Alexander McQueen's collaboration with jeweller Shaun Leane spanned 17 years and produced a unique body of designs, now considered landmarks in the art of couture jewellery and contemporary body sculpture. A retrospective catwalk event was staged at the V&A in 2001 in celebration of their creative partnership.
Alexander McQueen (1969 – 2010) captured worldwide attention with his incredible fashion shows. His highly crafted vision encompassed accessories, music and staging as well as his beautifully tailored garments. To achieve this, McQueen worked closely with a number of practitioners, including milliner Philip Treacy, photographer Nick Knight and stylist Katy England. McQueen worked closely with the jeweller Shaun Leane over many years to produce a unique body of designs and, in October 2001, their collaboration was celebrated with a Fashion in Motion event at the V&A. Featuring some of the greatest designers of our time, Fashion in Motion is a series of live catwalk shows which bring couture to a wide audience through the beautiful backdrop of the Museum.
Like McQueen, Shaun Leane learned his skills through an apprenticeship, rather than through an art school education. Leane's career began at the age of 16 in Hatton Garden, London's jewellery quarter, working for the jewellers English Traditional Jewellery. For 13 years he immersed himself in the craft of goldsmithing – fashioning delicate jewellery using precious metals and stones. Following training at Sir John Cass College, Leane set up his own workshop in Hatton Garden, producing jewellery for luxury jewellers Van Cleef & Arpels, Garrard, Kutchinsky, and Mappin & Webb.
Leane's partnership with McQueen – who was known to his friends and collaborators as Lee – began when McQueen commissioned him to create pieces for his second show Highland Rape (Autumn/Winter 1995). McQueen praised Leane as someone who, "captures the feeling of my work and aesthetic and of the time we are in… full of structure and finesse, crafted to perfection". For McQueen, Leane strove to push boundaries with new materials and scale, creating objects of imposing beauty that defied traditional expectations of jewellery.
Lee took me out of the zone of making jewellery that has to be earrings or necklaces or bracelets or tiaras, to actually creating pieces from a metal form that became part of the garment. Or became the garments themselves. So I think it was quite challenging because in a way, I was creating, I was pattern cutting in metal. Which is something I had never ever done before.
Working with McQueen had a huge influence on Leane, "He opened my eyes to the world of fashion... and in his eyes it was one with no boundaries". McQueen allowed his collaborators a high degree of creative freedom:
I think one of the nice things about how me and Lee worked was, that was the meeting, that was the brief: 'Design me a piece, in this style, that covers the torso, the arms and the head'. And I literally went off and did that, and Lee didn't see the piece … 'til three days before the show.
McQueen and Leane at the V&A
The McQueen and Leane retrospective Fashion in Motion event featured pieces from seven collections on which the designers had collaborated: The Hunger (Spring/Summer 1996), Dante (Autumn/Winter 1996), The Overlook (Autumn/Winter 1999), Eye (Spring/Summer 2000), Eshu (Autumn/Winter 2000), What a Merry Go Round (Autumn/Winter 2001) and the Givenchy Haute Couture collection of Spring/Summer 2000. This was McQueen's second participation in Fashion in Motion, the first took place in June 1999 and featured his No. 13 collection.
- The Hunger (Spring/Summer 1996)
Inspired by the Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie film of the same name, The Hunger collection incorporated shot taffeta suiting for men and women, thorn and feather prints and elaborate brocade. The film's vampire characters were reflected in aggressive cutouts, sharp collars and flesh-like designs. Leane produced the single 'Tusk' earring for the collection.
- Dante (Autumn/Winter 1996)
The Dante collection was a commentary on religion, war and innocence, using religious iconography and imagery from 14th-century Flemish paintings alongside brutal images of conflict on luxurious fabrics. Shaun Leane's 'Crown of Thorns' headpiece connected to the collection's religious theme. Silver spikes projected through scraped back hair and metal thorns appeared to burst through the skin.
- The Overlook (Autumn/Winter 1999)
This collection was inspired by Stanley Kubrick's film The Shining (1980) and had an arctic tundra theme. McQueen's garments included luxurious furs, chunky knits and Icelandic parkas in soft pinks, alongside references to native and tribal cultures. Leane created a spectacular 'coiled' corset, inspired by the indigenous Ndebele women of South Africa, and made from individual rings of aluminium fitted precisely to the curves of the wearer.
Find out more about the coiled corset in The Museum of Savage Beauty
- Eye (Spring/Summer 2000)
This collection had a Turkish influence, said to be inspired by a piece of music McQueen heard on the radio. Designs included billowing yashmaks (a type of veil worn by some Muslim women to cover part of their face while in public) and a creation by Shaun Leane consisting of jewelled metal plates linked by chains. This jewelled yashmak fused the Islamic with the medieval, suggesting the clash of Western and Middle Eastern cultures in the Crusades. It was later reworked for McQueen's Autumn/Winter 2009 collection, The Horn of Plenty, while the original piece was remade for the 2015 exhibition Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty and is now in the Museum's collection.
Watch Shaun Leane remaking the yashmak in his studio:
- Eshu (Autumn/Winter 2000)
Inspired by the travels of a Victorian woman who settles in Africa, this collection linked ideas of tribal customs – through the use of animal skins and fake monkey furs – with Edwardian detailing that hinted at the impact of the European missionary. Leane's jewellery told a story of survival, for example in the aggressive silver mouthpiece which pulled back the model's lips to bare her teeth.
- What a Merry Go Round (Autumn/Winter 2001)
Gothic, dark and disturbing, the What a Merry Go Round collection was originally presented on a set resembling a tilted rotating carousel of vintage fairground horses. Delicate 1920s flapper-style embroidered dresses were in stark contrast to the grotesque clown make-up worn by the models. This juxtaposition of the beautiful and the vulgar was enhanced through accessories. Leane typically worked with precious metals and stones but, fitting with McQueen's desire to use provocative materials to challenge conventions, here he created designs that combined pearls and pheasant claws.
Take a closer look at Leane's necklace for What a Merry Go Round in The Museum of Savage Beauty
- Givenchy Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2000
McQueen's work frequently linked the theme of nature to death. One lyrical interpretation of this is the silver-plated metal corset that Leane created for the Spring/Summer Givenchy Haute Couture presentation. Designed around the deathly fantasy of a girl with roses growing through her skin, the sinister elements are masked by the prettiness of the flowers.
The event saw models stalk around the Museum's ironwork gallery, which provided a striking backdrop to McQueen and Leane's contemporary jewelled body armour – now considered landmarks in the art of couture jewellery and contemporary body sculpture. Over 3,000 people gathered at the Museum to watch the show.