Nearly four years after the sudden death of Alexander McQueen rocked the fashion world, the new book “Alexander McQueen: Working Process” (Damiani, $60) documents the designer’s fall-winter 2009 collection, which McQueen intended as a culmination of 15 years of his work to that point. He recruited the photographer Nick Waplington to capture the creation of the collection, from sketches to fittings to a final runway show. The images, many of which capture the designer in moments of joy, grief and strife, present a haunting portrait of a designer at work. Here, Waplington recalls the process.
How did the book come about?
I am an art photographer. Lee — that is what we called him — was a friend and had some of my work. He came to me and said he wanted me to make him a photo book. It would be my photo book, and he would be the subject matter. I have never taken a book commission before. He just asked me to do it, and I did.
What do you think he wanted to convey with it?
He was very worried that his legacy be preserved, and he felt that I was someone who could do that for him. That was what the project was about for him. His legacy and that people would see this inside view of him at work.
Why do you think he wanted to document the fall/winter 2009 collection as opposed to any other?
He decided it was the end of the first phase of his production. He wanted to draw the previous 15 years of work to a close by revisiting all his ideas and processes. So he decided that he would bring back people he had collaborated with, from jewelry designers to makeup people. Even models. It was the year after the financial meltdown, and he saw that as a good time for change and renewal. He saw his work as a mirror of society, and himself as an artist rather than just a fashion designer.
Was there anything you weren’t allowed to photograph?
The only thing I could not photograph was him smoking in the studio because smoking in buildings is not allowed, and he was worried about getting in trouble with city authorities.
What was the studio environment like?
I informed the people who worked there not to talk to me. It is kind of the way I work. I get the pictures because I don’t get involved. I am the anti-Terry Richardson. I am not in the thick of the action, I am in the background. What I am doing is looking for moments. It would be a normal working environment over a six-month period. I started with Lee in the drawing stage, then in the studio in London where the basic garments were being put together. The team would bring in large rolls of cloth, and Lee would take scissors and pins and cut and build the clothes on the models. The women would pin as he cut and folded. A layer would be created very quickly and that would go off to be hemmed or put together. I had been told that some fashion designers work by committee and are behind a desk ordering people around. Obviously, with him it is the act of creation that he was doing himself and that is what he wanted to show. I just kind of photographed things as they went along. When we were editing the pictures, Lee created the sequence.
How did he work? Did you sense that the pressure was overwhelming to him?
He did feel an incredible amount of pressure. He was definitely an emotional man, and if you are creative I feel like you need that pressure as an outlet. With him it was a double-edged sword. The rigor of the work is a good thing but then it is a difficult thing.
Was he happy with the collection?
Yes, he was. You never know when you create something if other people are going to like it. I remember the positive reaction of The New York Times gave him a lift. Also, Anna Wintour didn’t make the show but she went to preview before the show and was very complimentary. Lee was very nervous before she came. I was surprised how edgy he was about things. People say that he has this duality as this vulnerable child and this hard-nosed, in-your-face man. This was his vulnerable side showing before the show.
Do you have a favorite image in the book?
I like the picture of him with his hands on his hips of him smiling at me [pictured at the top of the page]. It is not normally the kind of picture I would like. When I chose that picture out of the thousands of photos I had, I did not know what was going to happen and I thought to myself, “This is a really great picture because you always hear about him being so grumpy and here he is at work smiling and having a good time and things are going well.” I really like that picture.
Why did the book take so long to come out?
By the time we finished the book it was quite close to the time that he died, and the McQueen Company asked me if I would wait. I felt that this is the only book he is ever going to make himself and there was no point in rushing it out and having it with all the ambulance-chasing books that came after his death.
Given that the collection was about closing a chapter, did he ever reveal what he wanted for the future?
Yes, he did. I know exactly what he had in mind next. At the moment I do not think I am at liberty to say, but I know exactly what was next. It was very, very different. It was not fashion. I think ultimately he was looking for a way out of fashion.