How Alexander McQueen's Skye ancestry shaped his fashion legacy

Famous - if that's the right word; the name of the village would barely register on most people's radar - for its dramatic rock formations off the coast, visitors stand in awe of the Old Man of Storr and Kilt Rock, vast columns of basalt rising from a sea that look like the pleats of a kilt.

Famous - if that's the right word; the name of the village would barely register on most people's radar - for its dramatic rock formations off the coast, visitors stand in awe of the Old Man of Storr and Kilt Rock, vast columns of basalt rising from a sea that look like the pleats of a kilt.

It is perhaps appropriate, then, that Kilmuir was the place Lee Alexander McQueen chose to have his ashes buried. He loved his kilt. Indeed, he sported one on the runway many times (once teamed with a giant sporran and Mickey Mouse sweatshirt) and accompanied Sarah Jessica Parker to the Costume Institute Gala in New York swathed in more tartan than you could shake a sgian dhu at.

He even insisted on wearing full Highland regalia when he accepted his CBE in the Queen's 2003 birthday honours list. (Unlike fellow guerilla designer Vivienne Westwood, however, who went commando for her encounter with Her Majesty in 1992, he elected not to reveal whether he was a true Scotsman.)

Just over a year on from his suicide, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is hosting a major retrospective on the man who was arguably one of the most visionary and influential fashion designers of recent times. Entitled Savage Beauty, the exhibition begins with his postgraduate collection of 1992 - which was famously bought in its entirety by the stylist Isabella Blow, who became a close friend and confidante as well as his champion - and ends with his final runway presentation, which took place just a month after his death.

Anna Wintour, the US Vogue editor who hosts the MET's annual Costume Institute Gala Ball, puts it succinctly: "There aren't many designers with the range, ability and breathtaking vision to carry a museum show, but Alexander and his work can."

But while he will be celebrated in New York, there can be no doubt that the designer's heart belonged to Scotland. He took a fierce pride in his ancestry, and when he discovered his forebears were Jacobites, he claimed it was a McQueen who had rowed Bonnie Prince Charlie to safety in Skye following his defeat at Culloden.

(Perhaps coincidentally, Kilmuir is also the last resting place of Flora MacDonald, who is alleged to have facilitated the Young Pretender's escape, disguised as a serving wench.)

"He used to come here with his family," recalls Isabella Macdonald, who runs Kinloch Lodge Hotel on the island, "so we grew quite close to them and vice versa.

"He was incredibly kind, incredibly generous, a very gentle man," she says. "And, of course, when he was here, he was obviously very much in family mode. He just adored Skye, particularly the very north, which is McQueen land. I don't think he could get enough of it."

Macdonald describes the funeral at Kilmuir as "very, very quiet - literally just immediate family", and the day began with typically atmospheric Skye weather. "It was really misty," she says. "People who know Kilmuir, you look out over the water towards the Outer Hebrides, and just as he was buried, the mist lifted and you could see out. We had a piper playing - he loved the pipes - and it was just really poignant, really simple and really beautiful."

The family have been back since to visit the site, though it is still unmarked. "A gravestone's coming from Italy," says Macdonald. "It's being designed and they have a special piece of stone.

"Naturally, they were just devastated," she adds, "but they are a very close, very loving family. And I think it was really touching for the people of Skye that he wanted to be buried here."

BORN in Lewisham, London, in March 1969, McQueen was the youngest of six children. His father was Ronald, a Skye-born taxi driver; his mother was Joyce, a teacher. Growing up in a council flat in Stratford, he made it clear from an early age that he wanted to be a fashion designer. After leaving school with one O-level, he gained an A-level in art at night school, working in his uncle's pub during the day, before gaining an apprenticeship at Savile Row tailor Anderson & Sheppard. He then moved up the street to Gieves & Hawkes, where clients included the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev and Prince Charles. Indeed, it was while working for the celebrated tailor that the enfant terrible of fashion is alleged to have scribbled an obscene message in tailor's chalk in the lining of a jacket for Prince Charles (though Gieves & Hawkes has always strenuously denied the claim).

Stints with Koji Tatsuno and Romeo Gigli followed, as well as costumier Angels & Bermans, before he took an MA at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. Tartan featured heavily in his collections from the beginning, though his first ready-to-wear show in 1995, entitled Highland Rape, proved particularly provocative. Featuring battered-looking models dressed in torn plaid, he said it had been inspired by the Highland Clearances, and the show, held in an industrial loft space, was full of raw anger.

His subsequent collections only served to cement his reputation as an anti-establishment figure: witness, if you dare, his bottom cleavage-baring bumsters; his much-copied skull design; a top splattered with fake blood; the hi-tech, over-the-top theatricality of his catwalk shows (not to mention one inspired by the Black Death, which featured a skeleton in the front row). And who could forget double amputee model Aimee Mullins strutting down the runway on beautifully carved wooden legs? "I find beauty in the grotesque, like most artists," he once said. "I have to force people to look at things."

