x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Three weeks to make a dress, then he tore it

I was 22 and in my final year at Brighton University studying fashion design, when I was contacted by Alexander McQueen's people. They wanted to see me; they needed people to work on the new collection.

"Lee is dead." That was the first of many messages on my phone yesterday. It took a while to register - after all it had been six years since I had worked for him. I was 22 and in my final year at Brighton University studying fashion design, when I was contacted by Alexander McQueen's people. They wanted to see me; they needed people to work on the new collection. I was fresh blood, and they wouldn't pay me a dime. I didn't care.

I was to work on the showpiece team for the Spring/Summer 2004 collection, inspired by the film about the Depression, They Shoot Horses Don't They?, and I was to start immediately. I dropped everything. I got pretty thin that year - not because it was the suitable way to look - but due to utter exhaustion. We worked 16 hour days, often six day weeks at his studio in Farringdon, north London. It never closed. I remember having to sneak into the bathroom for 10-minute naps just to keep going.

It's no easy task summing up someone's life in a few words, especially someone so mysterious, whose inspirations were so inexplicable, but I, like many who worked under McQueen, knew we were part of something special. One memory in particular stands out. I had been working solidly for three weeks on one of the finale pieces, taking it from infancy to catwalk. I was still hand-sewing the final touches on the Eurostar from London to Paris. I had slept with that dress and was utterly attached to it. Thirty minutes before the show was due to start, Lee told me with a complete lack of irony to shred the dress. We sat together on the floor with a pocket knife and the sharp edge of a clothes hanger tearing the dress to pieces. He wanted to "rough it up a little", he said. I found the whole experience rather emotional. Turning to me, he laughed and then thanked me. Lee wasn't one for many words, but I suppose gratitude requires some level of humanity.

So what was he really like? Angry? Crude? Sure. But that is Lee sketched from a distance. Up close he was very different - fragile, painfully shy, darting back and forth like a moth trapped between strength and frailty. One day he would burst through the studio on rollerskates cackling like a mad man. More often I got the feeling that had there been a back door to slink into the office through, he would have used it.

People love to ridicule fashion designers and the pomp that surrounds them, but no one who attended a McQueen show could ever again believe fashion is unimportant. McQueen was all about feelings - his interest lay in psychology, and he was only truly comfortable hovering on the periphery of ordinary. The world has lost a gifted spirit. Katie Trotter is fashion director of M Magazine