fact that his firm was poised to beat a 2007 break-even deadline imposed by Robert Polet, Gucci Group president and ceo. On Thursday, Polet said: “I worked closely with Lee for the last five years. His creative force was inspiring to me and all those who were fortunate to know and work with him. He has left us too soon; he had so much more to give, but the legacy he leaves us is a rich one and one that we will cherish and honor.”
De Sole said, “I loved him. He used to come to the house for dinner — he knew Eleanor and my girls well. At the last McQueen show I went to, the fall 2004 collection, he came up to me and hugged me, and he was crying. He was very upset that I was leaving. He was shy, but once you got to know him he was very open and he had a great sense of humor — he used to make fun of people. He was also a very decent man: He was unbelievably nice to all of the seamstresses in the factory in Novara [Italy] who made his collection. He treated them well and they loved him. He was just a fabulous person.”
Despite his commercial mind-set — McQueen once told WWD, “I’m mad in the front of my mind, but business-minded in the back”—– his company would remain challenged throughout its existence. Even with shops worldwide, a secondary label, a linkup with Target last February with the McQ line and licenses, McQueen was never able to make the leap into the big leagues financially and his firm remained a small part of Gucci Group when compared with the likes of Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga or even Stella McCartney.
McQueen’s meteoric ascent in fashion mirrored some of the fairy-tale themes of his shows. “Fashion should be a form of escapism, and not a form of imprisonment,” he said in an interview last year. “I wasn’t born to give you a twin set and pearls.”
Although he dropped out of school at age 16, McQueen went to work on Savile Row at Anderson & Sheppard and Gieves & Hawkes and then Romeo Gigli. He eventually earned his master’s degree in fashion design from London’s Central Saint Martins (formerly Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design) in 1994. McQueen was discovered by the late, legendary, fashion guru Isabella Blow, who purchased his entire graduation collection and helped him make industry connections. Blow’s suicide in 2007 “just left a big void in my life,” he told WWD’s sister magazine, W, in 2008. In her memory, he stated a tribute show, with angel wings as a backdrop and a poster-size invitation that depicted Blow riding to the heavens in a chariot pulled by winged horses.
“I have very happy memories of living together with Alexander and Philip Treacy on Elizabeth Street in 1993 — there was no money, but lots of laughter,” remembered Detmar Blow, Isabella’s widower. “At the time, Issy was mocked for supporting a cab driver’s son — and people were critical of Alexander because he was such a rebel — but he came through for Issy, and his success was a vindication. I hope they’re together now.”
Professor Louise Wilson, course director of the program at Central Saint Martins, recalled that McQueen’s commitment to fashion was total. “Lee had a set of skills before he came on the course. He’d worked as a cutter in Italy for people like Romeo Gigli, and because he had those skills, he could distort the woman’s body and push the boundaries in cutting and tailoring,” she said. “His seminal shows sent a shiver up the back of my spine and that doesn’t happen very often.”
His razor-sharp tailored looks fused the romantic with the edgy avant-garde, a fresh contrast that won international acclaim. McQueen’s technical virtuosity grew quickly from his vinyl “bumster” pants of yore to intricate feathered dresses and eye-popping engineered prints. McQueen long maintained that his shows were highly autobiographical. The men’s collection he showed last month in Milan was titled “The Bone Collector” and featured engineered prints of skulls on tailored clothing. Some models were muzzled, Hannibal Lecter-style. The show marked a return to the runway for his men’s line after the spring season, when in lieu of any modeled presentation, he issued a rambling statement about creative exhaustion and the relentlessness of the fashion system, and opted to screen a film about the anguish of making art. His last women’s show, in Paris in October, was dazzlingly futuristic, with models stalking the runway in otherworldly shoes and dresses as robotic cameras whirled around them.
The designer worked with a number of high-profile musicians throughout his career. With Nick Knight, McQueen art-directed the cover of Björk’s 1997 album “Homogenic,” and directed the music video for one of the album’s tracks: “Alarm Call.” He also designed the distressed Union Jack coat worn by David Bowie on the cover of his 1997 album “Earthling.” Rihanna and Sting count among other fans of McQueen, as well as Lady Gaga, who sported pieces from the designer’s current spring collection — including the notorious Armadillo shoes — in the music video for her single “Bad Romance."
But the breadth of his appeal was exhibited by the fact that Sandra Bullock wore a McQueen gown to the SAG Awards in Los Angeles earlier this month. His fashion shows — first staged in London, twice in New York, but mostly in Paris — were always among the hottest tickets in any fashion capital, attracting the likes of Grace Jones, Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell.
“I am truly devastated to lose my close friend,” said Campbell. “His talent had no boundaries, and he was an inspiration to everyone who worked with him and knew him.”
Among spellbinding moments were: Shalom Harlow twirling on a turntable as she was spray-painted by a robotic arm; a ghostly apparition of Kate Moss that appeared and vaporized in a glass pyramid to the haunting strains of “Schindler’s List,” and para-Olympian record-holder Aimee Mullins striding down the catwalk on hand-carved wooden prosthetic legs with integrated boots.