02.16.10

Alexander McQueen's Demons

In the wake of the fashion designer's suicide, friends tell Jacob Bernstein about McQueen's hatred for the "utter superficiality" of the glitzy life, the real impact of his mother's death—and a rupture with a mysterious porn star.

A side effect of being famous is that people you barely know become your "friends" merely because they are celebrities, too. Alexander McQueen, the fashion designer who committed suicide last week at the age of 40, understood this—and he deplored it. He didn't like Hollywood, he didn't care about red-carpet dressing, and he never sucked up to the media. A journalist once asked McQueen where his "genius" came from, and he replied that it was a stupid question.

So it was a little strange for all the people who were actually friends with McQueen to wake up on Friday morning and read a slew of obituaries in which nearly every person in Hollywood and fashion had an opinion on what a tragedy his suicide was, and what it meant for fashion.

“I think he was waiting for his mother to die so he could do this,” says photographer David LaChapelle. “I think suicide was a visitor who’d come many times and he was waiting to let them in, because he didn’t want to punish his mom while she was alive.”

Kim Kardishian tweeted: "I'm in shock. So sad! I'm wearing one of his dresses right now! He was such a talented designer." And Tyra Banks: "So so sad. Such a huge loss. He was one of my favorite designers. He will be missed."

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And Karl Lagerfeld, a fashion master to be sure, but one who didn't know McQueen. He said: "I found his work very interesting and never banal. There was always some attraction to death, his designs were sometimes dehumanized. Who knows, perhaps after flirting with death too often, death attracts you."

"Who the fuck was he to say that?" asks photographer David LaChapelle, a close friend of McQueen's. "Alexander had blood running through his veins. He was not Karl Lagerfeld. He was a real human being who hadn't lost himself completely in this world of appearances and complete and utter superficiality and business."

"He hated all of that," seconds Daphne Guinness, another member of McQueen's inner circle."He was not that person. He didn't buy into all the other stuff. He was an artist who did what he did incredibly well and didn't buy into all that other stuff and I think when you have his talent, there's a lot of jealousy."

Numerous theories have been put forth to explain why a designer seemingly at the top of his game would take his own life: Some cite the suicide of his mentor Isabella Blow three years earlier as the beginning of his downward spiral. There was also his mother's death, just days before her son's. "I think he was waiting for his mother to die so he could do this," says LaChapelle. "I think suicide was a visitor who'd come many times and he was waiting to let them in, because he didn't want to punish his mom while she was alive."

Additionally, sources say McQueen's drug use had returned and was out of control again. And McQueen had been involved with a porn star he'd identified in a September 2009 New York Times Magazine piece as "Mr. Stag." Two sources believe that Mr. Stag was in fact Aiden Shaw, a 43-year-old escort who at one point was the gay-porn equivalent of Tom Cruise, and has since written several memoirs about his life in the adult film industry, his HIV-positive diagnosis and his life turning tricks. (The naming of Carrie Bradshaw's boyfriend Aiden Shaw on Sex & The City is said to be inspired by the real Shaw, a wink to the show's gay viewership.)

Coming after McQueen's second marriage, a relationship with Shaw would make some sense. Both men were British, had struggled with drugs but made serious attempts at sobriety, and both thrived on being iconoclasts. But at some point last fall, things between them reportedly cooled. (Shaw declined to comment in detail on the nature of his relationship with McQueen. When reached via email, he said only: "I'm shocked. It's so tragic. He hurt so many people by his action. All I have left is the platinum ring he gave me.")

Shortly before his death, McQueen gave an interview to Australian Harper's Bazaar in which he described a failed relationship with yet another man, a "bastard" who "went back to Australia" and jilted him, after McQueen had his name tattooed on his arm.

From the beginning of his career, McQueen did nothing half-way. Everything was extreme, from the way he loved to the edges of his suits. In his ethereal, cyberpunk couture vision of the world, the joy of design was constantly being pierced by melancholy and rage.

The son of a cabbie, McQueen apprenticed on Savile Row at 16, then went on to Central St. Martin's, which is to art and design what Oxford is to academics. His first collection, the one he used as his thesis, was snapped up by Isabella Blow, the influential stylist and fashion editor who was working for British Vogue.

McQueen didn't have a place to live so Blow moved him to her townhouse. She and her husband, Detmar, lived on the top floor, legendary hat designer Philip Treacy lived downstairs, and McQueen was on the bottom floor.

He soon became friends with an influential group of London up and comers, among them Kate Moss, Daphne Guinness, the influential stylist Katie Grand (with whom he went to college), and the writer Plum Sykes, who was then working as Blow's intern. "He was exactly the same as he was later," says Sykes. Which is to say "extremely sure of his own genius."

