Fashion + Mental Health 2020

Alexander McQueen: A Tragedy at the Hands of Fashion

“It’s such a pity for a man who, from a modest start, climbed to the top of his profession only to die in such tragedy.” This quote from the Westminster coroner, Dr Paul Knapman, accurately summarises the life and death of the wonderful fashion designer Alexander McQueen. The visionary’s unique approach influenced the fashion industry beyond imagination and his tragic death devastated it. His legacy still resonates ten years on from his passing and will stretch far into the future of fashion. 

He was loved by the most famous of the famous with the likes of Sarah-Jessica Parker, Naomi Campbell and Lady Gaga, to name a few, being photographed proudly wearing his work at high profile events. Gaga and McQueen’s deep connection was made public knowledge and she donned many of his wears such as the standout  ‘Armadillo shoes’ in music videos and on red carpets. Gaga, after McQueen’s suicide, wrote in a letter to V Magazine: “I’m tortured. The loss is deep. Mourning in my own way constantly, why he is gone, he was so talented. I hate the empty space, not only in fashion, but in the creative consciousness that fizzled when he passed.” Gaga’s heartfelt words echoed the thoughts of thousands.

What led to McQueen’s untimely destruction? He was thriving in the fashion industry but behind closed doors he was deeply troubled. The designer’s struggle with his mental health is no secret. His psychiatrist has released information on his anxiety and depressive disorders, disclosing that twice before his death he had also experienced drug overdoses. Additionally, his mother, who he was extremely close to, died shortly before his suicide. The grief may have pushed him over the edge.

Many have questioned, however, would things have gotten so far out of hand if it wasn’t for the pressure the fashion industry put him under? Was there a correlation between McQueen’s deteriorating mental health and his rising fashion stardom?

“I’m just a normal person who happens to be a fashion designer”- Alexander McQueen

McQueen was a modest man from a working-class background.  His rags-to-riches story inspired many to continue to believe that hard work and talent will not go unnoticed. The designer dreamed of creating signature pieces and of reinventing the female fashion scene. He wanted people for years to come to be able to spot his designs before seeing the label. Paradoxically, while McQueen craved professional success, he despised being in the limelight. In particular, he found it hard to trust and build friendships after he rose to fame due to feelings of being taken advantage of. This triggered feelings of acute loneliness.

His ambitious creative visions placed himself and those he worked with under a great deal of stress. Before his opening shows it is described that there was a constant feeling of intensity backstage due to the complexity and standard of expectations. Chloe Fox in Vogue on Alexander McQueen writes that Simon Costin, McQueen’s great friend who directed the shows, reached a point where he could not handle the stress placed on him any longer. After the last show that Costin collaborated with McQueen, Costin wrote a letter in which he exclaimed that he could not go on any longer and that McQueen’s temper was too foul and that the process was no longer fun for anyone involved. The pressure to create brilliant and memorable performances and designs caused McQueen to ruin relationships and to isolate.

His trauma was represented in his work

Chloe Fox in Vogue on Alexander McQueen informs that McQueen’s collections often famously touched on his heritage and places he visited in his childhood. ‘Highland Rape’ (1995), for example, was inspired by his visits to Scotland. However, many of his other shows and collections have darker undertones. ‘The Girl Who Lived in the Tree’ (2008), for example, presents a dark fairy tale of Gothic horror. His restless mind can be seen time and time again in his creations. His desperate attempt to see light in darkness shines through his spectacular works.

The light in the darkness within his death could perhaps be Sarah Burton’s promise to continue McQueen’s legacy. She completed the final collection McQueen was working on until his death, ‘Untitled’ or otherwise knows as ‘Angels and Demons’ (2010). Additionally, Vogue has reported that since his death 10 years ago, some fashion houses such as LVMH, have vowed to take measures to protect the mental health of young designers and creatives.

As the fashion industry continues to evolve and grow in the age of a digital world we do have to wonder in deep sadness at what greatness McQueen could have created today.

“It is important to look at death because it’s part of life. It’s a sad thing, melancholic, but romantic at the same time. It is the end of a cycle – everything has to end. The cycle of life is positive because it makes room for new things.”

Lee Alexander McQueen (1969-2010).

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