Alexander McQueen's Final Bow
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AT approximately 10:20 a.m. on Feb. 11, a London taxi stopped at the entrance to Green Street, a normally quiet block of drab red brick houses in Mayfair -- drabber on this bone-chilling Thursday -- and the passengers, a man and two women, hastily got out.
Not 30 minutes before, a housekeeper, in a state of hysteria, had telephoned the office of Alexander McQueen from his flat in Green Street to say that he had hanged himself. That was how the housekeeper had incomprehensibly come upon him -- hanging by some kind of ligature in a closet in the spare bedroom.
In the interim, two women from Mr. McQueen's office, east of Mayfair, on Clerkenwell Road, had set off in a taxi for the flat, stopping on the way to pick up a friend, Shaun Leane, in front of his jewelry studio. Although Trino Verkade and Sarah Burton had worked for Mr. McQueen for years -- Ms. Verkade, a red-haired, truthful woman, was his first employee, in 1995, in the original, mouse-ridden Hoxton Square studio, and Ms. Burton, gentle and fair-skinned, was the only design assistant he ever had -- he considered them both close friends as well.
Now as the taxi spun and wound into Mayfair, the women felt the strangeness of the day. Personally, Mr. Leane didn't believe that Mr. McQueen was dead at age 40, and in that way, though goodness knows he had seen the hurts pile up at his friend's door. It wasn't any wonder he always moved to another house after a breakup, Mr. Leane said later.
He loved Lee Alexander McQueen, had known him 20 years, had drank and cried with him. Why, only two Saturday nights past they had done their old haunts on Old Compton Street. Many an idea for a McQueen extravaganza had begun as a sketch on a humble English beer mat.
But as Mr. Leane, who was raised in a big Irish family in North London, knew, Mr. McQueen's soul was as a deep and powerful as an ocean but his reserves of happiness were always drying up. He said: "You can't just move on and think that the problems will go away. I think that's what caught him up."
Still, in that moment, in the eternal minutes before the taxi reached Green Street, Mr. Leane believed that Mr. McQueen had beaten back the demons and once again like Houdini escaped. He told Ms. Verkade and Ms. Burton that the Spanish-speaking housekeeper must have been misheard. "It's just a scare. He's going to be all right."
A few days after that Saturday night out with Mr. Leane, on Feb. 2, Mr. McQueen's mother, Joyce, had died after a long illness. People may not know, or have forgotten in the clamor of years, that in the mid '90s, when fashion writers were expressing disgust at his extreme fashion -- the low-riding "bumsters" that became one of the most influential garments of the decade, the dirtied models and slashed clothes that suggested rape and other violent acts -- Mrs. McQueen, the hub of an East End family, was in the backstage making sandwiches and tea.
Her approval, so plainly and freely given (his father, Ronald, was a different matter), was essential to Mr. McQueen, a gay man and the youngest of six, but it alone did not explain the enormous self-belief, the mental speed, the bursting ideas -- which were present at the start. "You almost became addicted to him somehow," Ms. Burton said later, recalling drafty mornings in Hoxton Square (she, in a coat, sitting on a too-low stool at the secondhand cutting table, Ms. Verkade on the phone hustling money, a dog afoot) and the pride as Mr. McQueen, chubby then, showed them five things he had made overnight. "It was almost like the old machine makers."
SUCH feeling for beauty, for greatness, for never being quite happy, undoubtedly had its roots in his relationship with his mother and with another woman, Isabella Blow, the alarming-looking stylist-aristocrat whose effect was like an umbrella opening in a phone booth -- but the perfect umbrella in finest silk.
Ms. Blow, with her red carnation mouth, liked to talk dirty to Mr. McQueen, and he to her. She also gave him friendship, books, approval. "Isabella could make it all O.K. in an instant," the milliner Philip Treacy said. "She'd never say to Alexander, 'Nice dress.' She would say, 'Oh my God, I love it.' " When she died, in 2007, taking her own life -- the tragedy of Ms. Blow was that in spite of her gift of hope in others she was convinced she had no future -- people said that Mr. McQueen had let her down. He didn't bother to correct the record until last summer, for as Mr. Leane said, "She was on his mind a lot." Later, when he met with someone making a film about her life, he broke down sobbing.
