A few weeks ago I was at Saks Fifth Avenue in Bala Cynwyd gathering clothes for a spring photo shoot when I spotted a pink clutch with a skull clasp. The eyes were gleaming amethysts. I had to have the bag, by British designer Alexander McQueen.

Marc Beeler, couture salesman at Saks, echoed my thoughts before I could even form the words. It would be perfect for the shoot.

"Yes, dear. Take it!" Beeler said, as he unlocked the case and gently slid the clutch into a protective black bag. "It's hot."

What McQueen created during his fashion career wasn't just hot; it was scalding. The man behind the most theatrical shows in the fashion industry - his fall 2009 Witches Collection was based on the Salem Witch trials - was the original fierce one.

That's why McQueen's death at age 40 - he was found Thursday in his London flat, an apparent suicide less than two weeks after the death of his mother - shocked the fashion world just as one of the biggest industry events was getting under way. McQueen wasn't scheduled to attend New York Fashion Week, but his McQ: Alexander McQueen collection was to be presented Thursday afternoon. The event was canceled.

"We are devastated to learn of the death of Alexander McQueen," said Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue. He was "one of the greatest talents of his generation. . . . In such a short career, Alexander McQueen's influence was astonishing - from street style to music culture and the world's museums. His passing marks an insurmountable loss."

The first day of the twice-a-year fashion extravaganza, already dampened by the blizzard, took on a somber tone.

"I was at the BCBG show, and when it ended, I walked out into the tents and saw that everybody's face was in a state of shock," said Sarah Cristobal, senior fashion editor at Stylelist.com. "To hear something so sad about a designer that everyone in the industry admires, it does hit you hard."

While he had an adoring peer group, McQueen - whose shoes from his spring collection looked more like torture devices than footwear - wasn't known for making clothes that were wearable for the masses.

McQueen's pieces were about the extreme. His runway shows featured fashions that reminded me of royal garb, with high collars, super-cinched waists, and hats. Even the makeup was radical, from overly smoky eyes to completely white faces.

Still, he had phenomenal tailoring skills. The construction, whether it was a tulle-lined skirt or an intricate celebrity gown, was hailed as impeccable.

Last year, McQueen introduced a limited-edition line for Target. He designed a pair of alien-style boots for Lady Gaga's most recent "Bad Romance" video that were a focus. Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Sarah Jessica Parker, Bjork, and Mary J. Blige wore his pieces regularly.

"He wasn't afraid to challenge proportions and shape, but he maintained the highest quality of craftsmanship," said Sean General, a Philadelphia-based fashion trend-watcher who sold McQueen's first line in the mid-1990s when he was a buyer at Neiman Marcus. "He was brilliant and he had a humor about life."

Born Lee Alexander McQueen, the designer grew up in the East End of London, the son of a taxi driver. He drew his first sketch of a dress when he was 3. Leaving high school at 16, he took an apprenticeship with London's Savile Row tailors. He then went on to Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. Isabella Blow, an influential stylist in London, helped him launch a fashion career after she persuaded him to drop his first name.

In 1996, McQueen succeeded John Galliano as head designer at the French brand Givenchy. Not afraid of controversy, he surprised the fashion world when in 1998 he had Allentown-born athlete and amputee Aimee Mullins walk his catwalk with wooden legs McQueen carved himself. He stayed with Givenchy until 2001.

Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com.