Earlier this month, Scribner released Andrew Wilson’s Alexander McQueen: Blood Beneath the Skin, the first McQueen biography published after the British designer’s death in 2010. Wilson’s book arrives on American shores a little less than six months after its release in the UK, just ahead of the Victoria & Albert’s Savage Beauty retrospective, giving stateside readers access to an impressively thorough and well-sourced account of McQueen’s prolific, troubled genius. Here are a few takeaways from Alexander McQueen, available via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other major retailers.
1. Fascination with Scottish history ran in McQueen’s family.
McQueen, a self-described “East End yob,” was born and raised in working-class London. Throughout his career, however, his work showed a preoccupation with his Scottish ancestry, which was on display in collections like Highland Rape (1995) and The Widows of Culloden (2006), the latter of which made use of the McQueen tartan. McQueen inherited this interest from his mother Joyce, an amateur historian who assembled an unpublished, meticulously researched manuscript of McQueen family history she shared with her son, who incorporated details of it into his collections.
2. McQueen was a survivor of childhood trauma.
Suffused with macabre, disturbing, and even violent imagery, McQueen’s work frequently drew accusations of misogyny from critics. The designer himself argued strenuously that the effect was empowering and intimidating rather than degrading, a stance Wilson both agrees with and backs with the revelation of McQueen’s inspiration for Nihilism, his first collection: the physical abuse of his older sister, Janet, by her ex-husband Terence Hulyer, who also sexually abused McQueen as a child. McQueen only confided his experiences to close friends, but Wilson argues that his solidarity with Janet, and subsequent affinity for female vulnerability, deeply informed his creative perspective.
3. His name was coined by Isabella Blow.
As she did in life, Blow looms large in Blood Beneath the Skin. As patron, muse, and a longtime friend to the designer, the magazine editor and fashion personality was one of McQueen’s closest confidantes, from when she first discovered his work at his Central Saint Martins’ thesis show to her death by suicide in 2007. Her most obvious impact on McQueen’s work, however, involves his name: born Lee Alexander McQueen, the designer went by his first name to friends and family throughout his life, but it was Blow who started addressing him by his middle name, which she found more upscale. (McQueen maintained the final decision to go by “Alexander” professionally was his, though).
4. He had very little formal education.
Although McQueen famously got his start in the masters program at London’s renowned Central Saint Martins, he was admitted under special circumstances: without a BA. McQueen left school at 16, with a single O-level in art, then worked as an apprentice at Anderson & Sheppard on Savile Row (rumors of sewing obscenities into Prince Charles’ jacket turn out to be greatly exaggerated), interned with avant-garde designer Koji Tatsuno, and worked as a fabric cutter for John McKitterick in London, then Romeo Gigli in Milan. Cumulatively, these jobs gave McQueen enough knowledge and experience to earn a place at Saint Martins; MA course director Bobby Hillson says she told another dean, “I’ve taken somebody; he’s got none of the right qualifications, he’ll probably leave in the middle, but I’m taking him.”
5. The designer had business acumen as well as creative genius.
McQueen’s artistic merit is undeniable; before the Met, and now the V&A, staged Savage Beauty, his work had been displayed in multiple museums (not to mention universally recognized within the fashion world). But Wilson also notes that Alexander McQueen, as a brand, was an enormous financial success. The designer worked with multiple conglomerates — first LVMH, as head of Givenchy from 1996 to 2001, then the Gucci Group, who were investors in his namesake label. McQueen demonstrated a capability for creating clothes that were commercially viable, like his 2001 collection The Dance of the Twisted Bull, in addition to his most inventive and theatrical work. Blood Beneath the Skin thus testifies to McQueen’s versatility as well as his raw talent.
6. He had a complicated relationship with his own sexuality…
McQueen’s tumultuous love life is a constant presence in Wilson’s account; he spoke to seven former boyfriends for Blood Beneath the Skin, many of whom report frequent arguments, controlling behavior, and even physical confrontations in addition to genuine affection. The designer’s friend Billyboy* ties the instability, and McQueen’s personal demons in general, to his childhood abuse: “He was not well adjusted, he was angry, and he never had a relationship that lasted any length of time… He was masochistic and insecure and unhappy and had very low self-esteem, which is strange because he had a great talent and people told him that all the time.”
7. … and with the fashion industry as a whole.
Towards the end of his career, McQueen frequently brought up the possibility of leaving fashion for film, photography, design, or education. His grievances were personal (McQueen was both lower-class and significantly heavier than much of the fashion crowd, resorting to liposuction and gastric bypass surgery in order to lose weight) as well as institutional, leading to critiques in the form of collections like 2009’s Horn of Plenty, which used discarded props and a diverse set of references to target fashion’s exhausting, cyclical nature.