with Sarah Burton, Creative Director, Alexander McQueen By Tim Blanks
How did you meet Lee McQueen?
My connection to Lee was the textile designer Simon Ungless, a very good friend of Lee’s who did all the early prints. My first collection was “La Poupée” (spring/summer 1997). I actually made some of the pieces, though Lee made most of them himself. He taught me how to cut an S-bend in chiffon and how to put in a zip, which I didn’t know how to do. In those days, it was Katy England, Trino Verkade and me.
Lee lived upstairs from his Hoxton Square studio. At that time, Trino was doing licensing in Japan, and I would go to Japan with her. I remember when he got the call from LVMH, Lee thought he was being given a job to design a handbag for Vuitton — it was around the time that people like Azzedine Alaïa, Vivienne Westwood, and Helmut Lang were doing special- edition bags for Vuitton’s anniversary.
The deal with Givenchy was done in two weeks, and then he was on the train to Paris. I was meant to go for a placement at Calvin Klein in New York. Lee asked me to stay, and I did. We had one pattern-cutting table, which used to belong to Body Map and Flyte Ostell, with chairs that didn’t reach properly. When Lee got the Givenchy job, we got chairs that reached the table. And he was really excited because it meant there was money coming in, and he could do things he’d never done before.
With the resources from Givenchy, did this make Lee more experimental with his collections?
Yes, they definitely helped Lee to push boundaries. I remember one collection — the “prêt-à-porter collection” (autumn/winter 1999–2000) — which involved a model in a Perspex robotic body. The guy who made the robot told us 10 minutes before the model walked out, “If she sweats in the suit, she’s going to electrocute herself. So tell her not to sweat.” Givenchy was an amazing experience for Lee. He was a superb tailor anyway, and he could cut amazing dresses, but at Givenchy he learned all about couture, especially embroideries.
The boards showing embroidery samples are particularly detailed. With Lee, how much was provided by embroidery companies and how much was specially commissioned?
It was kind of a mixture. First, I’d go through the archives. We kept everything from past seasons because Lee had a memory like an elephant. So we’d bring out things that maybe hadn’t been used, and then we’d develop new things as well. But every collection began with a show. To start work on designing the collection, he’d have to visualize how it would be seen.
When he was visualizing the show, was he thinking of each look as a character, like he was casting a production?
Each show was very much done as a couture show, in that Lee would have a board numbered, say, one to 50, and we always had about 75 looks. We would edit them in Paris. They were grouped, quite often in three sections, and there was always a story. “Irere” (spring/ summer 2003) was the first time we’d ever done a pre- collection, so the whole first group was pre-collection. Lee always designed each look as a complete look, with shoes, hair and makeup. Shoes were really important because they anchored the look. The “Armadillo Shoe from Plato’s Atlantis” (spring/summer 2010) was based on a ballet point shoe designed by Allen Jones. They were actually quite comfortable to walk in, but if a girl couldn’t walk in them, she wasn’t in the show.
The hair was almost the same on everybody. In the lineup for Lee’s shows, the identities of the girls were completely blanked out. It was about the clothes and about the show — never about the model. An extreme example of this was in the collection “In Memory of Elizabeth How, Salem 1692” (autumn/winter 2007– 08), when one girl wore a leather molded bodice that covered her face entirely.