The Alexander McQueen approach to writing a book

Fashion designer and courtier Alexander McQueen could teach us a thing or two about writing a book, not just tailoring. He was a man who excelled at exuberant narrative. He understood that in order to sell clothes, you tell stories.

McQueen threaded curiosity, anxiety, struggle and darkness throughout his collections. He pushed buttons. He didn’t just sew them. His fashion stories were outrageous, exceptional. His vision was sometimes macabre, always unforgettable.

McQueen was incredibly imaginative but he was also hands-on practical. He started out as an apprentice on Savile Row working on jackets for clients (1984-1988). He learned about tailoring, pattern cutting, construction, padding lapels, sewing, stitching – the real nuts and bolts to designing. He didn’t just imagine clothes, he could cut and make garments right down to the last detail. He finished what he started.

His dedication to tailoring techniques augmented his talent. It enabled him to transform traditional shapes such as coats and trousers until he created a standout look that was exciting and different.

Sam Gainsbury, McQueen’s show producer for the Plato’s Atlantis collection staged in Paris (2009) confirms that storytelling was integral to McQueen’s work. “When Lee had an idea for a collection it would never be, Brigitte Bardot in the 60s, or those kind of obvious fashion references. It was a character, a story, not a look.”

1995 fall/winter collection: Highland Rape Show

It was the runway show with the shock-value title. McQueen said it was inspired by the  Highland clearances of the late 18th and early 19th centuries thus highlighting the historic brutality of the English in the Scottish Highlands. Its message missed the mark at the time with some people calling out McQueen for getting his fashion kicks out of sexual violence against women, an accusation that McQueen vigorously rebuffed. To those who misunderstood him, his response was succinct: “I want to empower women. I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.”


1998 fall/winter collection: Joan

Inspired by Joan of Arc, this fierce collection featured chain-mail clothes, snakeskin and leather. Never one to shy away from the heart of the story, McQueen championed battle dress and aggression. Guaranteed to haul people outside their comfort zone, the show also featured dramatic flames and models who wouldn’t look out of place in a horror movie.

1999 spring/summer: No.13

Amputee model Aimee Mullins took to the catwalk wearing a pair of intricately carved wooden prosthetic legs (designed as Victorian boots). The finale was incredible too with Shalom Harlow on a rotating platform in the presence of two robotic-type creatures who created a menacing atmosphere. The tense moment exploded when the robots fired jets of black and green paint over Harlow’s beautiful white dress thus involving the audience in the creation of the finished version of the garment.

2006: The Widows of Culloden

The audience experienced more emotive storytelling as McQueen once again looked to Scotland (see Highland Rape) for inspiration. This theatrical collection – a memorial to the widows who had lost their husbands during the Jacobite Risings that culminated in the Battle of Culloden (1745) – featured the Kate Moss hologram in the poignant finale. As Moss swirled and moved ethereally in a fluttering, fragile white dress, the music (John Williams’ soundtrack from Schindler’s List) was integral to the image too. The hologram was replicated on a smaller scale at the Savage Beauty exhibition at the V&A in London but the impact was still significant – and very moving.

5 McQueen rules to apply to writing

He [McQueen] wanted to move people. Like he always said, whether you liked it or hated it, he really wanted you to feel something. Sarah Burton.


Make the reader feel something. In order to do this, you need to build a relationship between the reader and the characters in your book. People have to care about someone in order to truly feel something. Create obstacles in the plot that challenge your characters in order to test their strength and resolve. Unleash chaos. Add fear. Challenge routine. Introduce risk. What’s the worst that could happen? You feel more for someone when their life starts to unravel, especially when  you feel powerless to help.

McQueen was fascinated by Victorian literature, especially that of Charles Dickens who included a character with a wooden prosthetic leg in several of his works such as The Old Curiosity Shop (1840) and David Copperfield (1850). V&A, The Museum of Savage Beauty.


Love literature. Read different genres, discover new authors, revisit the classics. Inspiration is everywhere and great writers teach us how to create memorable characters in fiction. The more we read, the better we write.

I don’t want to do a cocktail party. I’d rather people left my shows and vomited. I prefer extreme reactions. Alexander McQueen


Good books get a reaction. You don’t want someone who is indifferent to the words on the page. It’s not enough to throw sequins at it, it has to provoke love, hate, shock, surprise, laughter, horror, fascination or anger. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl provoked reactions – not all favourable. But it did get people talking about it, which turned it into a bestseller.

Alexander McQueen’s fascination with the elemental – earth, wind, fire and water – imbued his collections with primordial drama. Nature and its materials were a constant in McQueen’s work. V&A, The Museum of Savage Beauty.


What is the theme in your book – is there more than one? Themes allow the writer to explore and shape the plot – similar to the glue that keeps a work of art in one piece, not broken. You need to be true to the theme in order to do it right otherwise the writing and relevance will unravel.

Fashion should be a form of escapism, and not a form of punishment. Alexander McQueen.


Be hands-on practical when it comes to writing as well as imaginative. Grammar, structure, editing and research are the stitching and lining to a good book. Above all, heed McQueen’s advice and apply it to writing: A great book is about escapism. To be free, all you need to do is let go.


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