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Sotheby’s to Auction Jewellery Created for McQueen Catwalks

By Rachel Garrahan

Shaun Leane, the jeweller, at his atelier in London. Sotheby’s will auction off some 45 pieces from his personal archive, many of which were created for the fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s shows, on Dec. 4.
Lauren Fleishman
Shaun Leane, the jeweller, at his atelier in London. Sotheby’s will auction off some 45 pieces from his personal archive, many of which were created for the fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s shows, on Dec. 4.

LONDON — Shaun Leane recently recalled how, in 2015, he stood alone in the “Cabinet of Curiosities,” the darkly dramatic, double-height gallery containing work that he and Alexander McQueen had created, part of the “Savage Beauty” exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. And it had transported him back to the heady, almost two-decade-long period of their collaboration.

“To see all those pieces together reignited a passion and a drive in me, and a memory of how inspiring and provocative they were at the time,” the jeweller, 48, said in an interview last month at his studio.

When the sellout retrospective of McQueen’s career (an expanded version of the 2011 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) came down, Leane said, he had been saddened by the idea of the work going back, as he described it, “under lock and key.”

That thought has led him to Sotheby’s, where 45 pieces from his personal archive, including many of his McQueen creations, will go on the auction block on Dec. 4 in New York. (The presale public exhibition will continue until Dec. 4.)

His creations for McQueen’s anarchic, theatrical catwalk shows include the “coiled” corset (with a sale estimate of $250,000 to $300,000), a gleaming aluminum construction created for The Overlook collection of fall 2009, which encased Laura Morgan, the model, from chin to hip and restricted her movement. It is the only piece ever signed by both designers.

Sotheby'sA skeleton corset created by Shaun Leane.
A skeleton corset created by Shaun Leane.

A silver face clamp (sale estimate, $10,000 to $15,000) contorted the model’s features in the Untitled collection of spring 1998 while an oversized silver bow choker ($20,000 to $25,000) was a more traditional rendering of Leane’s metalsmithing skills for the Deliverance collection in spring 2004.

Whether gothic or romantic, such creations were an integral part of McQueen’s catwalk shows, which struck a lasting visual chord in a pre-Instagram era, and which reflected a surge of creativity in fashion and art at the time in London.

“The key thing is that Shaun’s jewellery created a really important part of the looks that Alexander McQueen was famous for,” said Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, adding that McQueen was “the most brilliant designer of his generation.”

The sale, which is being held in association with Kerry Taylor Auctions, a London-based vintage fashion house, is unusual in its offering of a living jeweller’s archive, particularly one focused on pieces that were not created for sale but for a moment on the runway.

“They’re not really jewellery but they’re not really fashion but they’re not really contemporary art, and yet they’re all three,” said Frank Everett, senior vice president and sales director of the Sotheby’s Luxury Division in New York. “It’s truly unique property.”

The selections range from everyday-wearable cuffs and earrings to over-the-top constructions that are hard to imagine anywhere but on the runway or behind museum glass, such as an elaborate neckpiece constructed of pheasant claws and hundreds of Tahitian pearls ($40,000 to $60,000).

Steele said her institution would be among the bidders, although she speculated the competition might include as many art museums as it does fashion institutions and private collectors.

Describing McQueen’s work as being preoccupied with the point “where beauty and terror intersect,” the same territory as British artists like Damien Hirst and Jake and Dinos Chapman, the pieces that Leane created for him “are visually so powerful,” she said.

Leane and McQueen were friends first and collaborators second. They met in 1992, after both spent their formative years in what Leane described as the “dark and Dickensian workshops” of the deeply traditional worlds of London craftsmanship. Leane learned his goldsmithing skills during a seven-year apprenticeship in Hatton Garden while McQueen learned the cutting skills for which he would become famous at a Savile Row tailor.

When McQueen, known to his friends by his first name, Lee, by then a graduate of Central St. Martins, approached Leane to make jewellery for a 1995 catwalk show, at first the jeweller resisted. Conditioned by his training to the concept of jewellery being restricted to diamonds and gold, he could not imagine how the two men could afford the materials.

Sotheby'sA white gold and diamond evening glove created by Shaun Leane.
A white gold and diamond evening glove created by Shaun Leane.

“Lee said, ‘No, Shaun, you are a skilled craftsman. If you just apply your skills to any medium, you can create the beautiful,'” Leane said.

The show was Highland Rape, whose bumster skirts and ripped dresses heralded McQueen’s arrival on the fashion scene. At the designer’s request, Leane made Victorian-style silver fob chains. Believing they were to be paired with watches, he recalled being shocked on the night of the show to see them “draped around the body in places I wouldn’t have even thought of,” he said. “When Lee did that, it opened up the idea that there were no limits here.”

More shows followed, with Leane using the workshop of his Hatton Garden employer. “By day I was making diamond tiaras, by night I was making skeleton corsets,” said Leane, adding that he was nicknamed the “Jekyll and Hyde of jewellery” by his peers.

Describing McQueen as a conductor who pulled together work from many disciplines (including millinery by Philip Treacy), Leane said that McQueen’s confidence in other people’s talents pushed their own creativity to higher levels. “To work with Lee, he was such a visionary, there were no limits or boundaries,” he said. “We wanted to create the beautiful but we also wanted to create the new.”

Some pieces in the auction such as the skeleton corset ($250,00 to $300,000), which Leane first carved in wax before learning how to work in aluminium, were part of the “Savage Beauty” exhibitions. But one piece has not been seen since its catwalk debut: a headdress ($50,000 to $70,000) of silver roses and strings of blood-red garnets, created for Joan of Arc in the fall 1998 show. Leane discovered it in his cellar after the show at the Victoria and Albert had closed.

Another lot represents a collaboration of not two but three friends. The white gold and diamond Contra Mundum, or Against the World, evening glove ($300,000 to $400,000) was the result of a conversation between Leane, McQueen and Daphne Guinness, the fashion muse and now musician, who requested a piece of armour to protect herself.

Seven painstaking years in the making, “it’s representative of a great friendship and a great collaboration,” said Guinness, who owns the glove jointly with Leane.

Letting it go, she said, was sad but also cathartic. McQueen’s suicide in 2010, and that of fashion force Isabella Blow in 2007, had been hard for her and all of their friends, she said, and it was time to move forward.

Leane agreed. When asked what he will do with the auction proceeds, he said, “I will use it to create the new.”