gary wallis takes us backstage at lee mcqueen’s controversial early shows

From 'Jack the Ripper' to 'Highland Rape,' Alexander McQueen’s early shows are some of his most notorious. Here, photographer Gary Wallis gives us the anecdotes behind some never before seen backstage photos…

by James Anderson
13 March 2015, 12:26pm

Gary Wallis and Alexander McQueen became good friends when they were both students at Central Saints Martins in the early 90s. McQueen was still known by his real name of Lee at that time. "Lee was very mischievous and he always used to wind me up and flirt because he knew I was straight," laughs Wallis, who — at McQueen's request — photographed the designer's infamous MA graduate collection "Jack The Ripper Stalks His Victims." Their collaborations continued and Wallis enjoyed full access backstage at all of McQueen's early, infamous shows in London, before they eventually lost touch.

The resulting photographs by Wallis — most of which have not been widely seen before — now make up a stunning book, McQueen Backstage — The Early Shows, depicting a fresh-faced McQueen and his friends and collaborators, mainly at work and sometimes at play. In tandem with this, Proud Gallery Chelsea is exhibiting photographs from the book throughout March and early April.

"One of the biggest feelings when doing the book was sadness about what happened to Lee in the end, before the monstrous machine of the fashion industry took over, but also that we had drifted apart," Wallis reveals. "It was nice to look back and celebrate him. Sometimes he was intentionally controversial but there was always a meaning behind it. He was a smart guy with a wicked sense of humour."

Here, Wallis talks i-D through a selection of his own favorite images from the book. 

"We were at Issie and Detmar's house in Gloucestershire for the weekend, just after Lee's 'Banshee' Show had happened at the Café de Paris. We made a little film of Lee that he was going to use to get him more attention in the US. This photo was taken during a break — we were just messing about. He let this photo go out to the press afterwards — the first one where anyone had actually seen his face. Before that, in pictures in magazines like i-D, he had not shown his face. Partly because he didn't want people to recognise him and only want to be friends with him because he was 'a famous fashion designer'. He is wearing my jumper in that photo. I never got it back!"

"This was taken within about 15 minutes of the one where Lee is sticking his tongue out. He started larking about — doing handstands and cartwheels all over the place. He had quite a few attempts before he got it right and I've got about eight pictures of him in various stages of falling over and laying on the ground, which make quite a good sequence!"

"This was taken during the same weekend we had been in Gloucestershire. We drove back to Elizabeth Street to a run down house where Issie and Detmar lived. It had been a traumatic weekend for her, personally, as a family member had died while on a Buffalo hunting trip. She had taken off her sunglasses and hat, closed her eyes and dozed off for about 20 minutes. I really like this picture of her — it's calm and peaceful. She's not playing about or pretending to be happy, she is just completely at ease." 

"This is Rebecca Lowthorpe, backstage, when she was modelling at the 'Banshee' show. I think she had previously done some modelling while at college, where I knew her from. She's wearing the plaster of Paris bust cast. Rebecca is Assistant Editor of Elle magazine now."

''This is Laura De Palma backstage at 'The Birds' show at Bagleys. I love the simplicity of the image. She's wearing the very low cut 'bumster' trousers and she's got the zombie contact lenses on. The Birds show seemed to be a step forward for Lee, there were more models, there was more ambition, it felt bigger.''

''The tailoring was so good, but with the tyre prints they were actually still printing them on the models backstage at 'The Birds' show. I have a picture of Alister Mackie rolling a tyre across a model's torso!''

''The 'Highland Rape' show was the first that Lee did in the tents at the Natural History Museum, which was the official venue for the London shows at the time. It felt different there because in the previous venues he'd used, he'd had no restrictions. That is his hand in the foreground — he is cutting and attacking bits of the lace just moments before the model went on the catwalk.''

''This was taken at the 'Highland Rape' show before the show started. Lee never normally liked being photographed at a show, but he had just put the black zombie contact lenses in and was excited so I took a picture. Afterwards, I had lots of contact sheets of all the images but somehow I had never noticed this image on the contact sheet until just before we were sending the book off to the printers. So, it had been unseen for twenty years. When you look closely you can see that there are pins on his shirt and lipstick on his left cheek where people had been kissing him.''

''Issie Blow would pull in all her glam friends to model for Lee — this is Tiina Laakkonen from Vogue and it's at 'The Birds' show. I only found this picture two days before we went to print with the book and it is one of my favourites. I love the textures of the clothes, and the light. It looks very calm. We had all been there for hours and hours prior to the show starting."

McQueen Backstage — The Early Shows by Gary Wallis is out now. The accompanying exhibition runs until April 5, at Proud Gallery, 161 King's Road, London.


Text James Anderson
Photography Gary Wallis

Alexander McQueen
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mcqueen backstage
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the early shows