Leane on McQueen

For master jeweller Shaun Leane, Alexander McQueen’s ‘Highland Rape’ was the show that made his name, renowned for the press uproar it produced that made him infamous. 25 years later, Oliver Day looks for lessons in its undeserved revulsion.

Words Ollie Day Photography Eva Stibbe

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McQueen and Shaun Leane, adjusting Leane’s Thorned Pearl Shoulderpiece backstage at Voss, SS2001 - photographed by Ann Ray

IT began with Highland Rape. The young Lee McQueen, only three years past his graduation from Central St. Martins’ MA Fashion course, was for the first time presenting his catwalk show in the British Fashion Council’s tent, pitched outside the National History Museum. The crowd were enraptured: tentative excitement of London Fashion Week’s return to form had built to a crescendo, with McQueen tipped as the rising star for his provocative, raw presentations.

 

When the press gathered for his 1995 BFC debut, they came in force, rioting to enter and be titillated yet again by the young designer’s tightrope walk between thrill and revulsion. Then, they glanced at the show’s program, and some of their anticipation curdled. Rape? It’s a fashion show about rape? It wasn’t, of course, but by the following day he was reviled. “They called us misogynistic,” master jeweller Shaun Leane says, “and I thought, you don't get it. You just don't get the depth of the concept. I mean, look at the clothes in that collection, they were some of his best. They were unbelievable. They were so beautiful.”

They called us misogynistic, and I thought, you just don't get it

As one of McQueen’s earliest and most longstanding collaborators, Leane witnessed firsthand how the British press turned upon his best friend overnight. “They were lazy. It was lazy journalism, and they didn't have either the foresight or the intelligence to even scratch the surface and look deeper to see what the concept actually was.”

25 years later, Leane says that the true meaning of the collection was always plain to see. “If you looked at Highland Rape, you knew what the concept of that was about - it was the English as Vikings.” Leane is proven correct by the show’s invitation: printed next to the title was a short spiel referencing the Highland Clearances, over a century of racist, genocidal action perpetuated against the Celtic Scot population by the English spanning the years 1750-1860.

“What me and Lee did,” Leane says, “was that we dressed those girls for battle, but in a beautiful, empowering way.” McQueen’s Daily Mail nickname as “The Designer Who Hates Women” seems bizarre in the light of the jeweller’s insights. “They were warriors, beautiful humans identifying their delicacy, their romance and femininity, but at the same time McQueen made them strong and powerful.”

Writer James Anderson worked as a dresser backstage for Highland Rape, and his account of the show mirrors Leane’s own. “The show was a buzz - dramatic and in-your-face. To me, the models in the show looked like girls you saw in clubs back then - tough, sexy, and certainly not oppressed by men. In fact, most men were probably scared of them!”

These girls certainly weren’t oppressed by men. In fact, most men were probably scared of them!

The vicious, knee-jerk responses that assaulted McQueen weren’t just wrong; they were an early precursor to modern day cancel-culture, written by a collection of journalists who should have known better. A certain irony accompanies their shouts of ‘Misogyny!’ and ‘Pervert!’; by seeing only the word ‘rape’ alongside a set of bloodied women, their criticism itself smacks of misandry, a twisted reflection of the bigotry that their authors were so determined to brand McQueen with.

The allegations marked a departure from the cautious praise that had studded McQueen’s professional career up to that point. Previous reviews of his shows had acknowledged the unease critics felt in viewing them, but were balanced by compliments concerning the quality of the clothes themselves. “He has a perverse view of women,” Marion Hume wrote for The Independent’s review of McQueen’s runway debut, 1994’s Nihilism, “but he has an assured view of fashion.”

Speaking now, Anderson is frank concerning the laziness that the Highland Rape criticism sprang from. “Some writers just didn't bother to unravel the narrative behind the collection, I think. They simply assumed that it must be some sort of literal 'hating women' scenario.”

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Model wearing sheer mesh top with Clan McQueen tartan sleeves, photographed by Charles Knight

Looking back, the outraged names at the byline of these articles are surprising: respected members of the 1995 fashion critics’ circuit, including Iain R. Webb and Sally Brampton. Legendary names, one and all - and yet, they fell into the same swamp of knee-jerk name-calling that the tabloids did. “His latest collection - all torn-lace dresses and ugly sex 'n' violence imagery - sees McQueen fall from favour,” Webb wrote for The Times. Brampton, writing at The Guardian, went further: “It is McQueen’s brand of misogynistic absurdity that gives fashion a bad name.”

Cruel as they were, Brampton’s putdowns were positively tame compared to what was to come. A year later, the London press ran rampant upon McQueen’s appointment to Givenchy, where the headlines such as “Givenchy now led by East End fat boy” and “The King of Yob Couture” shot from the pages of The Observer and The Telegraph respectively. From fat-shaming to scoffs over McQueen’s humble beginnings - some journalists made note of his social status, as the son of a black cab driver - no quarter was given by the media, immersing the designer in a carnival of tabloid embarrassment.

It should be said that McQueen did not go silently into either of these storms of journalistic outrage. Far from it - the designer remained outspoken throughout his career, often waging a one-man war against his media tormentors. “People were so unintelligent they thought this was about women being raped—yet Highland Rape was about England’s rape of Scotland,” the 24- year old McQueen told Time Out in 1997.

He said to me, "I want to create a dress where we we put spears through a girl." And my reaction was, "how many?"
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'Bumsters', featuring original Alexander McQueen 'bumster' jeans, by Eva Stibbe, 2020.

Alexander McQueen consistently gave the middle finger to his critics at any and every opportunity. But the man behind the enfant terrible persona was very different, according to Leane. “Lee McQueen had these two sides: he was very strong, and directional in what he thought was right and beautiful” Leane says. “And at the same time he was very shy. He would push me in front of him every room we walked into. He had innocence, and toughness as well.”

When recalling McQueen’s negotiation through a press-manufactured theatre of cruelty, it is important to remember just how much of his career it dogged. But even more importantly, his career must be remembered for the peerless display of talent it was.

In remembering his best friend, one memory sticks out for Leane. “For Spring 2002, The Dance of The Twisted Bull, he said to me ‘I want to create a dress where we put spears through a girl.’ And my reaction was, ‘how many?’ But that's how he was: it wasn’t if, it was let’s.”

25 years later, Highland Rape feels like something from a bygone era. McQueen challenged his audiences then, but he never had to deal with Twitter and cancel-culture when doing so. If Highland Rape was shown today, millions of insta-critics would march to the funeral pyre of his career; torches and pitchforks held high. The appetite for challenge has been replaced with a hunger for knee-jerk #Cancellation: a male designer presenting a womenswear show with the word ‘rape’ in the title? Easy pickings.