McQueen's collaborators: Philip Treacy

Lee Alexander McQueen worked with a variety of designers to realise his creative ambitions. His longstanding collaboration with London-based milliner Philip Treacy resulted in inventive, witty and challenging interpretations of what hats and headpieces could look like.

Renowned for his artistry and technical skill, fashion designer Alexander McQueen (1969 – 2010) was known for his ability to recognise and promote talent in others. McQueen was introduced to milliner Philip Treacy in 1992 by fashion editor Isabella Blow, who became a mentor, muse and champion of them both. Treacy once described Blow's creative influence: "If you were in her focus, she made you feel like you could do anything. She gave Alexander the confidence to be the person he was". McQueen's Spring/Summer 2008 collection, La Dame Bleue, was a collaborative show with Treacy that commemorated Blow, who had died five months earlier.

Headdress, La Dame Bleue, Philip Treacy for Alexander McQueen, Spring/Summer 2008. Courtesy of Countess Debonnaire von Bismarck

According to Treacy, McQueen's approach to commissioning was very hands-off. It was often the stylist Katy England who facilitated Treacy's designs for McQueen. She would meet Treacy, armed with images and ideas for linking headpieces and hats to the season's collection. Treacy described how, "There was a period of fear… when you'd wonder how you'd get it done in time". McQueen put a high level of trust in his collaborators and would only see the hats a couple of hours before the show and, in Treacy's words, "It wasn't an option to disappoint him".

Headdress, Philip Treacy for Alexander McQueen, The Girl Who Lived in the Tree, Autumn/Winter 2008, Britain. Image: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Courtesy of Tiina Laakkonen
Butterfly headdress, Philip Treacy for Alexander McQueen, La Dame Bleue, Spring/Summer 2008, Britain. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Courtesy of Alexander McQueen

Philip Treacy incorporated a variety of materials into his work for McQueen, mirroring the designer's own preoccupation with the natural world. Treacy's explorations included frequent use of feathers – even entire bird wings in the Autumn/Winter 2008 collection, The Widows of Cullodenas well as horsehair, banana fibre, straw and ram's horns. He described how, "when using those materials, I'm drawing with them. I treat them as one would draw with a pencil". Across McQueen's collections, Treacy not only varied his materials but continually redefined what a hat could look like. "There was a fearlessness in him", Treacy said of McQueen, "I could make the strongest hats and it was fine, his shows could take it, that proportion, extremity, modernity".

Headpiece, Philip Treacy for Alexander McQueen, The Widows of Culloden, Autumn/Winter 2008, Britain. Image: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As well as creating hats and headpieces for fashion designers' collections, Treacy designs special commissions for private clients. He works, "for many types of people, from a 20-year-old girl, to a mum, to a pop star, to a movie star to a member of the royal family". Treacy's designs appeal to women who are bold and confident in their wardrobe choices:

People that are fearless can get away with more. Some people can make the most extraordinary hat look like a little pillbox. When you design something for somebody … you are gently encouraging them to go a little step further than they'd planned to go.

Philip Treacy
Headpiece, Philip Treacy for Alexander McQueen, The Horn of Plenty, Autumn/Winter 2009, Britain. Image: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

See more of Philip Treacy's work in Search the Collections