Creativity at work

McQueen’s creative process photographed by Nick Waplington, showing at Tate Britain

As the epic Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty show began in London, there is another retrospective, at Tate Britain, which examines his creative process through photographs. K looks through the lens.

It’s an exhibition of the intimate, behind-the-scenes pictures from the The Horn of Plenty show, taken by Nick Waplington. There are models being tied into corsets, scowling at the camera, and images of McQueen so tense, so deep in creative thought that it’s as though he has forgotten the camera was even there.

Agent provocateur, agitator, enfant terrible, creative genius, and an East End boy; Alexander Lee McQueen the man; and McQueen the artist, lived with many a moniker. But when it comes to his creative process, how much did we really know? Very little is the answer.

Staged during the cold autumn of 2009, The Horn of Plenty, was to be the designer’s last catwalk collection before his tragic death just five months later. The photographer Nick Waplington was backstage on a rare commission, to capture the moment. The photographs have since become a treasured, final glimpse into the creative output of a modern-day genius.

This was the first and only time that McQueen would allow someone to document his working process in the lead up to a show, and Waplington used his own technique to immerse himself into the action as he shot from the shadows.

McQueen’s studio staff weren’t allowed to speak to the photographer, or even offer him a cup of tea. “He liked my messy, dirty style, so he wanted me to take some messy, dirty photos of him,” said Waplington. “He was only going to open up his studio to someone that he had a relationship, or some empathy with.”


The setting for the show, which was to be a sartorial commentary about a nation teetering on the brink of a recession, was in the round, inside Paris’s Palais Omnisport. At the venue’s centre was a towering pile of rubbish. Yes, junk. Recycled bits and bobs piled high; car parts; old fairground horses; broken furniture and petrol cans – each piece spray-painted black, and looming ominously over the seated audience.

The lights fell, and an army of models, part fetishists, and part formalists, teetered around the black debris - stepping over shards of broken glass as they traversed the runway.
Their faces were painted white, and their lips were accentuated into sex-doll proportions with glossy, red paint.

Le processus créatif de McQueen photographié par Nick Waplington à la Tate Britain

Their bodies were stitched into dangerously sharp hound’s-tooth tailoring, sumptuous, black feather gowns and red, printed bodices.

Gowns were made of what looked like bin liners and shattered records (but were in fact crafted from layers of expensive silks) and the hats echoed the throwaway theme. Lampshades, washing machine piping and umbrellas – nothing was just rubbish, even the most throwaway aspects of life were rendered into splendour. This was power dressing at its most extreme. “I want people to look at it and say, ‘what’s that?”, he said of the show backstage.

“Backstage at a McQueen show the atmosphere was always buzzing,” says Jade Parfitt, a model who McQueen often cast in his shows. “It felt like a cross between an art installation and a rave. It was tense and exciting. You wanted to perform for him.”


Working Progress is at Tate Britain until 17 May 2015
More McQueen:
Article on Isabella Blow, a collector of Alexander McQueen
Nick Waplington
Untitled from the series 'Alexander McQueen Working Process' 2008-09 © Nick Waplington