Back in the early 1990s, before there was a Savage Beauty show or friendship with Kate Moss, Alexander “Lee” McQueen was a young fashion graduate, living in a squat and producing fashion collections on a shoestring. Back in those early days, his world was full of friends and collaborators from Central Saint Martins — including Gary Wallis, who was just starting out as a photographer.
That’s how Wallis came to be a fly on the wall at the earliest Alexander McQueen shows, where he lingered backstage to shoot now-legendary collections like Highland Rape and Dante. Wallis’s new book, McQueen: Backstage, shows the designer’s journey through those first years, collection by collection. The Cut spoke to Wallis about their friendship, the atmosphere of that time, and how success changed McQueen’s life.
How did you meet McQueen?
We were both studying at Central Saint Martins at the same time, and we met in Dave’s Coffee Bar, which [was] like a social hub. He was always really interested in photography, and we both had the same stupid sense of humor, so we just got on. Even in his early days, when he was doing his collections, he used to hang out around my flat. I used to feed him, because he had no money — he would come round for beans on toast.
Why did you start to photograph his work?
He knew I was taking pictures all the time, and I’d just started taking fashion pictures. He asked if I’d photograph his M.A. collection for him. And then when I was in the final year of my degree, and he’d left college, we bumped into each other in Soho and he asked me to make a little film for him at the Café de Paris show — the Banshee show. So I made a Super 8, black-and-white home movie and he also gave me access to take pictures. After that, he would let me come backstage at every show, and I would take pictures as the house photographer. I think I’ve got photographs of his first five or six shows.
What happened after that?
I started working and I couldn’t spend the whole afternoon there anymore — I was shooting for magazines, and in a day I’d have to photograph six or seven shows. And it all got a bit frantic for Lee as well. They got so much interest, it went crazy. It became absolutely manic backstage. There were so many photographers there, and I think in the end he just had a bit of a freak-out, and basically kicked everybody out. He didn’t like being photographed, and there were people in his face photographing the whole time.
When you did the early shows, what was it like backstage?
It was a really good atmosphere, because there were lots of friends there. The dressers were friends of friends, and the models were friends of Isabella Blow’s, or people from Saint Martins — because in the early days it was all done on a shoestring. There were people like Rebecca Lowthorpe, who’s now an editor at Elle — she was a friend from college, so she was modeling. Isabella got Plum Sykes and Tiina Laakkonen in to model — it was very much that kind of atmosphere. There was a really good energy about it.
Do you have favorite images from that time?
I’ve got one of Lee doing a handstand across the lawn at Isabella’s house, which is always a favorite because it’s so simple and naïve, and it was a fun weekend. We were filming this little movie that I made for him, so she’s running around the garden in these clothes and we’re just messing about. He started doing cartwheels and handstands. Then there’s one of him wearing black zombie contact lenses. I discovered that one once I’d started to do the book — I’d forgotten all about it. The last time I’d seen it was 20 years ago, through the camera.
The other day I found a little envelope with my backstage passes from those early shows, and in there were some pictures shot in his studio. There’s a really lovely one of him tickling his dog’s tummy on the sofa — that would have gone into the book, if I’d found it in time.
Did you have a sense back then that he was going to be very famous and successful?
Not really. I mean, there was a whole generation of designers from college at that time who were all getting a lot of attention and all doing really well. Hussein Chalayan was a contemporary from college, and Antonio Berardi — Matthew Williamson was just starting to show. London felt like the place to be for fashion. You can’t predict how someone will capture the imagination of fashion editors.
Did you stay friends with him after you stopped shooting the shows?
We lost touch a little bit, especially when he was taken over by Gucci — he just became frantically busy. And even before that, when he started working at Givenchy, he was away a lot. We’d bump into each other occasionally, and he’d come over for a cup of tea. And then it got to the stage where you couldn’t phone him anymore — the number went to three different people before you could speak to him. That’s just the nature of success, I think.
What do you think he would make of all the coverage at the moment?
It’s a shame that in order to have this celebration of someone’s work, that he has to have passed, you know. I think he’d be really happy with the Savage Beauty show, that’s for sure. It’s just an amazing representation of his work, and to have it in that gallery environment would be something he would have dreamed of. Because he would always push the boundaries — it was fashion pushing into art, and Savage Beauty has made that quite apparent.
This interview has been edited and condensed.