Shaun Leane Remembers Alexander McQueen

It took the triumph of the Savage Beauty exhibit at the Met (New York) and the V&A (London) for UK jewelry artist Shaun Leane to open up about Alexander McQueen, whom those in his inner circle knew as Lee. Here’s what he had to say about his longtime collaborator and friend…

“I met Lee in 1992, just before his graduation from Central Saint Martins, through a mutual friend. We were all hanging out. The funny thing was that I was a classically trained goldsmith and they were fashion students. Our worlds were so far apart. Lee asked me, ‘So you’re a jeweler?’ And that was it. He didn’t want to know anything else.”

“It was only after he graduated in 1993 [that we started to work together]. He came up to my atelier and was just blown away, because he walked into this time warp. It was like an old Victorian workshop. I think it kind of connected with him because of his apprenticeship at the old tailoring workshops on Savile Row. He didn’t realize to what level I was a jeweler, and to what standard. Then about six or eight months after that, Lee approached me and said, ‘Look, will you make jewelry for my shows?’ I was thrown by that because it was not on my radar at all.”

“At first it was really daunting for me. I couldn’t get my head around it. He’d just left college, he hadn’t got funding. I’d just finished my apprenticeship and I hadn’t got funding. I said, ‘Lee, how are we going to afford to make jewelry?’ He said, ‘Well, we won’t make it in gold. We’ll use other materials like silver or brass or aluminium.’ He said if you just apply those skills to other mediums you can create anything. That changed everything for me.”

“He was young and I was young. We were both in our early twenties. We were both London boys. We both had something to say. We both came from very traditional training — him at Savile Row as a tailor and me as a goldsmith in Hatton Garden. Our worlds weren’t that far away from each other, but then we were given this platform to do something different.”

“In the beginning, it was from one extreme to the other, which I quite liked because these pieces didn’t have to be sold. They were objects we created to portray the concept of his show. He changed the silhouette of fashion and I changed the silhouette of jewelry. We worked brilliantly together because we were both really good friends. We were hungry and driven, and we didn’t analyze it too much. We just wanted to create the new.”

“The Hunger show [spring 1996] was the first show where I made big pieces. [The Tusk earring] was one of the first. It was quite animalistic because there were leopard prints in the show. You’ll see echoes of it through everything I do now. This for me was the perfect silhouette for what the house is today. It’s a refined, very elegant form, but quite powerful.”

“Lee was very clever because he didn’t push me in the sense of ‘you’ve got to do that.’ He would make you push yourself, which was brilliant. He did that with me, with Philip [Treacy], with Sarah [Burton]. Anyone who worked with him, he would make you question your abilities in design and craft so you would challenge yourself.”

“Sometimes he’d know exactly what he wanted. For example, the Coil corset and the Yashmak, he knew he wanted those pieces. But other times he would just give me the idea. One time he said, ‘Right, I want you to create a skeleton corset, a silver corset with ribs and a spine and I want a tail on it as well.’ That’s all I got. I didn’t get a drawing or anything. This was in a pub in Islington, and I said, ‘Lee, you’re pushing it too far. I can make earrings. This is what I know.’ He said, ‘I’m sure you can do it, think about it.’ I spent two sleepless nights thinking about it. Silver was going to be too heavy, [the model’s] would fall over. I could do it in aluminium, but I’d never worked in aluminium. Then I spoke to a sculptor who I’d worked with in the past and she said you can carve it in wax and then cast it in aluminium. Everybody loves that piece, but I look at it now and shudder because of the memories of making it. It was a nightmare to make, admittedly. If you ever work in aluminium, don’t cast it. It’s so brittle.”

“So then came the Coil corset, the Yashmak, the Rose corset, all the other big pieces. The Coil corset was made from aluminium rod, pure clean metal, which I forged around a concrete cast of the model. So we grew and we grew, and every season it would be bigger and bigger. Before I knew it, I was incorporating metal into the clothes, so we were actually working together on the whole silhouette. He would fabricate the clothes and we would put the metal into it.”

“What one must remember is that all along, whilst I was doing this, I was still making tiaras. I got nicknamed the Jekyll and Hyde of the industry, because by the day I was doing tiaras, solitaires, and diamond clusters, which I had to do — it was my bread and butter. What I did for Lee was out of love. He used to give me clothes because he didn’t have the funds, so it was all about passion and exploration and trying to change people’s perception of what jewelry and fashion should be.”

“As you know, Lee was a visionary. There were no boundaries with what he wanted to do. He really had a vision and it was never compromised. I feel very lucky and honored that I had the opportunity to work with him. He was not just an amazing work colleague, he was my very closest friend. When he passed five years ago, I just kind of shut down for years. I didn’t talk about him — I didn’t feel ready. So when the exhibition launched, I recreated the Yashmak and I worked with [V&A curator] Claire Wilcox. We really gave it everything because I felt this is my opportunity to sing from the treetops about how brilliant he was. If it wasn’t for Lee I would still be sitting in a little workshop doing tiaras only. He opened my mind to the freedom of design and the freedom of execution.”

Thanks to Dezeen