In Alexander McQueen’s new, gracefully curved store on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, the imposing figure of a man—a wingless angel, actually—rendered in shiny stainless steel extends through a circular skylight, his head outlined against the clear L.A. sky. For his fall fashion show in February,
Royal Britannia and Indian exotica inspired McQueen's fall 2008 show.
McQueen told a tale inspired by the ancient elm in his garden, about a girl who lives in a tree but eventually flees its leafy oppression to find love, sunshine and a bounty of spectacular frocks. That both of these characters should move into the light is no accident; they’re merely manifesting the mood of the designer, who, after an extended dark period, both personally and professionally, has embraced the light. And, as indicated by his stellar fall collection, his work is the better for it.
Long considered an enfant terrible of fashion—a label he loathes and one which, at the age of 39, should no longer apply—McQueen has seemed at various times in his career to work through his demons, but he has never completely done so. Sometimes a dark current would wend through even his most glorious shows; other times, a season of pure romance might be followed abruptly by a brooding display of melancholia or outright anger. Such was the mood of last fall’s Witches show, inspired by a distant ancestor, Elizabeth Howe, a victim of the Salem witch hysteria. It offered not Hawthorne-esque romance with some hint of redemption, but a study in vitriol expressed via fashion—an assault McQueen now considers at least partly a mistake.
That performance came in the midst of a calamitous time in his personal life that included the end of a three-year relationship, the much-talked-about death of his friend Isabella Blow and, just after Witches, the exit of his longtime stylist, Katy England. Yet today, McQueen finds himself happy and in love with fashion all over again. The just-opened L.A. store is a source of pride; his recent fall show won critical raves; and now he is well into planning a spring collection that should be completely different, with a “very modern” theme based on engineering.
McQueen attributes his newfound power of positive thinking to a “transformative” trip to India and, ironically, to Blow’s suicide in May 2007. He spent a month, the longest he has ever been away from home, on what he calls a pilgrimage—a get-away-from-it-all excursion during which he immersed himself in the contemplative life and Buddhist culture. It didn’t hurt that he came away not only with the resolve to throw himself back into the joy of fashion, but with an angle for the show that would prove so spectacular.
He titled the production The Girl Who Lived in the Tree, anchoring the set with a huge tree wrapped Christo-style “for a feeling of protection.” The show captivated with its beauty, romance and hail-Britannia motif rendered in tulle and embroidery. The first half, set inside the tree, featured Victorian Goth ballerinas in darkly decorative black dresses over petticoats, as well as some muted punk plaids. By the second half, the girl had shed her sorrows and switched her royal fascination from Victoria in perpetual mourning to the young Elizabeth II, bedecked in Fifties British couture, and to the Indian maharajas, from whom she acquired a love of color and ornamentation, including lavish, embroidered flat slippers—a major deal by McQueen—and mind-boggling amounts of jewelry from India’s famed Gem Palace.
Tree people: A woodland theme for fall 2008.
“I don’t know, it was time to come out of the darkness and into the light,” McQueen says. “It was kind of my life.”
Witches had proved the most shocking, yet not the sole, expression of the bleakness of that period, bracketed as it was by spring 2007’s lyrically beautiful Sarabande, about “wilting decay,” and spring 2008’s ode to Isabella Blow, in which one could find ample pathos in the notice-me clash of madcap hats and aggressive tailoring that the fashion editor was known for.
“I learned a lot from her death,” McQueen says. “I learned a lot about myself. [I learned] that life is worth living. Because I’m just fighting against it, fighting against the establishment. She loved fashion, and I love fashion, and I was just in denial.”
The night before this interview—and before his birthday—McQueen had a dream about Blow. She had come back from the dead to get free clothes from a tailor. “I said, ‘What are you doing here?’ She was like, ‘I’m getting some free clothes and then [having] them altered.’ She’s getting more free clothes!” he says with a laugh.
“The thing about Isabella is, money was like water for her,” he explains ruefully. It’s a theme that would surface even after her death, and not only in a dream. The two met when, after McQueen’s spectacular student show at St. Martins in 1994, Blow wanted badly to meet him, even tracking down his mother and calling her relentlessly to arrange an introduction to her gifted son (she would later buy the entire collection). “Who was this loony lady calling?” he recalls. “She met my mother before she met me. They loved each other.” So much so that, shortly before she died, Blow went to see McQueen’s mother in Essex, leaving her with many mementos. It’s a visit McQueen now realizes was a deliberate goodbye.
