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One clue to the success of Lee Alexander McQueen

Lee Alexander McQueen

Lee McQueen’s success is pretty baffling at first sight. (Note: Lee McQueen is the person, Alexander McQueen is the brand.) A self described East-London yob, he became the most successful British designer of haute couture of his generation. But he was the son of a cab driver and a teacher, and had no fashion mentors during his upbringing. So how the hell did he do it?

As I was reading his biography – Andrew Wilson’s excellent Blood Beneath the Skin – a pattern started to emerge:

According to McQueen, one afternoon in 1986 he was at home in Biggerstaff Road when he saw a programme on television about how the art of tailoring was dying out. There was, said the report, a shortage of apprentice tailors on Savile Row and his mother said to him, Why don’t you go down there, give it a go? … Lee took the tube to Bond Street and walked through the smart streets of Mayfair until he came to 30 Savile Row, the headquarters of Anderson & Sheppard. … He wasn’t a timid person, said John Hitchcock [his boss] … It was obvious when he first came that he did not know anything. (pp.46-47)

(McQueen’s lack of timidity was verified by his schoolfriend Peter Bowes, who remembered that Lee was quite a tough guy – he wasn’t scared of people. (p.39))

A couple of years later, McQueen was ready to move from tailoring into fashion:

After Lee saw a magazine article about the Tokyo-born, London-based designer Koji Tatsuno, he turned up at Tatsuno’s studio looking for a job. (p.53)

But then Tatsuno went bust:

Lee, with a spontaneity that never left him, wanted to fly to Italy … [he] went to see his sister Tracy, who then worked for a travel agency and booked him a one-way ticket to Milan. … [McQueen] arrived in Italy’s fashion capital with a plan. Although he was prepared to work for any designer, at the top of his list was one name: Romeo Gigli. … McQueen made his way from Porta Garibaldi metro stop down Corso Como to Gigli’s studio. He did not have an appointment … (p.59)

But he got a job all the same. McQueen’s disinclination to make appointments stood him in good stead when he wanted to go to Central St Martins:

Lee knew that, if he secured a place at St Martins, his life would change. … Carrying an armful of clothes, Lee made his way down the long, rather shabby corridor towards the office of Bobby Hillson. He knocked on the door and waited. Booby, described by one fashion writer as patrician and old school, opened the door to see a young man she thought must be a messenger.
     Can I help you? she asked. Who are you here to see?
     You, Lee replied.
     But I don’t have an appointment with anyone. (p.67)

Hillson said that she couldn’t give him a job because he was too young and the students wouldn’t take him seriously, but offered for him to join the Masters course, despite the fact that he didn’t have a degree.

He was relatively charmless, had nothing really going for him, but I thought if he cares this much he’s got to be given a chance. (pp.68-69)

So far from being a fashion genius straight out of the box, McQueen was actually really bad at fashion for many years, but was willing to knock on doors and work for next to nothing until he had some skills.

The result? By the time of his graduate collection he was handcrafting pieces like this: