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Last night Alexander ‘Lee’ McQueen was the focus of BBC iPlayer’s A Life in Ten Pictures. The series, which has also featured Muhammad Ali, Tupa Shakur and Amy Winehouse, threw the lens on the late fashion designer, whose signature designs included bumster trousers, skull scarves and armadillo shoes. His incredible life and legacy, focussing on ten private photographs, was revealed by those closest to him. 

Alexander McQueen SS10 show in Paris© Getty
Alexander McQueen SS10 show in Paris

Starting from the beginning, Peter Bowes, a childhood friend of Lee, who was born in Lewisham, in 1969 and raised in the East End of London, revealed a group school photograph when they were approximately 13 years old. 

He says that from an early age Lee was very creative, always sketching and drawing. “He showed signs of being different. He on occasion would wear frilly socks. And certainly at school I know that certain characters would be unpleasant to him, and they used to call him 'query McQueen', which he said really hurt him. He would express darker sides of himself through drawings, like something inside of him was trying to get out.”

Although Lee was initially encouraged to take up a mechanical trade, at the age of 16 he saw an advertisement for an apprenticeship at traditional Saville Row tailors Gieves & Hawkes, and applied for the role. “Sitting in a small workshop, padding lapels...God it was so boring,” Lee says in archive footage.

McQueen in 1996© Getty
McQueen in 1996

The second image was revealed by Simon Ungless, a fellow student at Central Saint Martins, who Lee met on his first day at the design college. The photograph was taken in Milan in 1990, when he briefly worked for Italian fashion house Romeo Gigli. “It looks like they’re building the collection, designing," Ungless says. "His sketches were unlike anybody else’s work. He dipped a claw into ink and scratched it. Girls had no hair, beady little eyes, pointed noses, pointed ears. Completely different from anyone else’s work."

The same year Lee won a place at Central Saint Martins. “It was the place to go, but what I liked about it was the freedom of expression and being surrounded by like-minded people,” Lee says in an archive interview. “A single-breasted jacket is a single-breasted jacket, it doesn’t move on. A double-breasted, is a double breasted. A jacket’s a jacket. But I wanted to pull the lapels behind the back of the neck, up the arse and everywhere else.”

It was Lee’s graduate show, ‘Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims’, that caught the eye of Fashion Editor Isabella Blow. "The pieces moved past me in a way I’d never seen. They were modern, they were classical. The colours were very extreme. There was a black coat and then he would line it with human hair. I just thought, ‘this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen’,” says Isabella, who purchased the entire collection and would go on to mentor the designer throughout his career. 

McQueen and Isabella Blow in 2003© Getty
McQueen and Isabella Blow in 2003

The third image was taken by photographer Gary Wallis, who was called upon to make a film to promote Alexander McQueen at an event in New York. It was shot at Hilles House, Isabella’s sprawling Gloucestershire estate. She was wearing pieces from his collection and he his uniform at the time: baggy jeans, a lumberjack shirt and an army jacket. 

“I don’t know whether he’s laughing at her or going to throttle her,” Wallis says, “It [their relationship] was a form of a love-affair. Not romantically, but she adored him - she adored his energy and obviously passionately adored his work.”

McQueen and Isabella Blow at a party in 2004 © Getty
McQueen and Isabella Blow at a party in 2004

This was around the time Alexander McQueen was established, Isabella had encouraged him to drop the ‘Lee’ as she believed that Alexander sounded more British - and she saw him as Alexander the Great. 

Next up was ex-boyfriend Andrew Groves, showing a picture of the couple together with matching buzz cuts at a club in Soho, in 1994. “Whenever we went out we were in trouble in a good way. We didn’t have any money, but we had clippers, so we shaved our hair.”

He recalls when the couple were living in what he described as "a squat", Lee peeled a shirt from a pile of clothes on the floor, and said, ‘I’ve got to go out, I’ll be back in a couple of hours, I’ve got to go to the palace to see Princess Diana'. "His work was drawing him into that world. At first it was amusing, but as it drew on it became far more challenging for him.”

In 1996, photographer Anne Ray had been hired by The House of Givenchy to follow him during the duration of his first collection for the French fashion house, when he succeeded John Galliano in becoming Head Designer at Givenchy, at the age of 27.

Givenchy collection by McQueen© Getty
Givenchy collection by McQueen

“I took this photograph at the studio in the Givenchy building. A new British designer is arriving at Givenchy. From what we heard in Paris, he was supposed to be the new genius, or the new designer to watch. People were very curious in Paris about him,” she says. 