"I did find him a little intimidating," Sykes continues. "He had real attitude. In a way, he kind of spoiled fashion for me, because he was my first real designer friend and he was actually a genius and so no one else could quite live up to it."

One of McQueen's first London shows, in October 1993, had models walking around with raccoon eyes giving the finger to people in the audience. The dresses, noted the late New York Times fashion critic Amy Spindler, were "washed and/or printed with paint the color of dried blood." Another, said the Toronto Globe and Mail, had "body coverings of black vinyl, gauzy, empire-waisted, neo-Gothic frocks and military jackets with gold braid trim and hold-folded collars in the Napoleonic mode."

Describing his brand in an early interview, the designer said, "When you see a woman wearing McQueen, there's a certain hardness to the clothes that makes her look powerful. It kind of fends people off. You have to have a lot of balls to talk to a woman wearing my clothes."

You had to have balls to talk to McQueen, as well. During an early interview with Vogue, he told writer Kate Betts that the magazine and its editor in chief, Anna Wintour, could go fuck themselves, that he didn't need them, and didn't care whether they liked what he did or not. "I don't think he was kidding," Betts recalls. "That's who he was."

Still, apart from all the theatrics of the shows, the designer's occasional tendency to speak of himself in the third person, and the Blade Runner-like world view informing his subsequent collections, there was something surprisingly old-fashioned about the source of McQueen's success: impeccable tailoring.

It was a skill McQueen had developed during his Savile Row years and later in a job with Romeo Gigli. Writer Hamish Bowles, another early supporter at Vogue, notes: "He cut incredibly flattering wearable clothes. There was a core of absolutely superb tailoring." Adds Plum Sykes: "I know some people would say, 'How can you say he had such taste when he sent out a woman in a cage with manacles underneath.' But whatever she was wearing in that cage was really chic."

In 1996, at the age of 27, McQueen was hired as the head designer at the legendary house of Givenchy, giving him entree to the couture world. It should have been the rocket ship he was waiting for. Instead, he chafed underneath the corporate umbrella of LVMH, the massive luxury conglomerate that owned the label. And he famously described Hubert de Givenchy as "irrelevant."

Yet for a man who had sent models down the runway flipping fashion editors the bird, it turned out McQueen was surprisingly fragile, and the stress of producing for both Givenchy and his own label was daunting. Still, Bowles says, what McQueen learned there about couture was immeasurable. "I think the women there contributed immensely to his work. It really notched up the level of refinement because he learned all about those extraordinary sleight of hand things a couturier can do."

In 2000, Tom Ford and the Gucci Group agreed to buy a majority stake in Alexander McQueen's own label, and he jumped at the chance. At the time, the partnership was a little strange—this quirky British couturier working underneath the corporate umbrella of fashion's savviest marketer. But Ford (and his CEO Domenico de Sole) turned out to be a good match for McQueen. They understood the importance of having a narrative in fashion—allowing McQueen to be McQueen. And they had the deep pockets to expand the business, which they did with stores around the world, a secondary line, and fragrance deals.

Still, the growing need to be seen with movie stars, and the advent of personal stylists annoyed McQueen to no end. At Vogue's behest, McQueen would show up to the annual Costume Institute Gala with a celebrity in tow, then he'd spend the evening complaining about what a bunch of bollocks the whole thing was, how he didn't understand why he even needed to be there.

Meanwhile, Ford and de Sole saw their own relationship to their corporate holding company fray, leading to their exit in 2004. Not having the pair around wasn't the end of the world, but it did make corporate navigation more treacherous for McQueen.

"If you look at someone like Yves Saint Laurent" David LaChapelle says, "he had Pierre Bergé to protect him. He was a tortured genius, like Alexander. But Alexander didn't have a partner like that, and the demands of these corporations are extraordinary. A filmmaker does a movie then gets a break. They recharge, they rejoice in their success. But in fashion, it's really tough. A designer finishes a collection one day, and starts another the next."

Indeed, the day McQueen killed himself he was supposed to do a show for his secondary line, McQ, in New York. Outside the designer's New York store, admirers left flowers. Daphne Guinness, meanwhile, hit the fashion circuit, walking the runway in McQueen at a fashion benefit show Naomi Campbell organized for Haiti.

"I just love the art of what he did," says Guinness. "It wasn't about making clothes that show how much money you have. It was a rolling art project. You don't have movements anymore. You don't have the punks and the mods, and all those groups. I thought we'd be in spaceships by now, not doing an endless non-stop series of references. You hear these designers talking about their influences, this season it’s the '60s, the next it's the '70s, after that it’s the '80s. I realize there's only so much you can do, but Lee actually managed to transform bodies through clothing. He was the only one who was actually moving things forward."

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Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.