“In a working class family in London you have to bring the money in and artistic routes were never the means to that end. But I put my foot down. I thought: ‘I’m not gonna do that. I’m not gonna get married, live in a two-up, two-down and be a bloody black cab driver”. Lee McQueen.
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There was pressure on Judith Watt’s shoulders when she decided to go for it and write Alexander McQueen Fashion Visionary. But backed by Bobby Hillson, who was Lee’s mentor, Judith dived into the troubled and brilliant life of Lee Alexander McQueen, speaking to his close friends and uncovering his never before seen drawings to present her view, as a fashion historian, of a designer whom she greatly admired from the start of his career. The success of the book, which could have gone many ways, is in Judith’s scrupulous research and clear, chronological mapping of his life in design. She shows a side of Lee that probably doesn’t exist in the consciousness of those who didn’t know him personally or work with him closely. Well who knew he sat padding collars for two and half months and spent two years learning how to cut a jacket? From the facts and details that demonstrate his skill and patience as a designer, to incredibly moving personal accounts and anecdotes from friends including Daphne Guinness, who wrote the foreword of the book, Alexander McQueen Fashion Visionary moves gracefully from the beginning to the end of Lee’s life. It celebrates Lee the radical thinker, provides history with a heart, and allows the stunning imagery room to fan out its feathers in full bleed spreads.
i-D online called up Judith, who teaches the history of fashion course at Central Saint Martins, is Course Director for MA Fashion Journalism at Kingston, and has just written a brilliant feature in the new issue of Vogue about the origins of Pop culture, to talk about Lee Alexander McQueen, the man, the magician and the visionary.
When did you first meet Lee? I first met him in South Africa in 1996. He’d gone over there to be a judge for The Smirnoff International Fashion Awards. Lee was brilliant, because the girl who won the award was from Iceland, and she’d made this dress from deerskin; it was very rough and ready and textural, and was lit on the inside by light bulbs. It was very Björk. But the journalists who were there started tittering that anything so rough and ready could win a fashion award. And Lee absolutely lost his rag. He was in this sharkskin suit that he’d made for himself with a shark lapel, and he said “I don’t know why you lot are laughing, it’s not funny, what do you find funny about it? This is fashion, this is design, and you’re laughing at a student who’s starting her career and she’s just won this amazing prize and she should be really proud of herself. You may not have it here in South Africa, but this is fashion.” That’s when I first met him.
What was your first McQueen show? It was ‘Joan’ in 1998. The tension in the air was tangible. It was at the old bus depot in Victoria. People were just …wanting it to be good. It was London, wanting its own to be good. The show was theatrical, it ended with a ring of fire and had a lot of connotations with witch craft. So that was the first. One of my favourite shows from doing all the work for the book was Irere in 2003 with the film by John Maybury that started with the girl drowning. What I loved about doing the book was linking up and trying to explain Lee as somebody who was connected with those kind of people, who were absolutely radical people. John and Lee understood each other. Most of the collections were wonderful, but that I particularly loved.
I really enjoyed reading about the details of his tailoring history… Thank you, think about it, he spent two and a half months learning how to paddle a collar and that – for somebody to have the focus to do that – is so admirable. It’s the lack of fear about a garment that he had. I know loads of designers who cannot cut patterns. They do a drawing and hand it over to a cutter. He could do every single stage, and it’s so telling in his work.
You’ve called the book Alexander McQueen Fashion Visionary, why did you choose that phrase in particular? I could easily have used the word imagination. He had a vivid imagination and I genuinely believe that he followed his imagination and his ideas and his flashes of brilliance. I suppose that’s what I mean. Lots of people aren’t visionaries, they’re not thinking of the future and the possibilities. I believe he thought about possibilities all the time. Technological genius. He always said “don’t call me an artist, I’m a very good technician”. But by having that unlimited imagination and the ability to draw it and cut it, meant he could actually achieve anything.
I love Daphne Guinness’s words at the start of the book, where she says: “I always felt that when Lee looked at you, he saw the vulnerabilities in an instant and nodded to them, drinking in a sense of who you were.” He did! That’s what I felt when I met him. He was a Pisces. Pisces are meant to be intuitive. He would look straight through you.
Why did you choose her to write the foreword? Daphne was so incredibly loyal to him, and she’s a good writer. She believes it, she believed him. […] Plus, she was a very good friend of Issy’s. Issy was a very good hearted person, and incredibly generous. She loved Lee, she really loved him. I heard somebody say of Lee’s degree show “Oh he wasn’t exceptional”, which made me so angry, because he was exceptional, we all know that. And when Issy sat there and saw that collection, and everyone else was thinking “oh yuk, it’s got imitation blood, oh how horrible, and oh my god it’s tailoring what is he doing”, because nobody was doing tailoring then, Vogue had said it was out! And Lee was doing it, and Issy had the balls to see that he was good and she put her money where her mouth was and she backed him. And Daphne really loved Issy, so it felt good.
There’s a lot of pressure around a McQueen book now, why did you decide to take it on? Well if you get to the end of the book you’ll see I’ve dedicated the book to Bobby Hillson, who was Lee’s mentor. She’s the person who bent rules to get him in. She saw how good he was. She loved him and vice versa. Bobby is also a great mentor to me, and a great friend and she just said “Judith, you’ve got to do it”.
In the preface you say: “There have been three designers whose work changed the way women looked and whose influence has continued: Coco Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and Lee Alexander McQueen.” What do those three have in common? Absolute steely determination. For Lee and Yves especially, they had to do it… There was a drive in them to do it. Both of them were psychologically very up and down, depressed, ecstatic, depressed ecstatic, suffering these terrible creative ups and downs, but they had to do it. The reason I put those three together is because I think they’ll have a lasting impact. Lee reinforced the ideas that 1. a woman can be absolutely empowered through tailoring, and that 2. a designer should be allowed their own vision and should stand out from the crowd. And I think that’s a legacy.