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Long Live McQueen: Revisiting the Iconic Designer's Funeral

Aug 27 2015 4:05 PM

In an excerpt from first definitive biography of Alexander McQueen, Andrew Wilson examines the designer's conflicted, complicated genius through the lens of his funeral.

Excerpted from Alexander McQueen: Blood Beneath the Skin by Andrew Wilson. Copyright © 2015 by Andrew Wilson. Published by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Originally published in 2015 in Great Britain by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd. Reprinted with permission.

On the morning of Monday, 20 September 2010, the steps outside St. Paul's Cathedral in London were transformed into a catwalk. From a fleet of sleek black cars emerged a procession of beautiful women, "some in homage plumes, nearly all in raven black." There was Kate Moss in a black leather dress and tuxedo jacket, revealing a sliver of sun-kissed cleavage (one writer called it a "staggeringly inappropriate amount of décolletage"); Naomi Campbell wore a black feather jacket and a pair of studded boots with gilt heels; Sarah Jessica Parker arrived in a fairy-tale cream dress under a black coat; and Daphne Guinness sported a pair of twelve-inch platform black boots that, at one point as she walked down the paved approach, threatened to unsteady her. Together with 1,500 or so assembled guests, they had gathered at Sir Christopher Wren's baroque church at the top of Ludgate Hill to celebrate the life of one of Britain's most lauded and notorious fashion designers. Friends and family knew him as Lee, the rest of the world as Alexander McQueen, the so-called bad boy of fashion.

That day in the cathedral McQueen's family sat apart from the celebrities and the models. Andrew Groves, one of McQueen's former boyfriends, noticed that the designer's taxi-driver father, Ronald, and his brothers and sisters seemed distinctly uncomfortable."They felt really out of place at that event," said Groves, who in the nineties worked as a fashion designer under the name Jimmy Jumble and who is now also a fashion tutor. "To me it felt as though they didn't really understand Lee's legacy. It was like, 'what's all this about?' "Alice Smith, a fashion recruitment consultant and a friend who met McQueen in 1992, was struck by the difference in footwear on the two sides of the aisle. "The memorial service was very odd, as I couldn't reconcile the family with the fashion crowd. I kept looking at their shoes—the family had very normal high street shoes—and on the other side were these fantastically expensive, ostentatious shoes."

That contrast symbolized one of the paradoxes of McQueen's life, a contradiction that the designer never fully resolved. "That was his problem," said Alice. "His family was well-behaved, they were nice people trying to live a good life and on the other side of his life was this completely bonkers world." The atmosphere that day was awkward as the guests consisted of a number of cliques and groups—the supermodels, the actresses, the famous designers, the East End family, the gay friends from Old Compton Street—none of whom knew one another. "It was a weird mixture of people there and no one was interacting," said Andrew Groves. "When you go to a fashion show everyone knows where they are meant to sit. If I go to a fashion show I know, as I'm in education, that I'll be right on the back row, and I know that Anna [Wintour] will be on the front row. I know for that moment we are in the same world, but in reality we're not."

After the Lord's Prayer, the congregation stood to sing "I Vow to Thee My Country," a hymn that includes two lines McQueen would have found especially poignant: "And there's another country I've heard of long ago, / Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know." Throughout his life the designer was searching for "another country" of his own. McQueen yearned for a place, a state, an idea, a man, a dress, a dream, a drug that would transform his reality. Yet if he was addicted to anything—Lee made no secret of his seemingly insatiable appetite for cocaine—ultimately he was addicted to the lure of fantasy, the prospect that one day he might be free of his body, his memories, his regrets, his past.

It was clear that McQueen thought that love had the ultimate transformative power. "Of course, there is a dark side," said Katy England three years before her friend's death. "But there is also a truly romantic side. Lee's such a romantic character and he has these dreams. It's all about him looking for love, isn't it? It's him looking for love and his idea of love and romance, well, it's way above and beyond reality."

On his upper right arm the designer had a tattoo of the words, spoken by Helena, in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, "Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind." The quotation is key to understanding both Lee McQueen the man and Alexander McQueen the superstar designer. As Andrew Bolton, curator of Savage Beauty, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's 2011 exhibition of McQueen's work and the consultant curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition of the same name, stated, "In her contemplations, Helena believes that love has the power to transform something ugly into something beautiful, because love is propelled by subjective perceptions of the individual, not by objective assessments of appearance. This belief was not only shared by McQueen but also critical to his creativity."

McQueen's extraordinary talent as a designer was the subject of an address given by Anna Wintour. "He was a complex and gifted young man who, as a child, liked nothing more than watching the birds from the roof of [an] east London tower block," said the editor in chief of American Vogue, who was wearing a black and gold embroidered McQueen coat. "He has left us with an exceptional legacy, a talent that soared like the birds of his childhood above us all." During the course of his career, from his 1992 Central Saint Martins MA graduate show to his death in February 2010, McQueen had harnessed "his dreams and demons." It was no surprise to learn that McQueen's final collection, which the designer was working on at the time of his death and which Wintour described as a battle between "dark and light," became unofficially known as Angels and Demons.

Three years before his death, McQueen had told the French magazine Numéro, "I oscillate between life and death, happiness and sadness, good and evil." "Lee combined two things, the superficiality of fashion and the sublime beauty of death," said his friend Jake Chapman, the artist. "The reason his work has resonance was the self-destruction. We were watching someone kind of crumble."

Despite the black specter of depression that overshadowed his later years, McQueen had an unstoppable energy and zest for life. He was an unashamed hedonist—he adored both the finest caviar and a treat of beans and poached eggs on toast while sitting on the sofa watching Coronation Street. He loved Maker's Mark and Diet Coke, the sleazier end of gay pornography and a great deal of anonymous sex. So it was fitting that at the memorial service, after Anna Wintour sat down, the composer Michael Nyman came forward to play "The Heart Asks Pleasure First," from his score to Jane Campion's 1993 film, The Piano. The heroine of that film, Ada McGrath (played by Holly Hunter), is a mute woman who has not spoken since she was six years old and expresses herself through playing the piano. Verbal articulacy was not McQueen's strong point—"I saw him off his face at parties... he was completely incomprehensible, he didn't know what he was saying," said the broadcaster and writer Janet Street-Porter—but his greatest eloquence could be found in the radical clothes he designed and the spectacular shows he staged. "What you see in the work is the person himself," McQueen once said. "And my heart is in my work."

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