“London’s where I was brought up. It’s where my heart is and where I get my inspiration.”
Lee Alexander McQueen
Music Credits

savage beauty


the early history

Growing up in London’s East End, Lee Alexander McQueen’s interests were quite different from his classmates at the all-boys comprehensive, Rokeby. “I was literally three years old when I started drawing”, he told the writer Susannah Frankel. “I always wanted to be a designer. I read books on fashion from the age of twelve. I followed designers’ careers. I knew Giorgio Armani was a window dresser, and Emmanuel Ungaro was a tailor.” And when he left school in 1985 at the age of 16, after encouragement from his mother, McQueen began an apprenticeship on Savile Row at Anderson & Sheppard, tailors by appointment to the British royal family.

“london’s where i was brought up. it’s where my heart is and where i get my inspiration.” Lee Alexander McQueen
Backstage, Joan, Autumn/Winter 1998 Alexander McQueen fitting a model Photograph by ANNE DENIAU
Above Sketch, Central Saint Martins MA graduate portfolio Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims, Autumn/Winter 1992 Pencil on distressed paper with fabric swatches
Right Sketch, Irere, Spring/Summer 2003 Pencil on paper, London 2002
“No restriction pure contortion”
Lee Alexander McQueen
McQueen graduated in 1992 with Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims (Autumn/Winter 1992), a “day into eveningwear collection inspired by 19th century streetwalkers”. The collection caught the attention of Isabella Blow, the famously eccentric stylist who would become his close friend and a muse. Not much remains of McQueen’s early work, especially his first collection after graduating, Taxi Driver (Autumn/Winter 1993), which McQueen packed into black bin bags for a meeting, only to lose outside a bar in Soho. Yet those who attended Taxi Driver’s presentation at The Ritz, remember black crow feathers, intricate jet beading, latex and a print of Travis Bicker, the anti-hero of Martin Scorcese’s film of the same name. The infamous ‘bumster’ trouser was first shown on the catwalk in Nihilism (Spring/Summer 1994). Cut daringly low on the hip to “accentuate parts of the woman’s anatomy to create a new shape”, they became an integral part of the sharp tailoring that would go on to characterise his work.
Backstage, The Highland Rape, Autumn/Winter 1995 Photograph by GARY WALLIS
Backstage, The Birds, Spring/Summer 1995 Photograph by GARY WALLIS
“It was an art thing, to change the way women looked, just by cut, to make a longer torso. But I was taking it to an extreme. The girls looked quite menacing, because there was so much top and so little bottom, because of the length of the legs”
Lee Alexander McQueen
How to Spend It magazine, Financial Times, July 2002 Photograph by axel bernstorff
“I spent a long time learning how to construct clothes, which is important to do before you can deconstruct them”
Lee Alexander McQueen
After two years at Anderson & Sheppard, McQueen moved a few doors down “the Row” to Gieves & Hawkes, where he worked on military tailoring. He stayed for just over a year before taking up a post at the theatrical costumers Angels, cutting clothes for West End shows such as Les Miserables. In the space of four years, the designer had mastered the intricacies of bespoke tailoring, which would inform the basis for much of his work, and the codes of 19th century costume, which would later become a signature of his own designs. Now it was time to shift his attention to contemporary fashion design: in 1989 McQueen went to work for the London-based Japanese designer Koji Tatsuno, and the following year, for Romeo Gigli in Milan. It was these credentials that afforded him a place on the feted postgraduate fashion design course at London’s Central Saint Martins. “He was technically brilliant, even though he’d never actually studied design”, noted Bobby Hilson, the course’s founder.
The Birds, Spring/Summer 1996 Photograph by CHRIS MOORE
Nihilism, Spring/Summer 1994 Photograph by CHRIS MOORE
The Birds, Spring/Summer 1995 Photograph by CHRIS MOORE
Backstage, The Hunger show SS 1996 Photograph by GARY WALLIS
Lee at the wedding of Annabelle Neilson and Nathaniel Rothschild Photograph by GARY WALLIS
At this time of his life, Lee was living in a council flat in Tooting, South London, and claiming social security benefits. Though money was scarce, it would only fuel the designer’s ingenuity when working with fabrics like the linings of the curtains in his flat, or latex from a local builder’s supplier. A black glitter bodice from his sophomore collection, Nihilism – the origins of McQueen’s signature corset – was in fact the result of a “happy accident”, when a bucket of latex was kicked over and took the form of the storm drain the liquid had moulded itself to. The ‘road kill’ prints in The Birds (Spring/Summer 1995), his Hitchcock-inspired third collection, were made by rolling a car tyre covered in Indian ink over the clothes. In these free wheeling early years, the key elements of McQueen’s signature silhouette had begun to take shape, and the character of the Alexander McQueen woman was emerging. “Like her creator, [she was] at once fragile and fierce, ethereal and street-wise,” as Susannah Frankel eloquently describes her in Savage Beauty’s catalogue.
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