There’s a wave of adoration sweeping across London for Alexander McQueen at the moment, almost exactly five years after his untimely death in 2010, and it feels something like a homecoming. This is due in no small part to the upcoming showing of Savage Beauty, an exhibition of his life’s work which was first seen at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art four years ago, and which will open at the V&A on 14 March with a wealth of new exhibits.
Over and above the impact of this exhibition however is the sheer number of creative figures who have been emerging with their own stories of McQueen, whether that be photographers, set designers and fashion designers who worked alongside him or figures from the fashion industry who watched his stratospheric rise to fame.
Gary Wallis is one such character – he met Lee (as Alexander was first called) at Central Saint Martins in the mid-90s, and spent a number of years working closely with him photographing the goings-on backstage. To celebrate the launch of Gary’s new book of these images we spoke to him about what it was like to work so closely with the icon.
“I met Lee at Central Saint Martins,” Gary explained to us, “hanging out in Dave’s coffee bar. He was always interested in photography and we just got on. He had a naughty sense of humour and was very mischievous. He was so unfashionable compared to his peers, happiest in old jeans and adidas trainers.
“I have lots of great memories from my times with him, whether it’s hanging out at my flat in Waterloo – he used to come round for beans on toast! – or the contrast of spending the weekend at Hilles House, Detmar and Isabella [Blow]’s country home. We would run around the garden taking pictures and filming Super 8 of Isabella running through the trees in some of his outfits.
"[Isabella's] enthusiasm for his work was overwhelming. She would introduce him to everyone everywhere we went: in the petrol station, in the bakers. Lee was just quite embarrassed mainly because half the people weren’t interested. I don’t think anyone could have predicted the success that would follow."Gary Wallis
“The reaction to his early work was fantastic, especially from Isabella. Her enthusiasm for his work was overwhelming. She would introduce him to everyone everywhere we went: in the petrol station, in the bakers. Lee was just quite embarrassed mainly because half the people weren’t interested. I don’t think anyone could have predicted the success that would follow.
“There were real mixed emotions working on the book. I haven’t looked at a lot of the images for many many years, and I found some that I didn’t even realise I had. I was very happy to be finally doing something with the images, but there were moments of real sadness – that we had drifted apart when he was whisked away into a different world, and that he is no longer with us.
“I’m not sure what I learnt from being around him,” Gary says, in answer to our final question. “Maybe be passionate about what you do, and work hard.”