Isabella Blow, who devastatingly took her own life three years ago, was my idol growing up. Though an esteemed fashion editor, it was mostly her iconic hats that made me fall in love with her. So when she discovered and launched the career of (Lee) Alexander McQueen, I took notice. I may have been leading a mundane ponytailed high school existence with days consumed by the school paper and dance team practice, but at night I was clipping out McQueen images from magazines and pasting them up inside my closet, obsessed with the designer who taught me that beauty and horror can co-exist.
Alexander McQueen established himself as fashion's bad boy early in his career, a moniker I always disliked, but that he seemed to enjoy. His first collections in London were as despised as they were revered, and his attitude toward the norms of the industry incited established designers to label him a hooligan. McQueen loved pointing out the silliness of the fashion world, taping interviews with his back to the camera and closing a show by mooning the audience instead of taking the traditional designer bow.
I was mesmerized by his time spent at Givenchy, where he was able to make his theatrical vision a reality on the runway. Many considered his career at Givenchy a failure (he even called his first collection crap). The house known for dressing Audrey Hepburn in chic and feminine gowns did not seem an appropriate fit for McQueen's avant garde style. But the designer used his brief tenure there to set a new industry standard for imaginative runway presentations, particularly when double amputee model Aimee Mullins walked down his runway wearing elaborately carved wooden legs.
Shortly after, he had Shalom Harlow spray painted by car factory robots.
And in 2006 he transformed Kate Moss into a ghostly hologram.
In his last presentation, he took his showmanship to new levels with the frighteningly beautiful production "Plato's Atlantis."
When Gwyneth Paltrow was eviscerated by the fashion press for wearing breast-baring McQueen to the Academy Awards in 2002, I was overjoyed that a stereotypical Hollywood "ingenue" and "starlet" (or any other insulting and infantalizing term that you can imagine) was screaming "Fuck you!" in McQueen. Because McQueen was more than a designer, he was a language. And whatever you said, if you said it in McQueen, it translated to "I am not the woman you want to fuck. I am the woman you do not want to fuck with."
McQueen was always a polarizing figure, particularly when it came to feminism. Early in his career, he was vilified as a misogynist for exploring the Highland clearance in his legendary "Highland Rape" collection. More recently, he came under fire for dressing models in painful corsets and unwalkable heels, a decision that many argued further subjugated women.
Meanwhile, other critics praised him for his fearsome and empowering designs that portrayed women as predatory, sometimes unsexed, as Lady Macbeth would have said. Despite all of the controversy and debate, he always struck me as a lover of women, constantly celebrating the strangeness and the bewitching character of the alleged fairer sex. His themes were somehow both frail and hostile, as if he were a frightened child lashing out at the world through his art.
Alexander McQueen was many things: a master tailor, a shock artist, a rogue taxidermist, and a lover of all things both terrifying and beautiful, the macabre and the transcendent, the gothic and heavenly. He was a black star and a supernova, united as sartorial maestro. How could a man capable of such artistic darkness also create visions of such imaginative romance?
I know that people often react to suicide by asserting that the act is selfish and cowardly, and maybe that's true. But aren't we're all selfish and frightened? And perhaps it was selfish of us to expect so much, to crave so much from McQueen the artist, a soul so fragile and deeply troubled. I don't know if there is an afterlife, but I hope that Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow are somewhere out there together, somewhere magical and safe.
What a wonderfully strange and magnificent man he was, and what a devastating loss for us all.