The death of Gucci's prodigal son, Alexander McQueen, has robbed the fashion world of a prodigious and wiful talent.
Alexander McQueen: Tailor made to shock
Alexander McQueen was a prolific designer with a vision - and personality - that did not always sit happily in the rarefied world of fashion. I first encountered Lee - his real name before the fashion editor and mentor Isabella Blow decided "Alexander" sounded better - minutes after his debut show, staged in a damp, disused garage in London in 1995. It was only a year after his St Martins graduation show, and having just witnessed clear plastic tops moulded to the models' torsos with an inner lining filled with live wriggling worms, and trousers cut so low at the rear they revealed a builder's cleavage, I was nervous about meeting the man responsible for this wild new "look".
I found him backstage, giggling and teasing a model with a worm like a naughty six-year-old, oblivious of the shock waves he had caused - with the show and his clothes - which would subsequently become his trademark. Within a year the double whammy McQueen effect, startling theatrics and mind-boggling clothes, won him the coveted British Designer of the Year title. At 28, he was the youngest ever to do this, with the reward an acknowledgement that he had helped to put London back on the fashion map after a couple of decades lost in the wilderness.
It was a rare combination of precision tailoring and creativity far and beyond the usual frock expert, that enabled him to forge ahead of his peers. Almost from the first, his shows became must-sees on the international calendar, where bossy fashion doyennes were famously made to fight it out for a seat. Such was the dark humour of a designer who made no attempt to hide the fact that this son of a London black cab driver came from the "wrong side of the tracks". His humble background from an East London council estate was evident in his voice, stance and most importantly, in his attitude to authority.
Half way through the design awards at the Royal Albert Hall where he was to be named Designer of the Year for the first time (he won three times), I bumped into Lee and his mother, a constant backstage presence. They were creeping out mid-ceremony "bored" by the evening and its star guest, the late Diana, Princess of Wales. The only way I could convince him to stay was to reveal that he had in fact won. There and then he jumped for joy and hugged his mother. Then and there I realised, he really had no idea of the impact he had made on fashion.
Several years later, I met him a day or two after a well-received show in Paris, now heading up his own design label after a brief sojourn at the French house of Givenchy - "worst mistake I ever made," he told me. Even then, at the top of his career, he still seemed strangely unaware of what all the fuss was all about. He loved to design and to create, which to him came naturally. He described the painstaking process behind one particular gravity-defying dress, encrusted with crystals, as if he were telling me how to make a cup of tea.
Despite a recent "makeover" in which he lost a dramatic amount of weight and allegedly had plastic surgery, he kept his accent and his sharp East End wit. Although the fashion world tried to uproot McQueen and take him to Paris, he always returned to his roots in London. I once talked over dinner to him about Kate Moss, a fellow Cockney sparrow, who had just been busted for drugs, and who the fashion industry at the time were threatening with expulsion. McQueen showed utmost loyalty to his model friend and spoke out about the hypocrisy of the industry. A season later, Moss appeared as a super-sized hologram in a show in which she didn't actually physically appear, perhaps to make his point.
Like Moss, who also hailed from working class roots, McQueen felt like an outsider, although if he never appeared threatened by the snobbery rife in the industry. Whatever he lacked in highbrow talk and cut glass accent, he more than made up for in quick thinking, intelligence and sheer modernity. After tailoring had been banished in the 1980s in favour of grunge and boho, he single-handedly reinvented the power suit for a new generation of female bankers and hedge funders.
At the same time, the financial success he brought to his backers, the Gucci group, allowed him to get away with being naughty. He once took a post-show bow dressed in a rabbit costume and another time insisted on starting a show on time - unheard of during London Fashion Week - knowing several crucially important fashion editors would not make it in time. So what comes after McQueen? As Lesley Goring, the premier London-based show producer says: "He is irreplaceable. Although this generation has produced several fabulously innovative designers, many of who have been able to turn around the flagging fortunes of French fashion houses like Balmain and Dior, I don't think anyone in the world could replicate Alexander McQueen's style."
Which means, sadly that fashion house which carries his name, must surely die with its founder. * The National