At the end of February 1997, fashionistas and Britpop celebs jostled for places in the front row at the final show of London Fashion Week, held in one of London’s most unlikely catwalks.
The scene was dark and dingy, with the thunderous sound of trains rattling overhead, and the smell in the air was more rotting veg than Chanel no.5. The venue was Borough Market, and the theme “it’s a jungle out there”.
It was time for Lee Alexander McQueen, the “enfant terrible” of the fashion world to come back to London to showcase his own collection, after moving to Paris to design for French label Givenchy where his debut collection for the brand had fallen flat.
Back on home turf he wanted to take his work back to what had brought him notoriety, and kickstarted his career – a fearless spectacle. He summed up his own style thus: “I don’t want to do a cocktail party. I’d rather people left my shows and vomited.”
Whereas in Paris he had focused on more restrained style, feeling at once feted and rejected by the fashion world, the designer gave the crowd true McQueen.
It started two hours late and the audience was like a who’s who of Cool Britannia with Patsy Kensit making a brief appearance and Liam Gallagher sat on the front row.
The models were styled as predators; big hair, claws, and ultra- aggression. The inspiration came from a nature documentary. “I watched those gazelles getting munched by lions and hyenas and said, ‘That’s me!’” he said.
The market was transformed into a dystopian urban jungle with corrugated iron and clapped cars. Some of the clothes almost didn’t make it, being held up at customs 48 hours before the show. Naomi Campbell was due to walk down but was allegedly “fired on the spot” after arriving late.
Many fashion editors were horrified at finding themselves on the wrong side of the river. Some, who had flown half way round the world, were left standing at the back or tasked with fighting their way to the front as students pushed their way through and bagged the best seats.
As the first model hit the catwalk the power tripped. Half way through, dozens of young gatecrashers stormed through security and started downing shots and chucking booze everywhere.
In the ensuing scuffle, a heater fell over and set fire to one of the vans – which had not been emptied of petrol. McQueen refused to halt proceedings and the models kept on coming. Fortunately the fire was put out without injury and the show went on, hailed as a return to form.
It made headlines around the world. The New York Times review its readers: “[McQueen isn’t just part of the London scene; he is the scene.
“His show, ”It’s a Jungle Out There,” was a visit to ”The Island of Dr. Moreau,” with models made into wild beasts.
“Under the dank London Bridge, with grease pots and a wrecked car’s headlights casting a spooky glow on the chain-link-fence surroundings, they stalked into the audience in clothes of goat and cow skin, branded with floral patterns or cut into flowered laces, and zebra-print jackets tailored like couture.”
The Times described it as a “vision of urban chaos… both on and off the catwalk”
Lee Alexander McQueen was born on March 17, 1969 in Lewisham to a taxi driver father and teacher mother who later moved to Stratford with their young son. He described himself as the “pink sheep” of his family who loved to draw from a young age.
In a 2015 documentary about his life, McQueen’s sister describes how a family background in the “rag trade” helped propel her young brother – who had just one O Level in art – into an apprenticeship in Saville Row at fifteen.
After turning up at the door of a tutor at the prestigious Central St Martin’s School, she was so blown away she offered him a place on an MA course and, after scrabbling to get the cash together to pay the fees with help from family members, McQueen soon became her star pupil.
McQueen’s rise was quick. Stylist Isabella Blow saw his debut fashion school collection and bought the entire thing, opening doors into the haute couture world. His mix of impeccable tailoring and no-holds-barred approach soon made headlines with a series of controversial fashion moments.
Most shocking, was the 1995 collection, Highland Rape drawing inspiration from failed Jacobite rebellions and highland clearances through his own ancestral connection to the Western Isles. The models dragged themselves down the catwalk with breasts exposed and covered in blood and bruises.
McQueen said he was depicting a genocide but his critics accused him of sensationalising rape. The debate raged on and fuelled his persona as the ‘yob of fashion’ while cementing his status as the industry’s biggest new talent.
In 2015’s documentary his sister discussed for the first time how, four years before his death, her brother told her that as a child he had been abused by her husband, a violent man who had beaten her so badly she had miscarried two babies.
She believes those experiences not only influenced his work’s more disturbing themes, but made him want to create clothes that were like armour for women – clothes to make them feel strong, and that fashion should be “a form of escapism, not imprisonment”.
“I want to empower women. I want people to be afraid of the women I dress,” he said in 1992.
Other shows gave us the “bumsters”, starting a trend for ultra-low-cut trousers; a giant hologram of Kate Moss, surrounded by rippling fabric (in The Widows of Culloden); and two robots spraying a ball gown with black paint.
As McQueen’s career continued its ascent, his mental state became more fragile, as he struggled to cope with the pressure of fame and the legacy of childhood trauma. After his mother’s death, he committed suicide on February 11, 2010, the day before her funeral. He was just 40.
A retrospective of his work at the V&A museum in 2015, Savage Beauty, drew in more than 400,000 visitors, making it the museum’s most popular show of all time.