2020 was a remarkable year for all of us. But for Shaun Leane, the jeweler and goldsmith, it also marked his 50th birthday; the 21st anniversary of the creation of his eponymous brand, whose design journey has recently been captured in the new deluxe edition of the Shaun Leane book; and the 10th anniversary of the death of his great friend Alexander McQueen – making 2020 quite the milestone even without a global pandemic. Leane may not have had the party he imagined, but nevertheless ‘these challenging times are allowing me to have space without noise – to focus on projects and collections I have wanted to tap into for a while. I can truly say I am still designing my best work despite the challenging times we are facing.’
Words by Charlie Newman.
This is an interview extract. Find out the full version in the Fall Winter 2020 Issue 5.
Ever the optimist, it would be easy to mistake Leane’s hopefulness for naivety. In reality, his success is founded in hard graft and self-belief, ‘I have no regrets, all of the obstacles that have crossed my path, good or bad, I have learnt from them. These life lessons have shaped me to become the person I am today.’
A born-and-bred Londoner from Finsbury Park, Leane’s journey into the fashion industry began when he was fifteen and his local careers officer advised him to enrol in the youth training scheme for jewellery design at the Kingsway Princeton College of Further Education. Here, Leane ‘fell in love with the process of crafting, it was the first time in my education I felt I had found something that gained my devoted attention. The beauty in seeing something you had designed and envisaged being formed and crafted by your own hands was so rewarding.’ Just one year later, he embarked on a seven-year apprenticeship at the world renowned Hatton Gardens, where he trained classically as a goldsmith.
Within these prestigious walls, Leane was, for the first time, immersed in Victorian, Art Nouveau and Art Deco design; an appreciation that’s never left him. To this day, Leane still feels ‘particularly inspired by the innovation and fearlessness of René Lalique; as well as the opulence of Cartier and Boucheron in the 1920s.’ Leane’s admiration for the past is evident in his sleek and considered designs, which were praised by the esteemed auction house as the ‘antiques of the future’.
Once formally-trained, Leane was ready ‘to explore different possibilities of design and technique, to push the boundaries of my designs.’ Enter fashion legend Alexander McQueen, who was first introduced to Leane in 1992 by a contemporary on McQueen’s Master’s course at Central St Martin’s, a year after Leane finished his apprenticeship.
They shared an aesthetic that can be traced all the way back to Leane’s first-ever college project, ‘everybody had to design a piece of cutlery and make it. Everyone chose to do a spoon, but I decided to do a knife. I should have realized then that something was a little bit more macabre [about me] than everybody else! I designed this beautiful knife in silver with a filigree handle and onyx settings on the end. It was, to a degree, quite medieval but then it had this really beautiful slick-shaped blade on it, so already I was mixing something quite old with something really slick and clean.’
The majority of designer collaborations can appear transparent and fickle, but McQueen and Leane’s is one of symbiotic synergy. Both Londoners with formal training (McQueen at Saville Row) in their craft, both ready to re-write the rules and challenge beauty norms; they were a creative match made in heaven. They hit it off instantly, collaborating on extraordinary designs that spanned over seventeen years. Together, they produced eight shows a year for both Alexander McQueen and Givenchy, including Leane’s most challenging work for McQueen’s ‘Overlook’ Fall Winter collection back in 1999. Inspired by the neck rings of Ndebele women, Leane, with help from artist Kees Van Der Graaf, created ‘Overlook’ from a concrete cast of model Laura Morgan’s body and then worked on the corset for 16 hours a day, every day, for 10 weeks.
Leane’s design are the couture of jewellery. And his relationship with McQueen would last a lifetime. After McQueen’s death in 2010, Leane was the one to give a memorial address to the fashion elite that included model and muse Annabelle Neilson, editor Anna Wintour and journalist Suzy Menkes. Like all true relationships, the friendship still lives on, ‘he taught me to be fearless, push boundaries and that nothing is impossible. He was a great influence and still is today, because when I design and create, I always think of where he would have taken it to.’
Read the full piece in the Fall Winter 2020 Issue 5. Get your copy here.