Modelling for McQueen

ELLE's Rebecca Lowthorpe on modelling for McQueen

MOST POPULAR

I first met Lee Alexander McQueen at Central Saint Martins. He was on the MA fashion course and I had just started on the BA fashion journalism course. New students of a certain height and shape were quickly sized-up by the then-head of the MA, Bobby Hilson, and her colleague, the late professor Louise Wilson, and drafted in to model for the MA students’ assessments and graduation shows. This involved hours of fittings in their office – a lot of colourful language and first-hand insight into the students’ work and what made them tick. That’s when I first encountered Lee.

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

I remember his graduation collection and, in particular, a black chiffon dress with purple papery flakes trapped between its layers. It didn’t work – the flakes sank to the hem of the dress – but Lee passionately defended it. And because of that, he stood out – so few dared come up against Louise or Bobby.

MOST POPULAR

Then Isabella Blow bought his entire MA collection and as soon as that happened the buzz around Lee intensified. I remember going to meet him to see his follow-up collection and Issy (Blow) was there. That’s when he asked if I’d model in his next show. At that time it wasn’t in the least bit unusual to have friends modelling – in fact, it was a necessity. Everything was ad hoc, he had no money so his was a hand-to-mouth existence and I think he wanted to use girls that suited him, too; it felt more rebellious than using models who represented the more established way of doing things. I said yes straight away, of course, and then worried that he would ask me to wear a top splattered with locusts and glued on with Latex (he once showed me such a top) or a pair of trousers designed to elongate the torso that barely covered the pubic bone – later known as his infamous ‘bumsters’.

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

It was the autumn/winter 1994 collection, ‘Banshee’, which took place in the Café de Paris in London. No fittings had taken place prior to the show, so none of us had any idea what we would be wearing when we turned up. There was no running order, no board displaying the show outfits on all the models – it was all in Lee’s head. He decided there and then who would wear what. I remember Issy Blow marching around in her knickers while military braiding was stitched to the sleeves of the Admiral’s coat she would model. He put the writer Plum Sykes in pale laddered wool, the ice-blonde stylist Tiina Laakkonen in a voluminous transparent white cloud of a dress, and a heavily pregnant skinhead – I don’t remember her name – in a sheer black mousseline gown. I ended up in a white plaster cast corset, moulded on chicken wire, simply because my neck was long enough to fit its rigid shape. The corset, which had been modelled on someone much larger than me, was tied on with string over a diaphanous white dress and the wire ridges left welts on my skin. It was also so heavy I had to lie down backstage under a rail of clothes so that I didn’t get trodden on. Lee brought me a bottle of water and a straw.

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

Like all the models that day, my hair was slicked flat to the head by the hair stylist Eugene Souleiman, who carefully applied silver spray paint through a cardboard stencil so that we were all identically branded with ‘McQUEEN’.

The show itself is a blur. I remember the audience whooping at Issy Blow and the girl who was pregnant. Lee didn’t want us to smile, so the atmosphere on stage was very sombre and intense. My only concern was to get to the end of the runway and back without tripping over and being impaled by chicken wire. It makes me smile now, how raw and rudimentary it was compared to the beautiful, immaculately crafted corsets he went on to create.

Whenever I saw him after that, and especially if I was interviewing him and being serious, he would bring it up and laugh out loud about me in his chicken wire corset.

"Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" is at the Victoria & Albert Museum until 2 August 2015.

Photography: Gary Wallis (McQueen: Backstage - The Early Shows by Gary Wallis, Proud Chelsea, 4th March - 5th April 2015, www.proud.co.uk)

Read Next: