Born on March 17, 1969, in London, England, Alexander McQueen came last in a line of six children. He lived with his siblings and parents, a taxi driver and a social service teacher, in Stratford where McQueen used his formative years making dresses for his three younger sisters. His love for designing clothes had begun, and it wasn’t long after, at a young age, that he made known his desire to become a fashion designer.
At 16, McQueen left school for an apprenticeship with Anderson & Sheppard, tailors on the infamous Savile Row in central London. Savile Row, known for both modern and traditional “bespoke” tailoring that fits clothes to each individual’s specifications, was also the location of McQueen’s second apprenticeship position, at Gieves and Hawkes. There, McQueen further honed his clothes-altering skill set before going on to work for costume supplier Angels & Bermans, where he learned the type of razor sharp tailoring that would later become his signature. This combined tailoring experience in his youth gained McQueen a reputation for being able to cut a garment to fit with artful precision. Even in these early years, his talent was well-known enough to gain him high-end clientele that included Mikhail Gorbachev and Prince Charles.
When he was 20 years old, McQueen became employed by Japanese fashion designer Koji Tatsuno, whom he worked with for a year before venturing to Milan, Italy to become assistant to designer Romeo Gigli. McQueen then returned to London and entered the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, obtaining a master’s degree in fashion design. McQueen’s entire MA collection was bought by acclaimed stylist Isabella Blow. It was Blow who had the idea of using only McQueen’s first name, Alexander, to help his star rise in the fashion world. After graduation, McQueen moved to Hoxton Square and created his second collection.
During his twenties, McQueen met and befriended Katy England, an innovative and groundbreaking stylist of the time. Around this time McQueen also designed David Bowie’s wardrobes for his 1996-1997 tours, including the famous Union Jack coat Bowie sported on his Earthling album cover. Icelandic singer Björk, an eclectic artist who found kinship in McQueen’s work, asked McQueen to design the cover of her 1997 album, Homogenic; she also asked him to direct the music video for one of the songs, “Alarm Call.” McQueen’s designs for the idiosyncratic singer would later include the topless and partially body-piercing dress that she wore in her 2001 “Pagan Poetry” music video.
Among the artists that McQueen worked with was French ballet dancer Sylvie Guillem, whom he collaborated with when designing the wardrobe for “Eonnagata,” a theatrical production directed by Robert Lepage. The 2008 documentary “Sylvie Guillem: On the Edge” chronicles the creation of this show from start to finish, including a cameo by McQueen, where he plays himself as fashion designer.
Dubbed the “hooligan of English fashion” for his evocative early runway collections, McQueen created designs for this period that included his famous low-rise “bumster” trousers—aptly named because they revealed the topmost part of a woman’s bottom. His influence on the design trends included this rising interest in wearing bumsters and other low-rise pants, as well as starting the popularity of using skulls as a fashion statement. This latter trend included a spark of McQueen scarves, with their signature skull prints.
Known for their mixture of fantasy and rebellion, McQueen’s unconventional runway shows included McQueen’s controversial and much-talked-about “Highland Rape” collection, which featured dark and violent images imagined from Scottish history. McQueen then continued with the recreation of a shipwreck for his spring 2003 collection, a human chess game on a life-sized chess board for the spring collection of 2005, and a hologram of supermodel Kate Moss adorned with tiers of ruffled fabric in the autumn of 2006 show. It was this combination of raw energy and melancholy, mixed with the latest technology of the time, which made McQueen’s fashion shows both surprising and memorable.