The first time I met Alexander McQueen, who committed suicide Thursday in London at the age of 40, he was sitting at his desk at Givenchy, days before his debut show for the legendary French couture house. He was 27 years old, having made a name for himself in a few short years after his graduation from Central Saint Martins in London by staging outlandish shows filled with really smart clothes. I was about to interview him for a cover story for NEWSWEEK, and minutes before the shoot, he decided to jazz things up a bit and shaved himself a mohawk. There were bits of hair all over the white Formica desk where the ever-elegant Hubert de Givenchy himself used to work.
"Nice, eh?" McQueen said with a laugh, rolling his spooky ice-blue eyes. "I love to do things spontaneously." He spoke frighteningly fast, readily admitting he knew next to nothing about the house that had dressed Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, and Jackie Kennedy. For him, Givenchy was "quite twee—that's what we say in England for something you don't really notice, that remains in the background," he told me. "I knew Givenchy existed, but it wasn't any great shakes in relation to the 1990s." He looked around the studio. "It's going to be a tornado here now—me, my mohawk, and I."
Indeed it was, not only for Givenchy but for all of fashion. McQueen was couture's punk rocker: a Cockney son of a London cabbie, with enough rage to make Johnny Rotten seem sweet. He made his reputation early on with a fashion show called "Highland Rape," with models splattered with blood, staggering down the catwalk in shredded lace dresses. McQueen was loud, rude, and crude, and lashed out at anyone he thought crossed or insulted him. During negotiations for the Givenchy job, he told the company's owner, Bernard Arnault, "I don't f--king need you!" and stormed out. (He took the job anyway.) During our interview, he compared the fashion press to the Nazis. "My clothes are out there on a limb, and I get slagged for it," he said. "It's like Hitler and the Holocaust. He destroyed millions of people because he didn't understand. That's what a lot of people have done to me because they can't understand what I do."
What McQueen did was change the rules of fashion. He staged shows that were true shows. I remember one where he rented an old dance hall in Paris and re-created the grueling dance marathon of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? with the models flailing about like exhausted contestants, dressed in glorious modern versions of the film's 1930s styles. There was another where the models actually walked on water.
As for his designs, McQueen had a cut to his clothes—the sharp tailored suits, his complicated dresses, and his divinely languid gowns—that was strong and true. It was as though he worked with a switchblade instead of scissors, slicing through the fabric in harsh single strokes, each one landing exactly where it should. There was no hesitancy in anything McQueen did. He may have been tortured—and he was, layers and layers of emotional pain, which he remedied for years with drugs—but he knew exactly what he wanted to achieve creatively, and did so boldly. At the same time, there was a sort of lyrical romanticism in his work, as if buried under all that the rage there was a poet.
McQueen's soft spot was his mother. He would bring her to his shows, and when you saw her there, this lovely old English lady from London's East End sitting in the front row among movie stars and rock stars and eccentric magazine editors, you felt that she was his bit of sanity in the surreal world of fashion—his anchor. She died last week, and his grief, it seems, was too profound. He left behind his eponymous company, which he sold to Gucci Group in 2001 following his abrupt departure from Givenchy. While his work for his own brand was critically heralded, the company never really took off globally. Gucci Group may replace him or decide simply shutter the house. As for McQueen's legacy, with luck it won't be as brief as his career. While his clothes weren't always easy to wear, he has influenced a generation of young designers. Maybe they'll be able to channel McQueen's rage into something not only commercial but lasting.