September 3 2014

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Nick Waplington Talks Alexander McQueen and Working Process


Working ProcessWhen Nick Waplington began to document the making of Alexander McQueen’s fifteenth anniversary collection, the Horn of Plenty, he had no idea it would be one of the visionary’s last. A friend of the late designer, Waplington, who was living in Israel and shooting another project when McQueen approached him about the collaboration in 2007, chronicled Fall 2009′s production for six months. He watched its inception in the designer’s London studio—snapping away at model fittings and mood boards—and followed it all the way through to its now-legendary trip down a Paris runway, which was covered in heaps of spray-painted rubbish from McQueen’s previous sets. The resulting book, dubbed Alexander McQueen: Working Process, provides an intimate look at McQueen, his team (including Sarah Burton), and his methods—its pages depicting everything from moments of pain and anxiety to bursts of joy and laughter. “This project offers unprecedented insight into the mind of a notoriously private and at times willfully impenetrable man,” writes journalist Susannah Frankel, who worked closely with the designer, in the tome’s introduction. What’s more is that the book, which Waplington describes as “a historical document,” was largely edited by McQueen himself: He finished his selection before his tragic suicide in 2010. “It’s really the last thing he ever made,” Waplington said. Below, the photographer talks to about capturing the designer’s legacy, his experience inside the luminary’s studio, and what he learned of the real McQueen. For a first look at the contents of the book—which hits stores on October 31— click through our slideshow.

How did you come to work on this project in the first place?
We had known each other for some time, and he met up with me and explained that he was very worried, or interested, I should say, in his legacy. He was a very hands-on designer: He actually created the clothes himself, which I wasn’t aware of when we started. They would bring in big rolls of fabric, and he’d get up out of his chair and have a pair of scissors and pins, and minutes later, there would be this creation. He wanted people to understand this process. The book was going to be called The Process, and he thought I was the right person to bring his vision to the world, which was very nice of him. I wasn’t sure at first, and I was living in Israel at the time, so it was a lot of travel backward and forward. But luckily for me, I did it.

Did you have any inkling at the time why he was so intent on documenting his process—and preserving his legacy?
I did say to him, “Can I do this in a few years’ time?” and he said, “Absolutely not. It has to be this season.” But the season in question, the Horn of Plenty, was a season that he considered to be his retrospective of his first fifteen years. He was revisiting his old ideas, and for the show set, he created a big pile of rubbish out of all the sets from his shows over the past fifteen years, and he sprayed them all black. He got into this idea of recycling and renewal, and [this collection] was kind of like the end of one chapter of his life—that’s how he saw it. Obviously, after [his suicide], a lot of things went through my mind. But I’ll never know.

What did you find most interesting about his process?
I liked the layering—how he would create things in layers. His mind knew exactly what the cloth would do. The fact that he could turn something from just basically a roll of cloth into this wonderful creation in a matter of minutes was interesting for me.

How did you go about selecting what images to include in the book?
I insisted that [McQueen] edit the book. I shot on film, I made six hundred prints, I laid them out in a photo book for him, and I said, “The final edit is yours.” So basically, the choices are his and the sequence is his. It’s unique because it’s the only book that he produced himself. It was his vision and my pictures. I had a maquette made, which is this enormous hundred-pound book. It’s got handwritten notes inside from him to me. He’d take that book home and edit the pictures, and it would go by courier to me, and I would make notes and make changes, and then it would go back to him. Finally, we locked it down and were ready to go, but then circumstance intervened.

What kind of images did McQueen gravitate toward? What did he want the public to see?
Well, there were two phases. One was, he wanted images of him working, and he wanted to show the gritty rawness of what it was like in the atelier. And then there were other pictures afterwards that were included because he wanted it to be unlike any other book; so I started to take incidental pictures—pictures of landfill sites, pictures of rubbish dumps and recycling plants—and added those, because the collection was about rubbish and renewal and recycling.

Were you surprised by any of McQueen’s photo selections?
There were certain images that surprised me. There’s one where he’s kind of flinging his arms around and I didn’t think he’d like that. At first I showed him the pictures of him as I was taking them, and that was a big disaster. He didn’t like looking at himself, even though he knew he was eventually going to have to do it. It was his weight issue. Even though he wasn’t a big weight, he wasn’t as thin as he’d been—I think he’d stopped using the personal trainer by then. He was someone who could have fluctuating weight. But there’s one picture where you can see all the takeaway food and chocolate bars on his desk, which is quite revealing in a way. He wasn’t a salad man, I don’t think.

Who chose the cover image (above), you or McQueen?
I chose the cover image.

And why did you pick that image?
Well, there was no image chosen or defined when he died, so the cover image was chosen by me afterwards, and I like that picture because, to me, it shows the continuity of the business. It shows them [McQueen and Burton] working together. I thought that was nice, because Sarah, I mean, she is the legacy, isn’t she? It just worked.

What’s the difference between the McQueen everyone put on a pedestal and thought they knew, and the McQueen you interacted with while shooting this book?
There’s a vulnerability to him that wasn’t always apparent because he had this public persona. There are the stories, and the bad-boy image, but then there’s also this sensitive, gentle man. I’m hoping that side is depicted in the book and there are pictures in the book that show it. You know, there were days when he just wouldn’t turn up at all because of his moods, and there were other days when he’d be laughing and happy and the music would be loud and things would move really quickly. It was great to see the team work together and to capture those days—the good days. And I was told there were a lot of good days compared to some seasons.

You were one of the only people outside his team who was allowed to watch him work in the studio. Did you get a sense of why he was so guarded?
I think he was shy. At the end of the show, when he finished, he didn’t wait around to greet people; he just ran off the back of the catwalk, into a cab, and disappeared back to the hotel. The creative process can be a very personal thing, and he was creating pieces of art. I can see him now with his big rolls of cloth and his scissors—it was almost like a performance, which for him, I think, was a deeply personal thing.

Photo: Nick Waplington