Lee Alexander McQueen’s forward-thinking vision and game-changing designs propelled him to fashion stardom in the mid-’90s. Tragically, McQueen died by suicide in 2010, at the age of 40 at his home in London, but his legacy lives on.
I was lucky to view a collection of his work, spanning from 1994 to 1996 and beyond, with Ruti Danan, a former head of McQueen studio, at the New York Historical Society’s pop-up exhibit this past weekend. Danan’s archive of rare early work, which will be auctioned later this week by Boston-based RR Auction, included garments hand-sewn by McQueen, along with original patterns and sketches that have been carefully preserved.
She was a key participant in the world of McQueen during pivotal moments of British fashion and culture. McQueen worked closely with Danan as her comrade, mentor, and friend.
Danan had always admired McQueen’s work even before working with him, recognized him as a revolutionary designer, and knew she wanted to be a part of it. After obtaining McQueen’s mother’s telephone number, she called to find out where his studio was located.
“I headed off to his studio, which was in Farringdon at the time. When I walked in, he looked at me and said, ‘Who the f*ck are you?’ I said, ‘I want to work for you.’” At that moment, she recalled, his assistant had made a mistake with a fabric and he was upset. Danan offered to make him a cup of tea and he looked at her portfolio. Then he told her, “You can stay, and you can f*ck off!” to his current assistant.
Danan’s work with McQueen included the controversial-yet-powerful Highland Rape collection she described as “the most exciting moment in my life.” The collection was defining for the designer.
“I knew we were working on something that would be remembered forever and that he would be marked in history as the greatest,” she said. McQueen’s goal was that the viewer would “come out of the show full of emotion.”
After the Highland Rape collection, the landlord locked up the studio for lack of rent payment. Danan managed to talk her way into the building to rescue many garments that would have otherwise been thrown in the garbage. Some of these items are included in the auction.
Highlights from the auction include the Black Dante Military Matador Coat with original construction and braid motif patterns — an iconic McQueen look — among many others.
“He was hands-on. I think 70 percent of this collection is his own hands,” Danan said. “We were a part of history at the time.” She arrived at the studio, where McQueen would often spend the night, many mornings to find finished frock coats cut like nothing she had ever seen.
Along with Highland Rape, Danan worked on the 1996 shows The Hunger and Dante. Dante led to critical and commercial success and landed McQueen the position of head designer at the French fashion house Givenchy.
During our meeting, she described some of her fond memories of McQueen. Cherished time included moments spent creating pieces together, often working all night listening to music and gossiping about love and relationships.
“He was very romantic, very attentive,” she said. “He wanted to know your private stories, private secrets. He loved talking about love and relationships. That’s what he was searching for. Someone to love and receive love.”
She also discussed his legacy, crediting Andrew Bolton for putting together the show “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in 2011, shortly after his death.
“I think he made him remembered in history,” she said. Four of her pieces were used in that show, which later traveled to London. “I’m so honored to have spent time with him and this is something so precious that we had. It was a very treasured time for me, and I learned so much. I wish I was there to have helped him in his difficult moments.”
As for the auction, she would prefer the work made public and that students have access to it.
“My wish is that they will go to important institutions,” she said. “It’s about preserving and honoring Lee’s work.”
The live auction will be held on Saturday, February 22. For more information, visit www.rrauction.com.