In Depth

Shaun Leane: McQueen’s jewellery disruptor

A new art book chronicles an illustrious career

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If you were one of the half a million visitors to the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition at London’s V&A museum in 2015, you will have seen Shaun Leane’s iconic coiled corset (below) at close range. The intricate aluminium body sculpture, painstakingly made over a gruelling 16 weeks for McQueen’s AW99 show ‘The Overlook’, was one of the British jeweller’s many pieces on display in the exhibition’s Cabinet of Curiosities, a space brimming with fabric, feathered and forged structural wonders from McQueen’s visionary catwalks.

For Leane, the corset – part tribal armour, part fembot carapace – represents a turning point in his collaborative partnership with the late designer, which spanned 17 years and is widely regarded as one of the most dynamic pairings in fashion history. “When I made the piece, it really hit me that I was producing work not just as a fine jeweller but as an artist,” says Leane, who launched his fine and bespoke jewellery house in 1999. “It’s almost as if the fear of the impossible suddenly disappeared; my mind was completely open to new projects, and that has been my attitude ever since.” His life’s work is now the subject of a soon-to-be-released art book.

Leafing through it, one is reminded of the daring and technically challenging pieces Leane imagined, each one guided by the chiaroscurist brilliance of McQueen’s fantasy runway collections – at once Gothic and delicate, threatening and beguiling, beautiful and unsettling. The pieces that preceded the coiled corset are no less arresting: Leane’s single Tusk earring (made for ‘The Hunger’, McQueen’s SS96 catwalk) is a curved 10in weapon for the ear, cast in silver; a symbol of punkish rebellion, female empowerment and primal truth, crafted with contemporary finesse. For McQueen’s AW98 ‘Joan’ (after Joan of Arc) collection, Leane created a thorny headdress cast in silver and loaded with silver roses and strands of garnet – a suitably Gothic crown to match the dark sorcery of the show.

There are pieces that look like torture devices for the face, some that signify the sacrificial (aluminium jawbones, huge feathered ear cuffs and spear-like piercings), and others still that are positively zoomorphic, such as the ‘spine corset’ he created for McQueen’s Untitled SS98 show: a large exoskeleton with a tail that was worn over a collection piece. But, according to Leane, the coiled corset was unlike any other because it allowed him to fully embrace his place in the fashion world: “Even though we had been working together for four years, I was restricted by my world of fine goldsmithing. I was still so new to the theatre of fashion and couture.”

As an apprentice, he spent seven years honing his skills at English Traditional Jewellery, an atelier in Hatton Garden that specialised in restoration and made high jewellery for Bond Street stores. When Leane joined forces with McQueen – Lee to his friends and family – at just 22, the largest piece he’d made was a tiara. “I cast McQueen’s fit model Laura Morgan in concrete,” he says of the process of making the corset. “I had casts of her body all over my workshop: head, torso, arms, everything! The corset fit her so exactly that she had to be screwed into it before the Overlook show.

As always, Lee was swarmed by the press after his final bow, but as I was unscrewing Laura from the corset, he fought his way through to tell me how blown away he was by the piece. When you work with someone like Lee, you have the ultimate respect for their vision, so for him to say that to me, there and then, was incredibly moving. It’s actually the only piece that’s engraved with both our signatures.” Many elaborate body sculptures and ornate jewellery confections followed: the two not only worked together on McQueen’s namesake collections (from 1994 to 2008) but Leane applied his craftsmanship to Givenchy’s catwalks when McQueen was creative director (1996 to 2001). As well as Leane’s landmark pieces, including the McQueen SS00 ‘yashmak’ made from aluminium plates and Swarovski cabochon crystals, and his exaggerated coiled necklaces for Givenchy Haute Couture in 2001, the book has 100 previously unpublished images taken by Ann Ray, who spent more than a decade documenting McQueen.

Leane was encouraged to launch his own label by the late Isabella Blow, a fashion force who guided McQueen throughout his career: “Lee was a catalyst in my career, but Issie was just as important – she encouraged me to make pieces that were separate from my catwalk work.” One of his first namesake pieces was for Blow: “She simply said, ‘Make me an anklet by Shaun Leane.’ That was the brief !” This majestic silver structure, composed of a ring of sharp concave tusks, is illustrated in the book.

Leane’s eponymous business has gone from strength to strength. He employs a small group of goldsmiths who work from his Mayfair atelier. “We have a beautiful culture; my team have been with me for years,” he says fondly. Collections are greatly informed by his McQueen work, although its avant-gardism is presented in a softer, more refined tone. Leane’s signature Sabre collection takes its cue from his 1996 Tusk earring – these bold high-carat curvilinear pieces have fluid lines ending in a point, still dramatic but less overtly aggressive.

His latest collection, Serpent’s Trace, riffs off the ‘spine corset’: bracelets, rings and necklaces are composed of tiny articulated ‘vertebrae’ in precious metals. Nonetheless, the pyramidal pattern suggests a twisted decadence that is pure McQueen. “I think the difference between me and many other jewellery houses is that I essentially attended the School of McQueen for 20 years, so his ethos is ingrained in me. When I started my business, I did so with a fashion outlook. It’s my version of a couture house, with ready-to-wear and a bespoke [division] that pushed the boundaries of tradition.”

Indeed, Leane’s bespoke creations combine unusual materials such as ceramic and aluminium with gold, platinum and high-carat gemstones. He has produced pieces for houses including Boucheron, De Beers and Asprey, as well as for clients with a taste for the usual: in 2011, he unveiled a diamond- encrusted glove commissioned by Daphne Guinness – a piece that took him and three other goldsmiths four years to craft. More recently, for a client’s 50th birthday, he dreamt up a nature-inspired brooch: a cascade of platinum branches set with 70 carats of sapphires and adorned with tanzanite buds and 18ct gold beetles on an aluminium base. And now there’s the book to reflect on his greatest achievements. “It’s dedicated to all the great people who have helped me to shape my craft. But above all, it reminds me of all the love I had and still have for Lee. He was my closest friend and I’ll miss him till the day I die.”

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