On a sunny Monday morning, with traffic at a near standstill on Fleet Street, crowds flocked to London's St. Paul's Cathedral for the memorial service of the late fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen, who tragically took his life seven months ago.
Hundreds of fans, tourists, and paparazzi gathered in the plaza in front of the cathedral in a spectacle that rivaled a Royal occasion. Sarah Jessica Parker, donning a black trench coat and towering heels, hair in a thick bun, paused on her way inside to remark on her outfit: "It's all for Lee.”
As organs reverberated through the cathedral, 1,200 mourners, all in black, sat in silence. Many wore sunglasses, and it was evident they were crying before the service even began. But more striking than the somber mood was the evidence that this crowd was influenced by their late friend. Forget dour, all-black ensembles. Mourners filed into place in studded leopard print slippers, towering feathered Philip Treacy hats, netted headresses, and corseted coats.
Anna Wintour was the first to speak. She took the podium in a black McQueen waistcoat embroidered with gold flowers and knee-high leather boots. Her customary sunglasses were nowhere to be seen.
"He taught us that the runway was a place where dreams become reality," Wintour said of McQueen. But as she paid tribute to the late designer, she painted an honest picture of his inner demons. "There was no comfort zone with Alexander McQueen," she began. "There was no containing his contradictions. Even his final collection was a literal fight between dark and light.
"Of course, he used to drive us all mad," she said with a smile. She recalled how Hamish Bowles had invited McQueen to participate in a photo shoot about young British designers for the magazine in the early 1990s. McQueen had accepted, and then called at the last minute to say, as Wintour put it, "He didn't give a flying 'whatever' about American Vogue.
"Alexander would infuriate me every year before the Costume Institute Gala," she admitted. "He would accept every year, only to bail at the last minute. But when he finally came, he flew up the stairs with Sarah Jessica Parker, both visions in tartan and plaid, and all was forgiven.” She paused. “We always forgave Alexander."
Gallery: Alexander McQueen’s Memorial Service
Suzy Menkes, fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune, said she had attended every one of McQueen's runway shows. She spoke of his talents as a designer, detailing the craftsmanship in his collections and themes in his work. "He was an artist who just happened to be working with clothing," she said, pointing to a tension that existed within him: "He was a designer with an unparalleled vision of the future who was dragged down by visions of his past.” She complimented his last collection, which the designer had attempted to livestream, "even if Lady Gaga's online enthusiasm sent the system crashing." And, like a true critic, Menkes dwelled for a moment on the centerpiece of that collection, the infamous Armadillo boot. "It was awful and awesome in equal measure," Menkes said.
She was followed by Björk who, in a gold skull cap, feathered skirt, and costume of massive paper wings, took the microphone to belt an eerie version of Billie Holiday's "Gloomy Sunday,” the lyrics of which were unsettling because of McQueen’s suicide.
“My heart and I have decided to end it all,” sang Björk. “Soon there’ll be prayers and candles are lit, I know. Let them not weep, let them know, I’m glad to go.”
During the memorial, a collection was taken for the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, to honor, as the Reverend Canon Giles Fraser put it, McQueen’s “great love of animals and especially of his three faithful dogs.”
The famous milliner Philip Treacy, a close friend of the late designer, and two of McQueen’s nephews lead the congregation in prayers. McQueen’s friend Annabelle Nielson read a poem she had written for her friend, in which she recalled their Christmases spent together at his country cottage. She recalled the time they had walked together its stony beaches–and when Lee had lost his keys among the rocks. She also remembered when they once shared a bed and Lee, “fearing I would do anything frisky,” built a wall of 20 pillows between them. “It was like Hadrian’s Wall,” Nielson laughed.
After the service in the nave of the cathedral, Daphne Guinness, wearing a black claw covered in diamonds that surrounded her face in net, quietly hugged Naomi Campbell as the crowd processed around them. In a nod to McQueen’s Scottish heritage and his love of tartan plaid (a picture of him jumping in a kilt came in the service’s program) bagpipers led the mourners onto the steps of the cathedral following the service.
Said Menkes as she cast her eyes up to the gold-plated dome of the cathedral and across the black and white mosaic floor: “I can see his models walking around these like a chess board. This would have been his ultimate venue.”
Isabel Wilkinson is an assistant editor at The Daily Beast.