Shortly before, Blow, who was long known to have suffered bouts of depression and who had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, had arranged a private meeting with him as well at her house in the Cotswolds. “We were at peace with each other,” McQueen says. “She had called me up. Two weeks before she did it, she made a point to get me there. And I thought she was fine. We sat down and talked for about three hours, we talked about things we had been through and…. God, I’m hoping things are all right. I said, ‘You look so good,’ and I said, ‘You’re not talking about death—no, are you?’ And she said, ‘No, no.’ She really f---ing shamboozled me, didn’t she? She knew what she was doing. I was just—she had convinced me that she was fine, that she had come through the worst of it.”
Blow’s passing “just left a big void in my life,” McQueen says. At first he bristles at the mention of published rumors of a rift between them rooted in what Blow perceived to be a lack of appreciation on his part. But then he can’t help responding to the months-old gossip, stating, “I know what I did for Isabella.” He implies financial support only vaguely, except to state flat-out that that he and their friend Daphne Guinness paid for Blow’s hospitalization: “We didn’t give her all the money. If she wanted [us] to pay for [it], we would pay directly to the hospital.
A piece from McQueen's fall 2008 collection.
“It’s so much bollocks,” he continues. “These people just don’t know what they’re talking about. They don’t know me. They don’t know my relationship with Isabella. It’s complete bull----. People can talk; you can ask her sisters.… That part of the industry, they should stay away from my life, or mine and Isabella’s life. What I had with Isabella was completely disassociated from fashion, beyond fashion.”
Thus, though he attended her funeral at Gloucester Cathedral, he avoided the memorial service held during London Fashion Week, horrified at the thought of being “surrounded by people that I don’t know, people that think they know me and know Isabella.”
Guinness, a longtime friend whom McQueen met after seeing her across Leicester Square decked in his dragon-embroidered kimono, knows him well, and would, she says, “take a bullet” for him. “He’s adorable and kind, and he’s unbelievably good to his friends—generous without noise,” she says. “He was very good to Isabella.”
Still, McQueen admits that Blow thought herself responsible for his success, particularly in bringing him to the attention of Gucci Group when he was at LVMH’s Givenchy and desperate to get out. “The bit with Gucci, you’ve got to understand that I had already done the deal with [former CEO of Gucci Group] Domenico [De Sole]…Isabella being Isabella, she wanted—she wanted credit for [my] work,” he says. “She must have believed she was responsible for my success, and in some ways she is, for finding me. But on the business level, it’s just not, because I had already put the plans in. I got myself into LVMH, and I got myself out of LVMH and into Gucci…. This conversation was between me and Domenico De Sole in the South of France before she had ever met Tom Ford.”
In fact, McQueen prides himself on not being an ivory-tower designer and on having business skills that he thinks are usually given short shrift. Certainly self-promotion in the designer-celebrity sense has played a scant role in his ascent through fashion’s dense ranks. “He’s better than that,” Guinness scoffs. Rather, he’s gotten there on his brilliant talent, dogged determination and, he would add, business-side savvy, through some very trying times. Back in his early days with Givenchy, he told W that he had taken on the grueling assignment so that he could “plow back” money into his own company. Today he speaks of building a lasting luxury brand, “one that will be here 150 years from now, after I’m pushing up daisies.” Now, his every professional thought is of securing the business—on his terms. McQueen claims that he’s “in control of my horse,” although he quickly directs kudos toward Jonathan Akeroyd, CEO of Alexander McQueen since 2004, calling him “a really good CEO from the same side of the tracks.”
The McQueen company went into the black last year with virtually no advertising, though that may change, since the designer is willingly tempering the extravaganza quotient of his shows in order to divert funds toward an advertising budget, with his sights on major campaigns—“nothing bitty,” he says. Certainly fall’s fabric-and-rope-wrapped tree, though powerful, was a far cry from some of his more elaborate productions, such as spring 2003’s shipwreck, spring 2005’s human chess game and his fall 2006 outing,
Widows of Culloden, with a finale that featured a Kate Moss hologram. And the changes are not limited to the shows. Three years ago, women’s ready-to-wear made up 90 percent of the McQueen business; it now accounts for 50 percent, followed by women’s accessories and men’s wear, the former a major focus. McQueen hopes that his Novak bag “will become the [new] Kelly bag, and in 50 years’ time turn up in junk shops as a find.”
