Remembering Alexander McQueen: The Lasting Legacy of His Tenacity and Tragedy

May 20, 2024
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Livia Caligor is an NYC-based writer and photographer who works in media operations. She graduated from Cornell University in 2021 with a B.S. in Fashion Management, a concentration in Communications, and a minor in English. She’s worked in marketing, wholesale, and operations at brands including Lafayette 148, Elie Saab, Alexander Wang, and Marchesa; through these international experiences, she developed a keen understanding of the supply chain and issues of sustainability and social responsibility – with bylines in Architectural Digest, teenVogue, and the Folklore, she seeks to use writing to facilitate industry change and make design a more equitable space. Livia is passionate about deconstructing the social stigmas around mental health; she is especially interested in how socio-economic and racial privilege, beauty standards, and industry cultures inform and shape mental health. As a new member of the BTWFoundation, she seeks to address barriers to treatment, especially for kids without the means. In her free time, she loves reading, boxing, photography, and drawing and is an avid member of the little monster community!

Follow her Instagram @livia.caligor and her photography page @puddlesbylivia

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(Drawings by Livia Caligor)

*Content Warning: This story contains mentions of depression and suicide. If you or someone you know is struggling with your mental health, please seek help via the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

February marked the 13 year memorial of Alexander McQueen, one of the most revolutionary forces in fashion history. McQueen’s legacy lies not only in the garments he created but in the transformative impact his work had on using fashion and art to challenge the status quo around sexuality, identity, and expression. He believed that “fashion should be a form of escapism, not imprisonment.” 

But beneath the unparalleled drama, multidimensional storytelling, and radical – and often controversial – messages imbued in his work, McQueen’s lasting battle with mental illness was one of the main conduits for his work. 

(Drawings by Livia Caligor)

Alexander McQueen’s background, a narrative of talent, tenacity, and tragedy, began on March 17, 1969, in East London. Born Lee Alexander McQueen, he grew up in a working-class family with a deep-rooted appreciation for craftsmanship. He drew inspiration from his mom’s work as a seamstress, which served as the springboard for his experimentation with tailoring and design. 

At the age of 16, McQueen left school and began an apprenticeship at the renowned Savile Row, known for its bespoke tailoring. This formative experience provided him with a strong foundation in traditional craftsmanship and tailoring, skills that would later distinguish his avant-garde designs.

His insatiable thirst for knowledge led him to enroll at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London in 1990. McQueen’s graduation collection, titled “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims,” instantly caught the eye of influential fashion editor Isabella Blow. This pivotal encounter marked the beginning of a mentorship that galvanized media attention. 

(Drawing by  Livia Caligor)

In 1992, McQueen launched his eponymous label, Alexander McQueen, introducing his evocative and often controversial vision to the fashion world. The maverick’s early collections showcased a blend of technical precision and provocative storytelling, earning him the position of Creative Director of Givenchy in 1996, propelling him into the international spotlight. His five-year tenure at Givenchy was marked by a daring fusion of punk and high fashion, redefining the boundaries of luxury and garnering international acclaim. However, the constraints of working within a traditional fashion house began to chafe against McQueen’s fiercely independent spirit. As he ascended the ranks of the fashion hierarchy, the expectations placed upon him intensified. His time at Givenchy suggest that he struggled with anxiety, depression, and feelings of isolation, all exacerbated by the intense scrutiny of his work.

(Drawing by Livia Caligor)

In 2001, McQueen returned his focus to his eponymous label, steering it to new heights of innovation. The iconic “bumster” trousers and skull motifs reflected his audacious spirit, and his theatrical runway presentations challenged preconceived notions of what fashion could be. Gothic Romanticism and biblical references evoked his fascination with death and rebirth. “Plato’s Atlantis” collection in 2010 presented models as futuristic beings in a time in which the earth has decomposed. The controversial “Joan” collection showcased dresses adorned with bones, addressing his infatuation with the idea of mortality. He imbued his work with emotion, dimension, and introspection, immersing viewers into his own vision.  

(Drawing by Livia Caligor)

While his professional life continued to soar, McQueen faced personal struggles, battling anxiety, depression, and the pressures of success. The turning point in McQueen’s mental health came in 2010, a year marked by personal tragedies. The death of his beloved mother, Joyce, served as a devastating blow. Just days later, on the eve of her funeral, McQueen was found dead in his London apartment, having taken his own life at the age of 40. The fashion world mourned the loss of one of its most visionary talents, raising questions about the industry’s toll on mental health and the often-overlooked darkness of working in creative spheres.

Despite the sorrow surrounding his death, McQueen’s legacy endures. His impact on fashion is immeasurable, influencing a generation of designers who admire his fearlessness and boundary-pushing spirit. The Alexander McQueen brand continues to thrive, a testament to his enduring vision and the team that carries it forward. His designs remain immortal, a testament to the transformative power of his vision and narrative. 

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