Ms. Verkade said: "He was somebody who talked about the future all the time. He was in the office talking about the show, the music, booking a holiday." Indeed, in the last three years, since the show that he and Mr. Treacy dedicated to Ms. Blow, Mr. McQueen seemed to reach a real point of clarity. He and Mr. Leane traveled to India, from which came the jewel-like "Girl Who Lived in The Tree" collection. (Ms. Burton remembered getting text messages from him in the middle of the night describing colors to be dyed. "That's how he worked.") And he moved out of a big house he owned in East London, ending yet another relationship, and into a rental flat in Mayfair, which had the advantage of being central.
At the New Year, Mr. McQueen was skiing in Val-d'Isère, France, with Annabelle Neilson and two other friends. A wild thing, with a small body and dark eyes, Ms. Neilson and Mr. McQueen were in a sense well matched. He liked familiarity amongst those he loved, he liked home, and indeed he often took vacations with his sisters and their children. Ms. Neilson recognized that need for intimacy and encouraged it, perhaps beyond proportion. She said, "I was sort of married to a gay man."
Mr. McQueen, though -- and this was so like him -- chose to commemorate their bond by having two pieces of jewelry made, in the shape of an L and an A, in diamonds with a single black stone indicating a black heart.
"The bubble we lived in really didn't allow a lot inside it," Ms. Neilson said somewhat ruefully. "Sometimes I think maybe that was a mistake."
Considering everything -- his focus on work, the pleasure trips conducted while his mother was ill and the fact that Mr. McQueen had a history of being emotionally low and beyond reach -- staying at home in his flat the week after her death didn't seem to warrant unusual concern. Mr. McQueen was grieving -- he told Mr. Leane that he couldn't bear to see his mother buried. Her funeral was on Friday, Feb. 12, in East London. He had also recently learned that one of his dogs, the oldest, Minter, which he had from Hoxton, was sick with cancer. His friends were in daily contact. Mr. Leane told him, "We'll get through this together." And he seemed to.
On Tuesday, Feb. 9, Mr. McQueen went into the office, spending much of the time working on the new collection with Ms. Burton. He had been looking at 15th-century paintings, drawn to a lightness in the Dark Ages, and to see how the complex, digitalized prints of saints and angels would look before they were woven into costly silk jacquards, he had doll-size dresses produced in paper. As Ms. Burton said, he had mastered the technical process of prints just as he had tailoring and pattern cutting.
Mr. McQueen also spoke briefly with Ms. Verkade about plans for his mother's funeral. She had booked a table for that evening at J Sheekey, a restaurant in Covent Garden. "Make it late," he said.
They planned to go together -- Mr. Leane, Ms. Burton, Ms. Verkade and Ms. Neilson, who spent the evening of Feb. 9 with Mr. McQueen in his flat, leaving at 3 a.m. She was probably the last to see him alive.
Now, though, as the taxi carrying Mr. Leane and the two women came to a stop at Green Street and they got out, he knew in a sick wave of fear that what had been unthinkable only an hour before had arrived. "As we walked toward the house there's a part of you that doesn't want to walk any further," he said. "The ambulance and the police were there. It just shocked us. Then the family came. It was one of the saddest days of my life."
LAST summer, I saw Alexander McQueen in London for a profile I was writing. We met at his office, his apartment, over haddock and dressed crab at Scott's in Mayfair. The city was tranquilized under a vicious heat wave. Over the years I had seen him often and -- thinner, fatter, funnier -- he was always the same, always passionate and ready to be the one to move the fashion marker.
And it was as Sam Gainsbury told me later -- she produced Mr. McQueen's shows, all those shows that involved imaginative sets and the skills of choreographers and lighting designers, for he always preferred to work with people outside fashion -- when she said: "You have to remember, lots of times Lee was really happy. I don't think I've ever laughed so much with a human being."
Daphne Guinness, whose understanding of fashion history collides with Ms. Blow's like a bloodline, recalled the scene in his Paris hotel room in October, when friends gathered after his remarkable show: "I had never seen him happier or so full of ideas. It was a really kind of sedate, wonderful evening."
Like everyone, she is puzzled by his suicide. "I really thought he had turned a lot of corners," she said, adding, "Maybe it was suddenly like he had turned so many corners that the blackness came back tenfold."