Gradual development of the house’s own stores—a store a year—is part of the plan. Though he isn’t a fan of celebrity culture, McQueen is thrilled with the Los Angeles store, which opened in April and had a big, “lounge-y” party scheduled for mid-May. He thinks “a new generation of directors and actresses” is changing Hollywood, and notes that stars who wear his clothes do so because they want to, and not because they’ve been subjected to a major product-placement initiative. Like his other stores, designed by William Russell, the boutique’s white interior projects a uniform, almost space-age serenity. Yet the venue also possesses a site-specific character. Its most obvious manifestation: Angel of the Americas, the nine-foot sculpture McQueen commissioned from British artist Robert Bryce Muir. The anatomically correct man of steel, its smooth strips of metal resembling articulated musculature, is suspended above the sales floor with its torso extending through the skylight, as if to watch over the life of the city. And to make a sales pitch to the city: A huge billboard atop the store’s roof is intended to display McQueen imagery in mega-proportions.
François-Henri Pinault, CEO of Gucci Group’s parent company PPR, calls McQueen a “design genius” and says his brand is “synonymous with creativity and innovation.” “Thanks to a very careful and well-thought strategy and business discipline, Alexander McQueen has grown steadily until it has reached profitability as planned at the end of last year,” Pinault offers via e-mail, adding that he expects continued growth. “The wholesale business model, great innovative fashion and cost-control discipline have brought the results we wanted…. [He] is not only a mature and serious creative director, but also a businessman, since he owns half of the company.”
To that end, McQueen says he knows “we’re all looking up to Daddy,” and thus he feels a healthy dose of faux-filial, intragroup competition, particularly with Balenciaga’s Nicolas Ghesquière, whom he met once and found to be a “nice, nice guy.” He notes the diversity of Gucci Group’s smaller houses, and the distinctive voices that he, Ghesquière and Stella McCartney bring to the party.
And what of the remarkable behemoth that is Frida Giannini’s Gucci? By comparison, McQueen considers his business, as well as McCartney’s and Ghesquière’s Balenciaga, to be upstarts—mere “adolescents” at the big people’s table.
“I’m talking about building a luxury brand from scratch, and there wasn’t any [precedent]—maybe Marc [Jacobs], but he’s a bit older than us. These new designers, the new generation of luxury brands [could become] like the new Chanel and the new Balenciaga and the new Dior. I see it like that, and now I can see there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
And along the way, a few lovely perks—some with the lure of bourgeois comforts he finally seems content to embrace as he approaches 40. McQueen recently purchased a grand apartment with a provenance—Oscar Wilde lived there—close to the theaters and classical concert halls he expects to frequent. Quite a step up for someone with his rough-and-tumble past.
“It’s a new lease on life,” he says. “What I was worried about when I first started in fashion was not being homeless, and now we’re talking about a world den, you know what I mean? It’s a bit of a contradictory turn.”
The apartment overlooks the river and is close to St. James Park, perfect for his beloved trio of dogs—an English bulldog, a Rhodesian ridgeback and a Mongol—and not far from Buckingham Palace, which he visited several years ago when he received a CBE from the Queen. He went to accept it, he claims, only because his mother wanted to see the palace; he was fiercely antiroyalist at the time. But the Queen won him over “because she was so sweet. She smiled and her eyes were so blue, and I just smiled back and I felt like a duckling.” Now, he jokes (or does he?) that he wouldn’t mind an upgrade and suggests that his fall show was part of a campaign to woo Her Majesty in that direction: “I thought, I’ll do this thing on the Queen, and I’ll get the knighthood. I’ll become Sir Alexander McQueen.”
If such a plan seems a bit establishment for a bloke who rose to fame on the strength of a now infamous collection called The Highland Rape, life has changed for McQueen in other respects, as well, including the way he socializes with his once hard-partying inner circle: fewer nights out, quiet dinners replacing more raucous activity. But the friendships remain intact, another blessing that has allowed McQueen, despite his naturally wary nature, to seek the light. “My relationships with producers or photographers—these are relationships that took years,” he says. “I’ve had good times; I’ve had bad times. If I do a bad show, they’re still there. And that’s what to me friendship is about. I love what it’s about.”