There has been an extraordinary outpouring of grief over the death of Alexander McQueen at age 40. That is a testament to just how groundbreaking and powerful the British designer's vision was.
Fashion Tour >
McQueen's work always provoked emotional reactions—extreme ones. One season, his audience shed tears of frustration over his inhospitable choice of venue; the next, tears of joy over the haunting beauty of both the clothes and the staging. Even as he entered his forties, the designer was hardly ever written about without the phrase "enfant terrible" following his name. And yet, despite the perennial bad-boy tag, he'd won all the big awards given out in London and was even honored by Queen Elizabeth as a Commander of the British Empire in 2003.
Theatricality was the name of McQueen's game—from romantic, corseted silhouettes to gobsmacking gowns created from feathers or, say, fresh flowers—but his grand gestures were backed up by incredible attention to detail and tailoring. He was born in 1969 in the East End, the son of a London cabbie. At 16, he began work as an apprentice cutter on Savile Row, where, according to a story too delicious not to be believed, he graffitied obscenities into the linings of suits intended for the Prince of Wales. After a brief sojourn in Milan cutting patterns for Romeo Gigli, McQueen enrolled at Central Saint Martins. In 1994, his graduate collection caught the eye of the late fashion stylist Isabella Blow, who purchased it for $7,750 and became his champion. The following year, McQueen cemented his rising-star status with the hackle-raising Highland Rape collection, which featured tattered dresses, bloodstained models, and his notoriously low-cut "bumster" pants. In 1996, Givenchy came calling, installing McQueen as chief designer. But his reign there was a tumultuous one: It ended in 2001, a few months after the Gucci Group bought a 51 percent stake in his own label. McQueen subsequently expanded into menswear, accessories, fragrance, and eyewear, and he launched a second line, McQ, in 2006. His Spring 2008 show was a tribute to his mentor, Issy Blow, who died in May 2007. It's hard to comprehend that he would follow her so soon.