There’s a lot of legend surrounding the work and life of Alexander “Lee” McQueen–this is the man who claimed to have written obscenities in the coats of Prince Charles, after all! (Total rumor, by the way.)
Alexander McQueen: The Life and the Legacy, out October 30, is more of an examination of McQueen’s entire body of work and the inspiration behind it than a biography. We caught up with the author, Judith Watt, Head of Fashion History at Central Saint Martins, to chat about what she learned about McQueen while writing the book and what she hopes people will learn about the man behind the legend.
Fashionista: What was the first time you met McQueen like?
Judith: I met him in South Africa while working as a journalist. It was really interesting because he was very young, a fledgling designer, awarding a prize to the winner of the Smirnoff International Student Awards. This South African student had made a dress of buckskin and lit the inside with lightbulbs, and the journalists mocked her for it. He defended her very bravely and lost his temper in a room full of journalists. He was bloody brilliant, standing up for a student, explaining her dress to a journalist who didn’t understand international fashion. It was incredibly brave and impressive.
Were there any misconceptions about McQueen that you wanted to clear up with this book?
Lee was very, very good at spinning. He knew the importance of spin, he was a child of the late 80s and early 90s, and when he began to make his name fashion had gone through a tremendous lull. He was extremely ambitious–by the time he decided he wanted to be a designer, he REALLY wanted to be a designer. He knew he had to make a kind of profile for himself.
I think Lee was looking for greatness. I think he was that determined from childhood to be special. The thing not discussed in the book is the importance of Isabella Blow as someone who helped him–but it’s important to know that she didn’t discover him, he discovered himself.
How is this book different from what’s been written about McQueen before?
It’s about his life but it’s not a biography. It’s about the importance of his work and the life behind his work. There’s stuff in this book that no one’s researched before, and photos and drawings no one has ever seen before. The first half was very exciting to do because the people who had worked with him, having the stories from [his first jobs], you get all these different dates happening that are inaccurate, and these [in the book] are accurate. So that was an interesting experience, to talk to these people no one had spoken to before. The beginning work is so influential and important on his later work. He’s enormously experienced by the time he went to Saint Martins.
Daphne Guinness writes the foreword to the book–how did she get involved?
Daphne is a clever woman and she loves clothes, she really loves clothes and ideas. The publisher and editor approached her –they asked her to read it, she looked at it, and she agreed to write it.
What will McQueen’s legacy be on the industry as time goes on?
I think it will be that designers will have integrity. What those clothes did was unlock the fantasy in clothing that people really seem to need at the moment. Look at the outpouring of the internet when he died–real grief from people from all over the world who were not fashion people, but loved what he did. The guy is a designer’s designer–designers who respect the craft of clothes.
He operates on lots of different levels–designer as artist, his genius of tailoring, his braveness of standing up and making your mark and having your own voice as a designer. He leaves a legacy of creating clothes that are about women being brave, standing their own ground, not being victims of men.
What do you hope people will take away from this book?
That he was a very, very complex person, that he was extremely talented, that he was able to translate his incredible ideas into three dimensional reality because of his brilliance as a cutter. But I also want people to respect him, because he had a tragic end and he shouldn’t have because he was a truly great talent. That’s what I want people to feel. I want people to get the scale of him, the scale of his ideas, and his great collaborations [with artists]–they were phenomenal. There are a handful of truly great British designers, and he’s one of them.
Alexander McQueen: The Life and Legacy is available October 30 from Harper Design.