In 1996, at the tender age of 27 and with just eight collections behind him, he caused consternation in Paris when he was appointed head designer at Givenchy, replacing John Galliano, who was moving to Dior. And though even he admitted that his first collection for the haute couture label was "crap", he remained there until 2001, when his contract ended and he claimed the partnership was constraining his creativity.

In 2001 he was back in the headlines, having sold 51 per cent of his label to Gucci in what turned out to be a financially and creatively lucrative deal.

In the course of his career, McQueen won numerous awards, including British Designer of the Year four times. His celebrity followers included Lady Gaga (who claimed recently that she is now channelling the ghost of McQueen), Rihanna, Kate Moss and Daphne Guinness. Openly gay, he once described himself as the "pink sheep of the family", adding: "I was sure of myself and my sexuality and I've got nothing to hide. I went straight from my mother's womb on to the gay parade."

In 2000 McQueen married his partner, the film-maker George Forsyth, in a ceremony aboard a yacht in Ibiza. Kate Moss was a bridesmaid. The relationship didn't last but McQueen and Forsyth remained close friends.

Despite all the success and acclaim, the diving holidays in the Maldives and the luxury flat in Mayfair, he must have been a lonely figure, and was hit badly by the suicide in 2007 of Isabella Blow, who drank weedkiller after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

There had been reports of a rift between the pair, to which McQueen responded: "It's so much bollocks. These people just don't know what they're talking about. They don't know me. They don't know my relationship with Isabella. It's complete bullshit. ... That part of the industry, they should stay away from my life, or mine and Isabella's life. What I had with Isabella was completely dissociated from fashion, beyond fashion."

Three years later, his mother Joyce died from cancer at the age of 75. McQueen was devastated, and just a few days later, his housekeeper found him hanging in his wardrobe, having left a suicide note. He was only 40.

"I really don't know why he would do such a thing," his brother Michael said. "It goes to show that money doesn't buy you everything. He was probably very lonely in his own way."

Among those paying tribute to his genius were Katharine Hamnett, who said: "What a terrible, tragic waste," and Dolce and Gabbana: "He leaves the fashion world with an unfillable void." British Vogue editor, Alexandra Shulman, said: "At one level, he was a master of the fantastic, creating astounding fashion shows that mixed design, technology and performance, and on another he was a modern-day genius."

A memorial service - attended by the great and the gorgeous of the fashion world - was held in February last year, but McQueen had always stated that he wanted to be laid to rest near his Scottish ancestors. "He made it clear his wish was for his ashes to be scattered on Skye, where our family comes from originally, and we are going to honour that," said Michael. "He had been there quite a few times over the years and felt a real connection to the place.

"Alexander was back and forward all over the world, but he felt at home when he was in Scotland. He was so proud he could trace our family back to Skye and he wanted to return to the family home."

The ceremony took place on 29 May 2010, and a family statement read: "Lee cherished the times that he was able to spend on the Isle of Skye - he enjoyed the beauty, peace and tranquillity."

McQueen - shock tactics

Not for nothing was Alexander McQueen known as l'enfant terrible of the design world. Each of his shows was guaranteed to deliver maximum shock value and, even by the time he'd scaled the giddy heights of Gucci, his creativity was never constrained by a fear of what other people - his peers, the press, the public - might think of him. Combined with impeccable tailoring skills, it was fashion magic.

If his graduation show Highland Rape attracted headlines, his collection the following year had observers squirming as he sent models down the runway wearing sheer plastic bustiers filled with live worms.

Another year featured silver, tusk-like mouthpieces that grotesquely stretched the models' mouths out of proportion; yet another had an image of a starving Ethiopian printed on a jacket.

In autumn 1999, following a New York show that caused a splash with its water-filled runway, he took a bow, promptly dropping his trousers to reveal a pair of stars-and-stripes boxer shorts.

Then in spring 2009, after an event held in a former morgue filled with taxidermy and featuring the Pink Panther soundtrack, he appeared wearing a rabbit costume.

One year, he dared to start on time - something unheard of at London Fashion Week - in the knowledge that, in doing so, some vitally important fashion editors would miss the start.

A bejewelled chainmail bodysuit covered the entire face and hats were created from "found" objects such as old umbrellas, lampshades and wheels in a show set designed to look like a scrapyard.

Even in his final runway event - which took place shortly after his death - he managed to make waves with a series of towering, ten-inch stilettos that seemed designed for maximum discomfort.

But it was McQueen's death that caused the biggest shockwaves of all, with his followers, friends and family still at a loss to fully explain why such a vibrant talent is no longer with us.

• Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, 4 May to 31 July, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (www.metmuseum.org)

&#149 This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on 24 April 2011

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