Alexander McQueen has been the subject of a blockbuster show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as well as the V&A in London, multiple books, and even a London play—but never a proper biography. That changes today with the publication of Alexander McQueen: Blood Beneath the Skin (Scribner), the first full-length volume to take a comprehensive look at on the late designer, who took his own life in 2010 after a career spent creating some of the most darkly romantic, spectacular clothes—and shows—the world has ever seen.
British biographer Andrew Wilson —whose previous subjects include authors Sylvia Plath, Patricia Highsmith, and Harold Robbins—was handpicked by McQueen’s sister Janet for the task. He spent two and a half years interviewing more than 100 people—family, friends, lovers, and colleagues, to whom McQueen was known by his given name Lee—to compile what he calls an “extremely honest” portrait of the designer, one that explores the tension between his East End roots as a taxi driver’s son and his status as an international icon. “I had been fascinated by his public image as this enfant terrible of fashion, but I had an inkling that there was much more to him than that, as indeed there was,” Wilson says. “Of course, the book is about fashion, but it is also about class, sexuality, aspiration, success, money, drugs, sex and fame. I was not interested in writing an hagiography—it had to be warts and all—but when Janet read the biography she said that it was the book that Lee would have wanted.”
Here, Wilson discusses his journalistic approach, as well the man behind the myth.
Yahoo Style: What are some common misconceptions about McQueen that you set out to disprove?
Andrew Wilson: People see him as just a fashion designer, but he was much bigger than this. He was an artist who chose to express himself through the medium of fashion. If you look at some of his shows, they can be read as pieces of installation art. He was working at the same time as the Chapman Brothers, Damien Hirst, and Marc Quinn, and in the book I place him within the larger context of contemporary art.
YS: What surprised you most during the course of your research?
AW: McQueen was much more interesting than his public image as the so-called bad boy of fashion. He used that as a façade to hide behind. In reality, he was sensitive, vulnerable, and insecure. Also, he had a great sense of humor, and the book is peppered with his witty—and frequently filthy—one-liners.
YS: What was the most interesting interview you conducted?
AW; The most significant series of interviews I did was with his elder sister, Janet. In one of the later interviews, she told me that when Lee was about nine or ten he had been sexually abused by her first husband, now dead. She knew nothing about the abuse at the time and only learnt of it later, a few years before Lee died. McQueen also watched Janet beaten to a pulp by the same man who abused him.
YS: What do you think motivated McQueen?
AW: I relate Lee’s creativity back to the trauma he suffered as a child. He used his imagination as a way to protect women; he once said that he wanted people to be afraid of the women he dressed. His work stemmed from this very dark place, but ultimately he ended up creating things of beauty from it. “Let’s say I turned the negative into a positive,” he said.
YS: What larger forces made life difficult for him?
AW: He was always searching for something—as one of his best friends told me, “Peace was elusive.” He was a truly romantic figure and was always trying to shed the burden of his self. He looked to fashion, to drugs, to men, to sex, always searching for a state of transcendence. Many of his fashion shows are interspersed with the desire to lose one’s self and become one with nature or the universe.
In the end, he became increasingly dependent on drugs, which in turn fueled his paranoia. He was close to Isabella Blow, who committed suicide in 2007, and then, in early 2010, when he learned that his mother was dying, everything became too much. He had been planning to kill himself for some time, but he would never have gone through while his mother was still alive. His mother’s death gave him the final release.
YS: Why is he such an important figure in fashion and culture?
AW:There are so many reasons. He invented a new silhouette. He came up with the concept of the bumsters and so made the base and back of the spine a new erotic zone. He had a gothic imagination and was fascinated by the connections between sex and death. His shows are still some of the most powerful pieces of theatre you will ever see. And, he used his self—his biography—in his art.
YS: How will history ultimately remember him?
AW:He will be remembered as a truly anarchic spirit, a radical, a revolutionary. He was somebody who reinvented what it meant to be a fashion designer. He interrogated and provoked the fashion industry. He made us all question the nature of beauty. As he himself said, “when I’m dead and gone people will know that the twenty-first century was started by Alexander McQueen.”