It'S not often that a major European designer poised to open a West Coast flagship shudders at the mention of Paris Hilton. Then again, that's just the sort of nose-thumbing the world has come to expect from Alexander McQueen, the son of a London cabbie who has established himself as the enfant terrible of the fashion world, sending live wolves down the runway, and basing an entire collection on the Salem witch trials, right down to a blood-red pentagram on the floor.
"If she comes past the shop, hopefully she'll just keep walking," McQueen said of the paparazzi princess. "I don't really covet that sort of thing."
Blustery celebutante talk aside, the designer was in a good mood on a recent morning at the Chateau Marmont, just weeks out from his Paris show, a monarchy-meets-maharajah masterpiece that ranked among the fall season's best. The collection was full of soft, feminine forms, bright colors and dresses with couture-worthy detail (some of which will almost assuredly end up on a red carpet somewhere in town). The collection was so polished and elegant, it seemed to signal the dawn of a kinder, gentler Alexander McQueen.
"Me? I'm gentle as a teddy bear," he said with a laugh. "We all carry both the dark and the light with us, I don't see why it shouldn't be reflected in my work."
Physically, McQueen has always come across as a sparkplug of a fellow, a muscled knot of a hooligan with a wrestler's physique and close-cropped hair. But sitting on an overstuffed couch in the Chateau's lounge the day before his 39th birthday (he was born on St. Patrick's Day, 1969), he seems as dangerous as an actuary with a head cold. Clad in white running shoes, dark blue jeans and a blue crew-neck sweater over a white button-front shirt, he's sniffling slightly (blame the air conditioning) and sipping tea from a cup the size of a soup tureen.
He admits that his latest runway show was "a bit more calculated and thought out" than previous ones, partly the effect of losing his longtime friend and mentor, Isabella Blow.
After she died, McQueen went on a pilgrimage to India (he's a Buddhist). There, in addition to finding inspiration for both his men's and women's collections (the men's was full of references to the Tibetan Plateau, including shaggy fur hats and mirror-embroidered pieces), he seemed, despite the cliche of it all, to find his center.
"The reason I got into this business is because I love what I do," he explained. "After I was at Givenchy, I lost that feeling. But after my friend died, I found a new love for it because she loved it and she found me because of what I was good at. I had to slap myself about the face and say, 'Pull yourself together. This is what you love doing, so do it properly.' It was a wake-up call, and I actually do love it more than I ever have."
McQueen, who completed his studies at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in 1994, was referring to his bumpy ride as head designer at LVMH's Givenchy label, a position he held from 1996 until early 2001. His tenure was so rocky that he sold a controlling interest in his eponymous label to the company's rival, the Gucci Group, in 2000. Another nose-thumbing.
The funds allowed him to branch into men's clothing and accessories, as well as to open 20 stores, including one in New York's Meatpacking District and a Las Vegas outpost at the Wynn hotel.
"The goal is to have the East and West coasts covered and work our way inward," he joked.
McQueen's runway shows have always been blockbusters, but his clothes have been a more difficult sell. His razor-sharp tailoring and sculptured hourglass silhouette are not forgiving, and his accessories have never really taken off -- except for a skull-print scarf circa 2003, which spawned a surfeit of skull-emblazoned imitators and kicked off a raid on the boneyard that can still be seen in the skull-festooned street-wear market.
"We've done about a million [British] pounds of business just on that scarf," McQueen said with a sense of amusement. "And it keeps on going. I'd be quite happy to see it go, but the shops want them. . . . I suppose they're like a new version of the Hermes scarf or something. It's just stuck."
Not that he's complaining too much. This year, Gucci Group announced that in 2007 the label had posted a profit for the first time. McQueen describes the immediate future using buzzwords such as "brand awareness," noting that his company will advertise for the first time with the next collections.