Exclusive interview: jeweller Shaun Leane was one of fashion designer Alexander McQueen's closest friends and collaborators. As the sellout Savage Beauty exhibition closes at the V&A, Leane spoke to Dezeen about how the duo "tried to change people's perceptions of what jewellery and fashion should be".
Leane's elaborate jewellery, headpieces and body adornments, originally created for McQueen's groundbreaking fashion shows, were featured throughout the exhibition, which drew a record 480,000 visitors during its five-month run.
His corsets shaped like skeletons, wire coils and bunches of roses – all of which were displayed prominently in the V&A show – became some of the most iconic pieces from McQueen's collections.
In an interview with Dezeen at his Mayfair studio, Leane, 46, described how he was producing classical jewellery for royalty when he met McQueen in 1992.
McQueen – known to his friends as Lee – was still studying fashion at Central Saint Martins in London when a mutual friend introduced the two in "a moment of serendipity" that changed Leane's life.
"If it wasn't for Lee I would still be sitting in a little workshop doing tiaras," Leane said.
"He changed the silhouette of fashion and I changed the silhouette of jewellery, and we worked brilliantly together because we were both really good friends," Leane told Dezeen.
Related stories: see more stories about Alexander McQueen
McQueen died in 2010 aged 40, and Leane has largely kept away from the press for the past five years. But the success of the Savage Beauty exhibition has given him the opportunity to celebrate how his colleague and friend spurred him to create the avant-garde designs.
"I felt this is my opportunity to now sing from the treetops about how brilliant he was, and how he inspired all of us and how he changed my world," said Leane.
Read an edited version of the transcript from our interview with Shaun Leane:
Dan Howarth: When did you first meet Alexander McQueen?
Shaun Leane: Through a moment of serendipity, I met Lee in 1992 just before his graduation at Central Saint Martins through a mutual friend who was on the same course. So I would go to meet my friend after college on Charing Cross Road, we'd all go down Compton Street and go to the pub. And we were just friends, we were all just hanging out. The funny thing was that I was a classically trained goldsmith, they were fashion students at Central Saint Martins, our worlds were so far apart.
Lee asked me: "So you're a jeweller?" and that was it, it was just left at that, he didn't want to know anything else. And I said: "Yeah, I make jewellery", and I was on his radar then. I would go see them at college and they were doing what they do and it was brilliant, but it was so far removed from me. Even when I think back to seven years prior to that, when I wanted to do fashion, I just didn't get it. I thought these guys are crazy. I loved jewellery, the antiques and the classic forms, but I was hungry to design.
Dan Howarth: When did you start working together?
Shaun Leane: It was only when Lee came to meet me after work a year later after he graduated in 1993. He'd always meet me after work but this one time my masters had gone home and I had to finish this job before I left, because a tiara had to be sent to the setters in the morning.
And I said to Lee: "Look, I've got an hour to do this and then I'm done with this job. Come up to the atelier, sit and read a magazine or whatever, give me an hour and then we can go out." And he came up 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. It was very traditional where I worked. When he saw what I did, he said: "My god, I didn't realise this is what you do." I said: "I've been telling you for years, I'm a jeweller". But he didn't realise to what level I was a jeweller, and to what standard.
He was kind of blown away by the craft and the detail and the intricacy of what I was creating. I think it kind of sunk into his mind. Then about say six or eight months after that, Lee approached me and said: "Look, will you make jewellery for my shows?" And I was thrown by that, because it was not on my radar at all.
Dan Howarth: What was it like when you first started working together?
Shaun Leane: At first it was really daunting for me, because I couldn't get my head around it. He'd just left college, he hadn't got the funding. I'd just finished my apprenticeship and I hadn't got the funding. How were we going to do this?
I said: "Lee, I don't think we can, how are we going to afford to make jewellery? Surely it's got too big for the runway?" And he said: "Well, no we won't make it in gold, we'll use other materials like silver or brass or aluminium." And I was like "What?! I'm a goldsmith, I don't make things in copper or brass – I don't work in those materials Lee, I don't know where I would start".
He turned my whole world around, because he said: "Shaun, I've seen what you do, I've seen what you make." And he said if you just apply those skills to other mediums you can create anything. And that was it, he just changed everything for me. He took me out of my comfort zone.
I used to work with copper, I know what solders I can use for that. I had to get my head around what materials or solders or apparatus I would use to forge bigger things, and it was exciting. 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 if we analysed it, but then we were given this platform to do something different.
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 honoured that I had the opportunity to work with him. We were very close friends for 25 years, but I worked with him for 22 of those. And we created the body of works that we did.
Dan Howarth: What was the working process like in the early days?
Shaun Leane: In the beginning, it was from one extreme to the other which I quite liked, because I was a very classically trained goldsmith and then he gave me this creative platform where there were no commercial constraints because these pieces didn't have to be sold – they were objects we created to portray the concept of his show, or how we questioned how jewellery should be worn, and what it should be made of and what silhouette.
He changed the silhouette of fashion and I changed the silhouette of jewellery, and we worked brilliantly together because we were both really good friends. We were hungry and driven, and we didn't analyse it too much, we just wanted to create the new.
The early nineties was a hub of energy and it was quite revolutionary really because there were so many designers, there was Hussein, there was Dior, there was McQueen, there were so many great things happening.
London was changing as well at that time, so there was a real energy, and it was Lee that sowed that seed in me. I started working with him on show to show, and I stayed at English Traditional Jewellery. I worked during the day for them, then evenings and weekends I'd work for Lee. We made things out of silver and brass and aluminium, we had to use the materials to fit the design.
