Alexander McQueen Collaborator Shaun Leane Looks Back on His Groundbreaking Career

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An instigator of invention and innovation, Shaun Leane shatters the traditional perception of what jewelry is, what it means, and what it can achieve. While 2020 has been an unforgettable year for many, it marks more positive, significant milestones for the prolific jeweler. “It is a celebration of 21 years of the house of Shaun Leane, my 50th birthday, and also the 10th anniversary of [the passing of] my dear friend, the late Alexander McQueen,” Leane tells CR. “These pivotal moments made me want to reflect back on the beauty of the different facets of my career that shaped and helped me evolve to be the designer, craftsman, and house we are today.” His musings can be found in his first retrospective book, Shaun Leane, which documents three distinct periods of his journey as a jeweler: his training, his career-defining partnership with McQueen, and the evolution of his own namesake brand. Available in a classic and deluxe edition, both filled to the brim with images of his hauntingly beautiful creations, the tome tells the story of how Leane bridged the worlds of fine jewelry and contemporary, wearable art.

The British designer has never been one for convention. His journey to success has been one of vigor, tenacity, and the sheer self insight that made it possible for the industry renegade to know where his calling would lead him. At age 15, Leane already had an idea that he wanted to work within fashion. During his time at Kingsway Princeton College, he directed his studies towards jewelry design. “I particularly fell in love with the process of crafting,” he says. “The beauty in seeing something you had designed and envisaged, then being formed and crafted by my own hands was so rewarding.”

From there, Leane began an apprenticeship and career as a traditional fine goldsmith at English Traditional Jewelry in London’s jewelry quarter, Hatton Garden. Two masters of their craft, Brian Joslin and Richard Bullock taught Leane everything there was to know. One encouraged Leane’s agility, while the other catered to the accuracy of this technique and molded his acute attention to detail. As for any great designer, a foundation in tradition is necessary to know which rules to break. Spending 13 years as an apprentice, Leane honed his skills in diamond mounting and antique restoration.

Leane then went on to open his own atelier, and to meet the late, great Alexander McQueen–Lee to those who knew him. A mutual friend introduced the pair while McQueen was in his Masters program at Central Saint Martins. “Lee often visited my atelier where I would be crafting pieces from diamond solitaires to diamond tiaras,” Leane recalls. “He was fascinated by my skill and attention to detail. It was here where Lee then asked if I would create jewels for his catwalk shows. Lee was a huge influence to me.”

The fortuitous friendship of Leane and McQueen symbiotically stoked their creative sparks. The collaborative relationship, which included work for McQueen’s namesake label as well as his tenure at Givenchy, resulted in some of the most influential couture jewelry to ever take the catwalk. “From him, I learned that if you have a skill, vision, and passion, you can break the restrictions of a traditional discipline to create the new,” Leane says. “Back in the ‘90s, Lee gave me a platform where there were no boundaries, where I could experiment and explore, and push my design and craft skill to the ultimate.”

It marked a turning point for Leane. Much of his collaborative work with McQueen extended beyond the limits of traditional jewelry, encasing the body and embodying new levels of adornment. One piece in particular was especially pivotal. According to Leane, the skeleton corset, an aluminum creation that armored the body in a hybrid of part-human, part-animal spine and ribs, “took me from a goldsmith to a sculptor.” The anatomical design, which was cast using a real human skeleton, introduced Leane to new potential for his craft in terms of substance and scale. “This was one of the most challenging pieces I made as it was my first using materials I hadn’t tapped into before, but it opened the door to endless possibilities,” the jeweler says.

Without this merging of masterminds, we’d be left without some of the most poetic, poignant, and avant-garde pieces the fashion world has ever known. For McQueen’s Fall/Winter 1996 show titled Dante (after Dante Alighieri, the Italian poet responsible for The Divine Comedy), Leane crafted provocative head and body pieces from sterling silver, modeled after Christ’s crown of thorns. The collection was inspired by ideologies of war and peace, and how they pertain to religion. For McQueen’s Spring/Summer 2000 Eye collection, Leane forged a full-faced body armor, called a yashmak, that was influenced by Middle Eastern dress while also referencing the knights of the Crusades. The stunning piece was featured again in McQueen’s Fall/Winter 2009 Horn of Plenty collection.

With these extraordinary creations having garnered worldwide admiration, many have been featured in the permanent collections of leading fashion and jewelry institutions, and prominent museums such as London’s V&A and New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Leane’s commemorative book celebrates these victories along with how they continue to influence his work today. Themes from his formative years with McQueen appear in his brand’s current offerings. “When I design and create,” Leane says, “I always think of where he would have taken it to.”

With nature serving as his treasure trove of inspiration, Leane’s creations touch upon all things earthly from dainty cherry blossoms and budding pearls, to edgy tusks, talons, and porcupine quills rendered in gold and diamonds. His bespoke craftsmanship conjures Art Deco undertones with strong, yet fluid silhouettes. The juxtaposition of his classical interpretations of more modern curiosities is what set his works apart.

It’s also what brought him to one of his greatest achievements this year–designing the wedding band of newlywed Princess Beatrice. While this certainly isn’t the first time Leane’s creations have been favored by royalty, the granddaughter to Queen Elizabeth II broke traditional protocol with her new ring. The majority of royal brides of the British monarchy adhere to the more uniformed simplistic band of Welsh gold, but the princess and her new husband, Edoardo Mapelli Mozzi, opted for a more modern Shaun Leane original. “I worked alongside Princess Beatrice’s husband to create the ring,” the jeweler says. “It was a real honor and working with Edoardo was a complete pleasure as he understood design and materials, and knew exactly the aesthetic Princess Beatrice would like. I wanted to fuse their two favorite aesthetics, Victorian and Art Deco, to reflect the pair coming together in marriage.” Leane also worked with Mapelli Mozzi to design the princess’ engagement ring.

With all of these celebratory milestones, a recent book release, and royal projects having been underway, Leane may be one of the busiest men amidst coronavirus-induced lockdowns. With much of the world still on pause, the circumstances “are allowing me to have space without noise–to focus on projects and collections I have wanted to tap into for a while,” he says. “I can truly say I am still designing my best work despite the challenging times we are facing. I have always been an artist of evolution and reinvention in my work.”

Shaun Leane is now available online.

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