nadja swarovski on mcqueen's crystal collaborations
Here’s how the celebrated Austrian crystal house forged an unexpected relationship with the designer back in the 90s.
These days, Swarovski is well-known for supporting brands such as Christopher Kane, Rodarte, Versace and Margiela, but back in the 90s, it wasn't the case. It was when the company brought in Isabella Blow to consult that its work with emerging designers really started to shine. Blow immediately led Nadja Swarovski to Alexander McQueen's tiny London studio and, impressed by his outrageous talent, she proposed a collaboration. Swarovski went on to support McQueen's spring/summer 99 collection, and around 30 of his pieces featuring their crystals are on show at the V&A's Savage Beauty exhibition (also sponsored by the brand). Here Nadja Swarovski talks about McQueen's quiet side, his love of crystal mesh and the celebrated No. 13 collection.
I hear you met Lee McQueen through Isabella Blow. Where was that, and at what stage was he in his career?
Isabella Blow took me to his studio in the late 90s. Issie was a friend and also worked as a creative consultant for us, and she immediately knew that Lee would be the perfect designer for us to work with. Lee was based in a tiny studio up in Islington at that time, so going into his space meant that you were immediately surrounded by all these fabrics and clothes. At that point he had already established his reputation in London and had recently started working with Givenchy, so he was beginning to build his global appeal. It was a very exciting time.
When did Swarovski first start working with him?
We started working together pretty soon after that first meeting. Our first full collaboration was on the spring/summer 99 collection, 'No. 13', which was the show that ended with Shalom Harlow being sprayed with colored paint as she struck poses (she was trained as a dancer) on a giant wooded turntable. Beyond the sheer spectacle of the show, it was also really magical to see what he had done with our crystals.
Can you remember the first piece you collaborated on?
Well the most notable piece from that No. 13 collection was definitely the crystal mesh. It was something that Lee totally reimagined, draping this crystal around the body like it was a fabric. As soon as he presented those looks everybody wanted to use crystal mesh in their own pieces.
Can you describe his personality?
Despite the loudness of some of his shows and collections, Lee was actually quiet and reserved when you first met him - but he was also incredibly generous. At the end of that first meeting he disappeared off and came back with this stunning tailored coat in yellow leather. It was the most beautiful gift and such a kind gesture, and I still have the coat today!
What is your fondest memory of him?
Issie and Lee went to our factory and headquarters in Austria and he went totally wild for all the crystal - he was like a child in a candy store surrounded by all the different cuts and colors. He was immediately dreaming up new ideas and looks to create, all using our stones.
How did it feel watching his talent grow?
It is always a pleasure helping talent expand and develop, and it's something at the core of all the collaborations we do. The most exciting thing is when your working relationship challenges your own ideas and ways of doing things. Lee would constantly force us to innovate and come up with new ideas and solutions to match the scale of his creative ideas.
Which is your favorite piece of his using Swarovski?
It's really difficult to choose, but I think the Bird's Nest Headdress from the 'Widows of Culloden' collection is an incredibly strong piece, not just because it's beautiful, but because it shows off Lee's talent for collaboration and his respect for craftsmanship. He worked on the piece with Shaun Leane and Philip Treacy, who were both members of his fashion family, but are such skilled artists in their own rights.
Why do you think he liked using the crystals?
Lee liked to experiment with all sorts of materials, and our crystals were no exception. I think the exciting thing about working with crystal is the way that it immediately draws the eye to the silhouette of a garment, and it immediately elevates a look. Lee used both those qualities to devastating effect.
How do you think he revolutionised the way designers work with crystals?
As well as being an inspirational and trendsetting designer he helped us reconnect with our own heritage in fashion. We have just finished our 15th year of the Swarovski Collective, which has so far seen us support major fashion talents including Laura and Kate Mulleavy of Rodarte, Christopher Kane and Mary Katrantzou among many others. It's been such a pleasure watching them innovate and create such exciting new designs using Swarovski crystal.
You're sponsoring the Savage Beauty exhibition. What do you think of it? We are hugely proud and excited to be supporting this exhibition. Beyond the sheer quality of the show, and the many Swarovski crystal pieces in it, it's also a wonderful homecoming for Lee McQueen. He was a designer who was born in this city, trained on Savile Row, and built a global brand from his base in London, so it's great to see such an important retrospective taking place here.
Photography Alexander McQueen Copyright Chris Moore