A year before Alexander McQueen’s death, photographer Nick Waplington gained exclusive access to his studio to produce a fascinating study into the fashion designer’s working process. Now the work has gone on show at Tate Britain
“Alexander McQueen’s exceptional collection, the most ambitious we have seen this season, was as much a slap in the face to his industry, then, as it was a brave statement about the absurdity of the race to build empires in fashion,” wrote The New York Times about the designer’s Autumn/Winter 2009 collection, which he presented in Paris. “The clothes he sent out were a parody of couture designs of the last century, spoofing Dior’s New Look and Givenchy’s little black Audrey Hepburn dresses, as well as their reinventions by new designers at those companies in the last decade – himself included. It was a bit of a Marie Antoinette riot, poking fun at all the queens of French fashion.”
For McQueen, who is quoted as saying that the entire business was “such a cliché”, the goal with this particular collection was to show how quick the turnover in fashion was. “There is no longevity,” he told The New York Times.
That was in March 2009 – a year before he took his own life at his home in London – and for McQueen, this collection was his retrospective, remembers photographer Nick Waplington. “I knew Lee, as we called him, and in 2008 he came to me with the request that I produce a photobook with him,” says the photographer. “He wanted me to document his working process – from the sewing stage to the catwalk in Paris. I had never done anything like that before. I thought it would be a challenge, but I could do it.”
At that time, however, Waplington was based in Jerusalem. “I told him it would have to wait until I returned to England in a few years, but for McQueen it had to be this year. He told me: ‘It has to be now because this next collection is what I consider my retrospective collection. I’m recycling all of my ideas from the past 15 years – with the sets, the models and the people I’ve worked with all these years.’”
Over the following six months, Waplington spent all his time with McQueen and his team, documenting and photographing every single aspect of the fashion designer’s process. “I had hundreds of rolls of film,” he says. “They show how hands-on he really was. The entire creative process was all about him, and you could tell that he was very concerned about his legacy. He wanted people to know that he was making this work himself.” Waplington had complete access to the entire process – “otherwise, I would not have done it,” he says. “He was a shy man to outsiders, but within his team he was different. I was taken on for the project and he was very open.”
Waplington was impressed by McQueen’s creativity and drive. “Before they started a collection, they put together moodboards to get an idea of what the next show was going to be,” he says. “Then they got a model in and the team would bring Lee these rolls of cloth. He would start wrapping the model in it, cutting and pinning as he went. He would come up with these creations in seconds and then his team would take pictures so they could be recreated as garments. The only thing left to do, then, was to bring everything to Paris, where Lee would make the last adjustments before the catwalk.”
The only time McQueen showed nervousness, Waplington adds, was ahead of the catwalk, when Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour visited his studio in London. “It surprised me to see how nervous he was when she was around; I think you can tell that from the photos in the book.”
The photobook, Working Process, which was published by Damiani in 2013 (and is now an exhibition at Tate Britain, running until 17 May), isn’t a fashion book, says Waplington. “I’m not involved or even interested in fashion. For me, I was documenting a process. I took pictures and I created a huge scrapbook of maybe 600 work prints that Lee and I edited together. We started to move the pictures around.”
Yet both of them started to realise as they were editing that the book was missing something that would define the importance of this retrospective – a show that recycled everything the designer had done in the preceding 15 years. “That’s when we started to add other images to the work – images of landfill sites and recycling plants. Since Lee was recycling all his shows and all his ideas, and since he used a lot of rubbish in his clothes – plastic bags and recycled materials – we wanted this to come across in the book. This show was kind of a new beginning for him. Everything was just landfill for him at that point.”
Soon after they agreed on the first edit of the book, McQueen hanged himself in his London home. “The project was put on hold right away,” recalls Waplington. “I didn’t want to release the book right after his death. I just wanted to wait.” Three years later, the book was finally released, the edit untouched. “It’s his edit. I think he understood what he was doing, and I didn’t want to change that. There are a lot of images in there, and I could have made it easier for myself by doing a tighter edit, but I wanted this to be his book. I think it has a huge historical importance in fashion. It shows how he was working and how hands-on he was. I think he was very concerned about his legacy and he wanted people to know that he was making this work himself. It was a pleasure to be able to facilitate that for him, especially considering the circumstances of what happened next.”
He adds: “People can take from the book whatever they want. It’s not up to me – it’s open to interpretation. I think, for him, it was about the creative process and also something more: he wanted to make something unique and different. I hope I have been faithful to his memory. I’m hoping it will live on as part of his legacy.”
Nick Waplington/Alexander McQueen: Working Process is on show at Tate Britain until 17 May.
Alexander McQueen: Working Process by Nick Waplington is published by Damiani.
*This article first appeared in the September 2013 edition of BJP