Fashion designer Alexander McQueen tried to kill himself in February 2010 by binging on cocaine, sleeping pills, and painkillers. He also slit his wrists with various kitchen knives, but they proved too dull, so he sharpened them and cut deeper. He then fastened a noose from his bathrobe to his showerhead, but it snapped under his weight.
He finally found the right location in his closet, dying there with his favorite belt around his neck and his clothes at his feet.
McQueen’s tragic suicide is luridly detailed in a dual biography of him and John Galliano, Dana Thomas’ Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano (Penguin Press).
It’s a gruesome and cinematic scene that will surely piss off the fashion world, as will the book’s descriptions of McQueen’s sexual promiscuity, narcissism, ruthless ambition, and callous betrayal of friends.
The fashion world worships McQueen, and may think it blasphemous to sensationalize his life and death in print. But nothing is too sacred for Thomas, who pores over his bad hygiene (the ladies of British Vogue were repulsed by his “Stonehenge” teeth) and reckless drug use (five different dealers; £600 a night on cocaine in the early 2000s).
We learn even more about his sexual proclivities. When a promising talent—Sarah Burton, who is now herself creative director of McQueen’s label—was vying to work for McQueen in the late ’90s, McQueen’s longtime friend and fellow designer, Simon Ungless, warned her that the job might involve “washing up a shitty dildo.”
McQueen aggressively pursued men in clubs, once deploying a pickup line that was “so vulgar Ungless still cannot repeat it.”
McQueen arguably wouldn’t have had a career were it not for Isabella Blow, a troubled but charmingly eccentric society figure and fashion peacock. After seeing McQueen’s graduation collection from Central St. Martins, Blow made him her protégé and rounded up celebrities and big fashion players for his early shows. But McQueen abandoned his mentor the moment he became a star in his own right.
Nothing in this tell-all is shocking or gratuitous. This is the fashion world, after all, a cutthroat industry run by entitled, wealthy people who enjoy a lifestyle of frippery and excess. And Thomas, who was Newsweek’s fashion correspondent in Paris from 1995 to 2011, is all too familiar with the industry’s vapid and superficial trappings.
McQueen grew up in London’s gritty East End and was fiercely anti-establishment. But he was not entirely immune to fashion’s glitzy charms. And he embodied many industry clichés: fickle, impolitic, and egocentric.
During a 1997 interview for Newsweek, when McQueen was luxuriating in stardom as creative director of Givenchy, he said of his critics: “I only get in trouble because I’m honest... 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.”
None of this detracts from his talent as a masterful technician who, as Isabella Blow once put it, could “cut material like a god.” Nor does it detract from his contributions to couture. Indeed, he was one of the first designers to subvert fashion standards—to find beauty, as he once said, “even in the most disgusting places.”
Most of his clothes were not meant to be worn; they were intended as artistic statements, to evoke some dark allegory that had inspired his tortured genius. McQueen was a skilled provocateur. He was also, sadly, a victim of the fashion world. It comes as no surprise that his life was as dark and macabre as much of his work.
Galliano is less a victim of the industry than a byproduct, and it’s clear (because her portrait of him is more encompassing and rounded) that Thomas prefers McQueen over Galliano as a subject.
While McQueen embraced his working-class routes and maintained a close relationship with his mother, Galliano, a plumber’s son who immigrated from Gibraltar to London as a child, disassociated from his family when he achieved success.
He was calculating and manipulative—a consummate diva who was every bit as theatrical as his circus-like fashion shows and over-the-top designs.
Galliano is portrayed as a fashion caricature: He is everything that is fabulous and dreadful about the industry. By the time he was head designer at Dior, he’d become the Marie Antoinette of couture, emerging from behind the curtain after shows in ever more ridiculous costumes (dressed as an astronaut at one show; as Napoleon in another).
He demanded that his personal dressing room at fashion shows be outfitted with chandeliers and fur rugs. It was “a big sign of the over-the-top treatment of John,” says André Leon Talley, a friend of Galliano and a fashion diva himself who was blown away by Galliano’s “divadom... it was just weird and creepy.”
Galliano’s career imploded in 2011, not long after McQueen’s suicide. He was knocked off his pedestal, fired from Dior after a belligerent, anti-Semitic rant in a Paris café, which he claimed was fueled by alcohol.
He embarked on an apology tour, including an interview with Charlie Rose.
“No one was more shocked than myself,” he said after being shown footage of the Paris café incident. “At that point in my career I had become what is known as a blackout drinker. So I have no memory of that event.” (Galliano quietly reemerged in October 2014, when he was hired as the creative director of Maison Martin Margiela.)
One can’t help but be entertained by these outrageous characters, and Thomas delights in recounting the snippy feuds and snubs between fashion power players: a backstage catfight between McQueen and Naomi Campbell; the dinner with Anna Wintour that Galliano didn’t show up to, the breakfast meeting McQueen skipped.
This kind of playful engagement and winking at the reader is rare. Thomas’s is a love-hate relationship with fashion, but the book doesn’t convey enough of either sentiment. Her writing is too often unfeeling. In trying to be objective, she seems detached and even bored, all of which leaves the reader wondering whether she lost interest in the book halfway through writing it. At times she is appropriately cynical, but her cynicism lacks bite.
Gods and Kings ends abruptly with a flat, on-the-nose quote from the successful young designer Alexander Wang, who runs his own company and recently became creative director at Balenciaga.
Unlike his predecessors, he has adjusted to the industry’s constraints. “It was very hard, because I am used to being involved in everything,” he recently told The New York Times. “But while this is my passion and I have devoted myself to it, I am not going to kill myself for it.”
After such a damning narrative of vanity, ego, and tragedy, it’s strange, then, that Thomas’s book ends with a bizarre commentary on the industry that is so saccharine it will make your teeth hurt.
“Wang and his fellow designers accept that fashion now is about consumption, not creation,” she writes. “That there is no poetry. No heart. No angst. It’s just business.” And, as Thomas shows, a darkly absurd one at that.