That may be the answer. Mr. McQueen was someone who only did what he wanted to do. And though he told me in July that Ms. Blow's death served as a caution to him -- "to know how quickly you could lose yourself" -- he obviously wasn't equipped to heed his own warning. Friends said he refused or shrugged off several attempts to get him to seek psychiatric help. ("God, I don't think a therapist could handle me," he said when I raised the topic.)
Mr. Leane said, "Lee always believed he could do anything on his own." He recalled being thrilled when Mr. McQueen decided to quit smoking and go to a clinic. "He called me literally once he got outside and I said, 'How did it go?' And he went, 'Well, I'm having a cigarette.' I said, 'Lee, but you've got to give it a chance.' And he said: 'Oh, it's a load of rubbish. Come on, are we going to have a drink?' And off we'd be, back to square one again."
In one sense, Mr. McQueen's suicide wasn't a surprise. Statistically, according to mental health studies, he fitted the characteristics of those most likely to kill themselves -- single, middle-aged men who are under severe stress, which bereavement would certainly cause. Suicide is also a means of escape.
Mr. Leane believes that Mr. McQueen couldn't deal with the pain of losing his mother. "She understood him," he said. And that wasn't an easy matter for his father. "With East End families, there's always an issue with tradition," Mr. Leane explained. "Lee's dad was a cabbie, his brothers were a builder and a cabbie, and Lee wanted to make dresses. It wasn't on their radar. I think there was a clash with his father in the beginning, because he didn't understand. He said, 'Now, what you want to do if you want to sell clothes is get a stall in the market.' Lee told me that. And when Lee got the Givenchy job, he said to his dad, 'Now, that's the way to sell clothes.' Lee loved his dad and his brothers. They just didn't understand what he was getting into."
Mr. Leane also thinks that Ms. Blow's death and the prospect of losing a beloved dog were also contributing factors. "When he lost Issie, it was one of the elements, really," he said. Based on interviews with his closest friends, this seems the most plausible explanation for his suicide. "It's not great having all those important women disappear," Mr. Treacy said. "And his mum was very important. He was the youngest."
Friends said he didn't regard his recent dating partners (mostly online dates) as serious. In contrast to past boyfriends, Ms. Verkade said, "These guys never came into the office, we were never introduced to them." And it seems very unlikely that he thought his restless, creative spirit had come to a dead-end.
Remembering the last three years of shows, which coincided with Ms. Blow's death as well as the move to Mayfair, Ms. Burton said: "It was a moment, I feel, when Lee was released. Since the Issie show he cut every single pattern himself and I think in a way it made him modern. He believed in authenticity. And I think he felt if he didn't cut those patterns himself then he wouldn't know how these new fabrics he had would drape and fall."
Their suicides do feel linked, if only because they were both amazing catalysts always getting at the beauty that other people didn't see. Mr. Leane, who made metal corsets and sculptural pieces for Mr. McQueen's shows, though he was a fine jeweler, remembers the first time McQueen asked him to do a large piece. It was a corset in the form of a human skeleton. Mr. Leane told him he didn't know how to make something on that scale.
"And he said: 'Well, Shaun, if you can make it small, you can make it big. It's just as simple as that.' "
"He challenged me, you see," Mr. Leane said. "Working with Lee was like getting on a fast train. You just enjoyed the buzz and excitement. And you knew you were doing something different."
Today there are fewer people who want something different.
Many people inferred from Mr. McQueen's silence after Ms. Blow's death a rift, and shortly they accused him of betrayal. But maybe they just didn't have enough information. On the day before Ms. Blow's funeral in Gloucester in May 2007, Mr. McQueen phoned Mr. Treacy, who was with her sisters, to ask if he would cut a bit of her hair for him. Of course, Mr. Treacy told him, but then he thought Mr. McQueen should be there as well. So he went.
The lock of hair was put in an envelope, which Mr. McQueen later asked Mr. Leane to keep in his safe. A ring was made with a plait of hair wound and sealed under a piece of glass, which Mr. Leane gave to Mr. McQueen.
On Feb. 25, at a small funeral service at St. Paul's Church in London, Mr. Leane put the rest of the hair, along with a letter, into his friend's coffin.
"See, everyone wants to blame other things," he said of Mr. McQueen's death. "They want it to be so rock 'n' roll and to say it was because of this or that. But he was such a sensitive boy."
First Published April 3, 2010 2:01 am