A Renegade Whose Talent Taunted Convention

By Guy Trebay of the New York Times

As news of Alexander McQueen’s death rippled through the tents of Bryant Park, where the fashion world was gathered Thursday on the first day of the New York collections, there was shock at the loss of a designer of outsize talents, perhaps even genius. He was remembered as embodying an unlikely pairing of the insular worlds of Savile Row and of French haute couture, and as a working-class renegade who had emerged in the 1990s to flout conventions of fashion using an unparalleled mastery of time-honored skills.


“McQueen was probably the best woman’s tailor in the world,” said Steven Cox, one of two designers of the Duckie Brown label. He was also, “a working-class bloke,” Mr. Cox said, and one whose renegade instinct manifested itself early on, when he stitched an antiroyalist imprecation into a suit sewn for the Prince of Wales.

“Show after show after show, he amazed us all,” Mr. Cox said. “You think about him and you think, I am not worthy.”

For the hairdresser Eugene Souleiman, who had worked with the 40-year-old Mr. McQueen, whose first name was Lee, from the earliest days of his career, he was a designer driven by instinct, emotionally fickle and so single-minded in pursuit of his vision that he routinely conducted five preliminary fittings for every fashion show, where most designers settle for one.

“You’d get together with Lee for the first fitting and you’d discuss everything and settle everything, his ideas for the collection,” said Mr. Souleiman. “You’d go up for the next fitting and find the whole collection had changed.”

That, Mr. Souleiman added, “was the vision of Lee, totally about creative individuality, this driving force not so much to make clothes that were wearable as to put across this strong vision of what he felt at the moment, what was interesting to him at a particular time.”

Mr. McQueen loved to provoke, and he dared do so in a business that does not always take kindly to critique. His loss, said the designer Thom Browne, “is sad because he wasn’t just a designer that designed really interesting collections, but one of the few designers who did more than just show clothing in a mundane way.”

People at the tents easily summoned up flamboyant images from past McQueen shows: the one held in a subterranean banqueting hall of the medieval Conciergerie in Paris, in which the models marched between caged wolves; the one involving a giant chessboard across which corseted models were deployed like rooks and queens; the one whose set was constructed from the stored and recycled detritus of previous collections; the one after a bad storm that had left his Manhattan show space semi-submerged.

If his vision was often “Kubrickian and dystopian,” as Aaron Hicklin, the editor of Out magazine, said before the Duckie Brown show, it also smacked of buoyant pragmatism that he chalked up to his working-class origins.

For that post-storm show, recalled Dan Lecca, a seasoned photographer on the fashion-show circuit: “Lee sent the models out anyway, wading through the water. He made it part of the show.”

For the last five seasons, Mr. Lecca worked intimately with Mr. McQueen on his collections. Lately the designer “looked happier than ever,” Mr. Lecca said . “There was a lot of tenderness backstage with his family, no signs that anything was wrong.”

Still, the designer made no secret of his tendency to binge on drugs, alcohol, food and sex. And some longtime observers of his career, like Tim Blanks, a critic for Style.com, found it possible to remark of his death, reportedly a suicide, that “I was thunderstruck by the news, and then not.” If, as early reports suggested, Mr. McQueen was distraught because of the death of his mother on Feb. 2, he chose a tragic way to express his grief, ending his own life on the day before her funeral.


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