Dan Howarth: Can you talk me through some of the most iconic pieces you made together?
Shaun Leane: The Coil Corset was one of the first pieces I made for him. I made loads for that show; The Hunger, Spring Summer 1996. So that was the second show I worked with him on. I started working in silver first because it was the nearest material I could associate with to gold because I knew how to forge it and make it. So I kind of taught myself silversmithing to meet the demands of what he needed.
It was a great journey because he pushed me. He was very clever, he didn't push me in the sense of "do that, 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, and you would create, not just to please him or to prove to him you could do it, but to prove to yourself.
Dan Howarth: How else were you challenged in these early days?
Shaun Leane: The Hunger show was the first where I made big pieces. It was quite big for me making these big earrings, the stag pieces that went over the dress.
[The Tusk earring] was one of the first pieces, and this you'll see echoes through everything I do now. This for me was the perfect silhouette. [Lee] said to me: "I want you to create something that kind of creates a little bit of an edge between all the girls" – so it's quite animalistic because there was leopard prints in the show. It was The Hunger, so there was an animal theme running through it, so the Tusk earring was perfect.
For me this became the silhouette for what the house is today. Because it's refined, it was a very elegant form but quite powerful, and I think that was the balance that I found that I really loved, and what Lee loved as well – creating something that was quite elegant and beautiful but it had a very strong statement.
Dan Howarth: How did your designs develop as the collaboration went on?
Shaun Leane: I made lots of things for Lee, like a crown of thorns and the headpieces, and it was all very either around the head or the ear or the neck pieces, but I'd never made a piece like the Spine Corset.
Sometimes how Lee worked was he would have one piece in his mind that he wanted, or he would show me the mood board of the collection and said: "Right, let's make some pieces. What do you think we need? We need some stuff here, we need earrings here or a headpiece." So we'd work like that. I'd go away and design stuff with him, and then sometimes he'd know exactly what he wanted, for example the Coil Corset and the Yashmak, he knew he wanted those pieces.
But he would just give me the idea, he said: "Right, I want you to create a skeleton corset." At this point I'd never worked in aluminium before, and I said "Lee you're pushing it too far, I can't do that."
We didn't decide on aluminium at that point, he said "make me a silver corset with ribs and a spine and I want a tail on it as well", and that's all I got. I didn't get a drawing or anything. This was in a pub in Islington, and I said: "Lee, I dunno. I can make earrings and this is what I know." And he said "I'm sure you can do it, think about it."
Then that was it, two sleepless nights thinking how can I do that? Silver's going to be too heavy, she's going to fall over, she's gonna weigh a ton, I could do it in aluminium but I've never worked in aluminium. Then I spoke to a sculptor that I'd worked with in the past and she was like yeah you can carve it in wax and then cast it in the aluminium, and then it all starts to happen.
So then I phoned Lee and said "I've figured it out, we can do it". And he said "I knew you would" – and that was it. You were on the chain, you were on the journey, and it was amazing.
It was a nightmare to make, admittedly. Everybody loves that piece, but I look at it and I shudder because of the memories of making it. If you ever work in aluminium, don't cast it, it's so brittle.
I made it and Lee loved it, and it opened up the door then. Lee knew what I could do, and I knew what I could do.
Dan Howarth: Which designs came next?
Shaun Leane: So then came the Coil Corset, the Yashmak, the Rose Corset, all the big pieces. I had to explore technology and I had to explore new forms of how to make things like electroforming. I'd never worked with electroforming even though it's a very old process. The Coil Corset, that was made from aluminium rod, pure clean metal, which I forged around a concrete cast of the model.
Every season I had to educate myself even more about technology, materials, to produce the concept of what we wanted to create. So it was always challenging. Every season, the show had been done and we had to meet next week, and we'd be on the next piece because these pieces took months to make.
It wasn't like we could design it two months before the show. Some pieces were two months before the show, I can tell you, but with bigger pieces it takes time. It's a shame because I think that's the reason why we don't see pieces like this anymore, because there is no time. Designers are doing one show and then they're doing resort or ready-to-wear, it's too much.
Dan Howarth: Do you think that's affected the quality of the output from designers?
Shaun Leane: Someone said to me recently: "Why don't we see pieces like this?" And I said: "Because the demand on fashion doesn't give these poor designers the time."
So we grew and we grew, and every season it would be bigger and bigger. Before I knew it I was incorporating the metal into the clothes, so we were actually working together in 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 and solitaires and diamond clusters and very traditional pieces, which I had to – it was my bread and butter.
Dan Howarth: How did you manage that balance?
Shaun Leane: What I did for Lee was out of love, it was my time and we used to trade. 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 jewellery should be and what fashion should be.
Dan Howarth: Have you seen a heightened interest in your work since it went on show in the V&A exhibition?
Shaun Leane: Our website traffic has had a big increase, about 40 per cent. And sales obviously to a degree, but I think people are more interested.
When Lee passed five years ago, I had to deal with that. He was not just an amazing work colleague, he was my very closest friend. I just kind of shut down for years, I didn't talk about him and I didn't feel ready.
So when the exhibition launched, I recreated the Yashmak for the exhibition and I worked with [V&A curator] Claire Wilcox. We really gave it everything because I felt this is my opportunity to now sing from the treetops about how brilliant he was, and how he inspired all of us and how he changed my world.
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. A beautiful object can be created from any material, it's the process and the design and what material you use, you use the best material to get the best out of that design really, and he allowed me to think like that.
So even though I still love gold and diamonds and I make things in all precious metals, I make things in feathers, I still work in aluminium. I kind of owe this to McQueen as well.