Before heading to the V&A’s blockbuster exhibition – Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty – learn more about this pioneering fashion designer with our interactive timeline of his life.
McQueen leaves school with one O level in art and takes up a Savile Row apprenticeship with tailors Anderson & Sheppard followed by one at neighbouring Gieves & Hawkes. Through these apprenticeships and a stint at theatrical costumers Bermans & Nathans, McQueen becomes a master cutter – acquiring the skills to create his signature silhouettes and defined tailoring.
Armed with flawless tailoring skills from Savile Row and experience with working with designers Koji Tatsuno and Romeo Gigli, McQueen applies to be a cutting tutor at the college. His impressive portfolio would lead him to be spotted and accepted for the MA in fashion design.
About to turn 23, McQueen presents his MA collection called Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims which is bought in its entirety by Isabella Blow; a wealthy aristocrat, fashion journalist and style icon. Blow, certain McQueen is a genius, uses her considerable connections to get him noticed by top fashion editors.
Blow convinces him to be known as Alexander McQueen, rather than Lee – nicknaming him Alexander the Great.
The collection’s ambivalent title and disturbing catwalk show triggers the start of McQueen’s turbulent relationship with the press and cements his role as enfant terrible in the fashion industry. Images of women with torn clothes, naked breasts, bloodied flesh and blanked out eyes are seen as misogynist. The designer states the collection refers to the clearing of the Scottish Highlands by the English in the 18th century.
The world is also formally introduced to McQueen’s signature low-slung bumster trousers.
Within four years of graduating, McQueen succeeds John Galliano at one the biggest global fashion houses and wins British Designer of the Year – an award he would secure four times in the course of his career.
McQueen designs pieces for David Bowie’s tours including the infamous Union Jack coat worn by the singer on the album Earthling.
In his No 13 catwalk show McQueen once again uses cutting-edge technology to create spectacle and provoke debate; robotic paint guns spray black and yellow paint onto a white dress while model Shalom Harlow attempts to keep her balance on a rotating platform, as she says, ‘at some point the curiosity switched, and it became slightly more aggressive and frenetic and engaged on their part.’ The dance-like performance is mesmerising.
McQueen is increasingly unhappy at Givenchy where, under pressure to drive profits, his headline-grabbing theatrical shows fail to inspire buyers. McQueen signs a deal with Tom Ford at the Gucci Group giving them 51% of the label. In return, McQueen becomes creative director with full artistic licence – with the understanding that he will make commercially successful lines, developing a jeans label and fragrance products. McQueen leaves Givenchy in March 2001.
McQueen’s first collection after leaving Givenchy in Paris celebrates his homecoming. The designer’s notorious VOSS show at London Fashion Week starts an hour late forcing the fashion elite to stare at themselves at a mirrored box in the centre of the room. The finale reveals a naked model surrounded by moths emerging from a collapsed box.
The designer wins International Designer of the Year, British Designer of the Year and is awarded a Commander of the British Empire (CBE), demonstrating the height of McQueen’s fame and prestigious talent. Distance between Isabella Blow and her protégé McQueen continues to widen, with the two both battling personal demons.
After numerous suicide attempts, rounds of psychiatric therapy and several career comebacks, Isabella or Izzy as she was known by close friends, dies by drinking weed killer.
McQueen and fellow Blow discovery the milliner Philip Treacy dedicate their next show to her, La Dame Bleue. The catwalk is infused with her signature Robert Paguet scent.
Nine days after McQueen’s beloved mother dies from cancer, McQueen is found hanged at his home in London. McQueen is just 40 years old. The label’s skull-emblazoned scarves sell out globally and the fashion world mourns at his memorial service at St. Paul’s Cathedral, at which singer Bjork performs Billie Holliday’s Gloomy Sunday.
His final show Plato’s Atlantis, which true to McQueen’s innovative approach to fashion, is the first catwalk show to be streamed live on the internet.
McQueen’s right-hand woman Sarah Burton is named as his successor. Burton had worked alongside the designer for 14 years. The label is given a new lease of life when the Duchess of Cambridge chooses the fashion house to design her wedding dress for her marriage to the Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge.