From the British tailor, tragically deceased in 2010, we keep in mind the spectacular creations and the head spinning heel-turns. But Alexander McQueen was first a true technician of the fabric. As he should be: between his 16 and 18 years, he learned the ropes at the illustrious tailor Anderson & Sheppard… Let us look back to a relatively unknown but key period in the creator’s life.
By Gino Delmas, in London.
Article originally published in L'Etiquette issue 3.
Him over there? Alexander McQueen from Anderson & Sheppard? The sentence doesn’t make sense. Neither does the union. On one side, a shooting star, on the other, a monumental institution. Modernity and creativity versus tradition and know-how. At Anderson & Sheppard’s, on endless bookshelves, are piled up threads of fine fabric and receipts from the firm’s customers. Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Charlie Chaplin or Fred Astaire have been here. Prince Charles, Martin Scorsese and Brian Ferry are regulars. So do Calvin Klein and Tom Ford. Here, we promise to never change a thing, to offer always the same suit, always the best. For Alexander McQueen, the obsession was quite the opposite. A collection had to wipe the previous one clean in creative whirlwind positively out of control. His inspirations? Jack the Ripper, then Hitchcock’s The Birds, then Kubrick’s the Shining, then war. Provocative? Constantly. One season, the Britton directed on the catwalk derelict women, ‘raped women,’ was his justification. Another one, he had robots directly spray-paint his models’ dresses on. Alexander McQueen at Anderson & Sheppard? The alliance made no sense. And yet, it did happen. Between the age of 16 and 18, the lad that everyone then called ‘Lee’ learned how to tailor a suit in the honourable firm. A mere anecdote? No, the cornerstone of his career.
FOCUS, GIFTED, QUICK
The story begins in the Spring of 1985. Lee is 16-years-old, he had just left school, with no training, no prospect. For a few months he attends night classes At West Ham Technical College. Next to stay-at-home moms and wannabe artists, he learns the basics of drawing. In a Pub of his neighbourhood, in Stratford, in East London, Lee sometimes earns a few quids serving pie & mash to the local workers. The rest of the time, the teenager listens to house music, goes through piles of books on ornithology, which fascinates him, and peruse the few fashion magazine that go through his hands. Lee feels the creative type, but isn’t again the idea of watching TV, lounging on the couch of the modest family home on Biggerstaff Road. One day, the BBC happens to show a feature on Savile Row. Subdued ambience. Striped flannels. Tailor’s scissors. The documentary praises the English know-how but worries about the lack of workers. Prestigious London tailor shops are desperately looking for apprentices. Joyce, Lee’s mother, a social science teacher, is sitting on the coach next to him. For her, it clicks immediately. Why not go? Why not try his luck?For once, Lee isn’t against the idea of trying. Lucky, since his father, a cabbie, exasperated by his son’s laziness, does not give him much of a choice…
A few days later, there he is on Savile Row, dressed in his usual baggy jeans and his everlasting black Doc Martens. But what door to knock on, without any contact or leg up? On instinct, he heads for Anderson & Sheppard, the biggest name, the one he heard most through the years. Lucky shot. The tailor is looking for workers, and the current policy is to recruit young people without any formal training nor experience, more likely to learn the house’s ways quickly. Lee is asked to come back three days later. On that day, at the hour set, he climbs to the third store and sets his stuff on a large wooden table, marked by both time and scissors cut. It is divided in four spaces, each an assigned working station. Lorraine and Wendy, two other apprentices, have been working here for a few months already. The last corner is occupied by Cornelius O’Callaghan, a fifty-something Irishman strict and silent, whom everybody calls ‘Con.’ He’s one of the best tailor in the house and probably one of the best in London. ‘Con was a historical figure of Anderson & Sheppard,’ remembers Rose Mary, now in charge of vests. ‘He was part of a generation which learn tailoring right after the war. He had the rigour and discipline of this generation that went through the army or the marine. With him, you had to work and shut up.’ Without delay, Con gives young Lee a thimble, some needles and some threads.
Lee already know the basics of sewing, having learned with his mother and his sister Janet. For the latter, he had even already made several outfits, including a black tube dress. ‘So tight that I could hardly move my legs to walk up the stairs, but everybody kept complementing me when I was wearing it,’ says she. But his technical knowledge is limited, and tailoring, the art of making a suit, is for him a whole new universe. So, with application, he set out to work. The first lesson is about the inside of the jacket’s lapel. Lee learns. The days start at 8:30am and end at 5pm. One pause for tea in the morning, one in the afternoon, and a few minutes for lunch, usually a sandwich eaten on the corner of the table. Like the other apprentices in the firm, Lee earns 30 pounds a week. ‘It was something out of Dickens, legs folded on a bench, making lapels,’ he would sum up to the BBC in 1997.
Lee is an apprentice both hard-working and talented. ‘He was very focused, he wanted to learn how to make a jacket, and quickly. He had this latent determination,’ remembers Byron, now in charge of fitting pants at the tailor. ‘He had a real thirst for knowledge,’ confirms Derrick, another apprentice, present at the same time as McQueen. The results are coming to fruition. After the inside of the lapel, the young man learns interfacing, the inner pockets, then the outside of the lapel. At Anderson & Sheppard, it is considered normal for an apprentice starting from zero to learn to make a forward, an almost finished jacket, ready for the first fitting with the customer, in four years. Three at the most. But Lee reaches this point after only two years. He has mastered the characteristic Anderson & Sheppard shoulder, a supple shoulder with a high armhole, recognisable to this small surplus of fabric forming delicate folds and giving the impression of a larger breast and thinner waist. McQueen’s dexterity is such that sounds he sets up jackets destined to the firm’s most prestigious clients, like Prince Charles or Calvin Klein. ‘I was quick, I was good,’ he’ll brag to the BBC.
Later, throughout his career, McQueen will always be noticed for his technical dexterity. In October 1990, when he joins the Masters of Design of Saint Martins, the famous London fashion school, he is the only one without degree, but also the only one able to completely cut and fit a model. At the time, his friend Alice Smith is used to purchasing fabric for him at the Berwick Street market. Lee spreads the fabric on the floor of his tiny apartment of Primrose Hill, and the magic happens. ‘He had a great pair of scissors given to him by his aunt, and he would cut without template or markers, and it would be perfect every time… I could not believe it.’ In front of a model or a fabric, Lee is never intimidated. In 1996, at a fitting day for Givenchy, a few days before his first show for the company, Eva Herzigova shows up in a tight fitting suit. But something is off. In front of the shocked eyes of the head of the workshop, who had spent hours working on the piece, Lee grabs a pair of scissors and cuts both legs to make it a body. The scissors are a tool to deconstruct, but also to build: it’s what he does in front of the camera of the journalist Marie-Christiane Marek, in 1997: from a large white fabric, McQueen, a pair of scissors in hand and nothing more, shapes a shoulder on a Stockman. Another example? A few years later, the Brit works on the costumes for the ballet Eonnagata. The first ballerina Sylvie Guillem did not forget it. ‘Alexander had among other things made a costume for a character that was black and negative. At the fitting, he did not find it sinister enough. He said: “bring me scissors and fabric” and there, in front of us, he made another costume. It took about three minutes. So quick, and in end perfect.’