“What is particularly funny to me about this picture, is to see Lee with his chubby face, Adidas top and sneakers in this very chic room. It was really a shock of cultures. Givenchy is a very traditional French couture house, Lee is very young arriving with his friends. They wouldn’t speak French, I couldn’t understand his cockney accent. Immediately I thought it wasn’t going to work. But, I loved him very quickly.”

Helena Christensen, Daphne Guinness and Naomi Campbell backstage at a McQueen show© Getty
Helena Christensen, Daphne Guinness and Naomi Campbell backstage at a McQueen show

Ex-boyfriend Murray Arthur revealed a photograph of the couple with Helena Christensen backstage at a show in Japan, in 1997. “He was invited to go to every party, but wanted to go home, have a takeaway and watch Coronation Street," he says. "His workload was so huge, he had a temper, a lot of anxiety, stress that was obvious and physical. Being involved in a relationship like that we had a lot of difficulties. And so we split up in March, 1998.”

McQueen with Kate Moss in 1998© Getty
McQueen with Kate Moss in 1998

Lee left Givenchy in 2000, allowing himself to work full-time at McQueen. “My survival there was to make my own work stand out and to pay people’s wages that worked for me. My heart was more in McQueen than it was in Givenchy.”

Shaun Leane created jewellery for Alexander McQueen fashion shows for 18 years. “This picture conjures up so many emotions. It portrays our beautiful, very unusual friendship,” he says of the backstage shot featuring the pair at the AW04 'Pantheon as Lecum' fashion show. 

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“I love this picture because it has so much in it, it has us as friends, it has his mum in it, this lady in the front is his mum. We were actually looking at a piece that I’d made for the show, and Lee would always shout, 'mum come and have a look at what Shaun’s made'. His mum was at every show. And I saw a side of Lee that was so sweet, he turned into a little boy that wanted his mum to be proud.”

Lee’s nephew Gary McQueen reveals a picture taken by his own mother, Lee’s sister, following the death of Isabella Blow in 2007. “This photo was taken just after Isabella Blow died. It's a very genuine, stripped-back version of Lee. 

McQueen arrives at Isabella Blow's funeral in 2007© Getty
McQueen arrives at Isabella Blow's funeral in 2007

“Lee was going through a down period at the time. And my mum and my nan went to see him in the studio. My nan suggested he go to the Isle of Skye to reconnect with nature. Just generally ground himself.

“Everything had become about making money, but this was the total polar opposite of that world he was living in. This is stripped back to basics, so rugged and raw. He never looked easy in photos anyway, and I’m surprised he had these photos taken by my mum. But it was just them two alone. He felt protected around her. Someone that had unconditional love for him and she did. 

Gary McQueen© Getty
Gary McQueen

“He realised he needed to reconnect. During that visit he said to my mum, this is where I want to be buried. But Lee was like that, he was very blunt. But he meant it at that time and my mum knew it.”

Claire Wilcox, Senior Curator of fashion V&A Museum, explains how she started attending McQueen fashion shows in the late 1990s. "I was completely overwhelmed by it and I knew as a museum we had to represent and reflect what he was doing. And we followed his career ever after. 

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" exhibition at the V&A© Getty
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" exhibition at the V&A

"Here was McQueen taking his bow after the ‘Horn of Plenty’ in 2009. And you can see McQueen here, looking pleased…but tired. Really tired. I just see someone who invested everything. This must have had a huge pressure on McQueen to produce commercially viable shows. He kept going. 

McQueen taking a bow after the 'Horn of Plenty' fashion show© Getty
McQueen taking a bow after the 'Horn of Plenty' fashion show

“This particular collection was a striking satire in the fashion industry. It's about waste, things that are discarded and thrown away.” Lee says when interviewed after the show. “By challenging fashion you always need to be thinking that you have to challenge people’s idea of what is acceptable and what is not.”

The final image was taken in 2008, by his nephew Gary. “The only evidence that exists between myself and Lee - the relationship between uncle and nephew. I never asked Lee to have a photo with him. I think he thought everyone wanted something from him, which is why I never asked for a photo. But I took this one from him.”

McQueen taking a bow after a fashion show© Getty
McQueen taking a bow after a fashion show

In 2022 Gary created a three-dimensional version of the shot. “He does look tired,” he says as the 3D image of his head rotated. “But probably mentally tired, more than anything. He was always fighting demons, which made him the person he was and great at what he did. But it is those traits that ultimately destroyed him as well.”

Alexander 'Lee' McQueen: 1969 - 2010