With McQueen, through the years and the fashion shows, his mastery of the suit will remain a key element. ‘Everything I do is based on tailoring,’ the creator used to repeat. ‘Anderson & Sheppard gave Lee this platform to go where he wanted to go. He built his silhouettes on theoretical and practical bases,’ explains his nephew Gary McQueen, who has long worked alongside him. En 1992, the star object of his end of the year exhibition at Saint Martins, is a spectacular jacket. Cut in a jet-black fabric, it is short, flared on the mid rift. The interfacing is made with human hair. Here’s the recipe. Perfect tailoring, creative madness. On his first shows, McQueen insists we wear a new cut of pants, the bumster, so low cut he partly covers the pubis and reveals the top of the rear. Later, there’ll be the squared and straight shoulders of the VOSS collection in 2001, then those large of the ruthless bankers of The Forgotten in 2007. In 2010, for his last male show, a few months before taking his own life, McQueen will decide for ‘pagoda shoulders,’ going up high, like the roofs of pagodas.
DISCREET, SILENT, PROVOCATIVE
At Anderson & Sheppard, through the years, we observed with growing curiosity the trajectory of this young man. ‘I wondered how he went from a young apprentice specialised in jackets to a designer who imagined such fantastical creations,’ still wonders Frances, an apprentice at the same period as Lee. ‘I could never have predicted that he had all this within himself, this entire universe.’ One must say that, in the workshop, Lee was the discreet sort. ‘He didn’t socialise much with the other apprentices,’ remembers Danny, another apprentice of the time at Anderson & Sheppard and now their head cutter. Conversations are rare, furtive. When Con takes a break, Lorraine and Wendy sometime tease Lee about his clothes or his musical tastes. One day, at tea time, the conversation escalates. The young women know nothing of house music. They don’t understand how anyone could like it. Or pretend not to understand. Lee attempts to explain. Derrick joins in the conversation: ‘I took his side and from then on there was a strong connection,’ laughs the only one who was close to Lee during his apprenticeship. ‘We were the only people in the firm to like house music. We talked about it whenever we could.’
Lee doesn’t live his 501 nor his Doc Martens. He often wears a black turtleneck, an oxford shirt, or a squared jacket. Through the months, as his technical mastery grows, he seems to refine his tastes, his vision of clothing. More and more, during the lunch break, he drafts discreetly drawings or dresses. Sometimes, too, Lee goes away for a few minutes, then a few hours. Does he go, as he say, take care of Jouye, his sick mother? Or does he simply have something better to do. Lee is now 18, he goes out more and more and discovers the pleasures of the night with groups of friends. Sometimes he is euphoric. Other times, he seems caught up by his demons. The difficulty to plainly live his homosexuality, and have his father accept it, weighs heavily on him. The memory of sexual abuse committed by the first husband of his older sister Janet while he was only 9-years-old haunt him. ‘We were started to feel some torment brewing inside him,’ believe Frances. A form of distance sets between himself and Anderson & Sheppard. It is actually at that time that Lee decides to let a wild rumour run loose. He tells his colleagues that he wrote some poorly-chosen words on the lining of one of Prince Charles’ jackets. He swears, insists, and amuse himself by observing the mortified looks on his colleague’s face. For years, he amuses himself by keeping the rumour going. Up to a point where Anderson & Sheppard will eventually recall the jacket in question to check the lining: nothing. Merely a provocation.
After two years, halfway to his apprenticeship, Lee leaves Anderson & Sheppard. He leaves without a diploma but with his head held high. ‘When he left, he told me: “one day, I’ll have my own business”’ remembers Byron, the head of adjustments for pants of the tailor shop. ‘In another conversation, he even told another tailor that one day he’d have a firm on Savile Row. He wasn’t even 20-years-old. We all laughed when we heard that.’ In 2013, three years after his death, a McQueen shop did open on Savile Row. ‘Letting him go was a blessing for him, he wasn’t made for that world,’ says Frances. ‘There’s a lot of talent in our shop, but his ambition wouldn’t have been satisfied making the same piece all his life… I think his time here showed him what he didn’t want to do,’ she explains, sitting at her workshop. In 1997, to the BBC mic, the man in question would have this phrase who would keep resonating: ‘I wouldn’t have survived in a place like that, closed up in a workshop fixing lapels…’
To watch (absolutely) ‘McQueen’, by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, 2018.