Legendary stylist Katy England on Sellotaping models’ shoes, borrowing army surplus trousers and the only show to make the designer cryTest Campaign
It was a chance meeting between designer Lee Alexander McQueen and stylist Katy England that led to a relationship which would define a decade of British fashion. The two didn’t just share space on the Dazed masthead – he was the fashion editor at large, she was fashion director – they shared years working together as friends, from the first show she styled (The Birds for SS95, staged in a warehouse in then-seedy Kings Cross) until her departure in 2007.
England was McQueen’s second opinion, his go-between, and, often, his model – trying on creations in the studio in a time before they could afford to fill it with professionals for fittings. Together with Nick Knight, they created the iconic cover shoot for McQueen’s-guest edited “Fashion Able” issue of Dazed, confronting the invisibility of disabled people in fashion. When Givenchy came calling for McQueen, they left down-at-heel Hoxton for Paris together, setting up shop the French couture house’s home on the Avenue George V and shocking the women of the atelier with their beaten up trainers. By the late 90s, England was doing two shows for McQueen a year and four for Givenchy, working in the Dazed office at night – driven not by wealth, fame or Instagram likes, but by a belief in the art she was creating with her friend and collaborator.
As part of the events around the newly extended Savage Beauty exhibition, England sat down with Dazed founder Jefferson Hack to share her memories of McQueen, discuss her time at Dazed and tell some unheard anecdotes. Read on for some of our favourite stories.
SELLOTAPE AND HUMBLE BEGINNINGS
In the early days, McQueen (who “literally had no money”, according to England) was buying fabric from Berwick Street market, upgrading it with spray paint, latex and whatever else he could find. Unfortunately, their tight budget didn’t cover shoes for the runway shows, so they had to improvise – “I went to Oxfam and I bought old shoes with high heels,” England explained, “basically cut off the top part so that you’re only left with the sole, and we sellotaped them onto the girls’ feet.” Things weren’t quite as polished then as they are now – when the zip on the back of one model’s outfit broke moments before a show, “Lee just wrapped Sellotape around to keep the dress on, and off she went.”
BORROWING FROM THE ARMY SURPLUS STORE
Although England’s job was to help McQueen edit his collection, at the beginning, every single piece he made went on the runway – “he wasn’t really making that much, so we had to use everything,” she explained. “In some cases we didn’t have enough clothes!” For the controversial Highland Rape show of AW95 they were a bit short, so England took a trip to the army surplus store to supplement the collection. "We borrowed trousers to put with some of the jackets because we didn’t have enough clothes." She remembered. I don’t think anyone noticed!”
THE STORY BEHIND THOSE TYRE PRINTS
For McQueen's Hitchcock-insipred show for SS95, models walked the runway with tyre prints down their clothing and skin, but having the markings on their bodies wasn't planned – McQueen decided backstage he wanted them added. "The last minute he just said, 'oh I want the girl to have that on her body'" England explained – "so we literally took the tyre from my assistant's car and we had to roll it in dirt and roll it all over the model's body – and that was probably half an hour before the show."
THE HUNTED GAZELLE
For his AW97 show, named It’s a Jungle out There, McQueen transformed his models into wild animals, swaggering down the runway adorned with taxidermy, horns and with transformed with make up into deer-like creatures. For McQueen, who had just shown his first Givenchy collection (to terrible reviews) it was a moment of departure: "It felt to me like this was one of the last shows where Lee didn’t feel the pressure of the industry," England remembered. "He based it on the Thomson Gazelle, the most hunted animal in the jungle, and I think, at that time, it was just the feelings of being hunted, the feelings of pressure [that] were getting to him, and this perhaps marked the beginning of that."
McQUEEN MANIA REACHES A FEVER PITCH
By the mid 90s, interest in McQueen was reaching fever pitch, but he didn't forget his roots, dropping off show invites to CSM and to the friends he used to go clubbing with. "He had lots of students, he had lots of friends in the underworld and he invited them all to the shows because I think he was a bit nervous that nobody would come!" England laughed. Rather than the military operation that goes into show guest lists today, McQueen thrived on "that tension and that excitement...outside it was chaos with people fighting to get in; there was a lot of drama and you would hear the energy from the crowd and it sort of [gave] the show this electric atmosphere."
“The last minute he just said, ‘oh I want the girl to have that on her body,’ so we literally took the tyre from my assistant’s car and we had to roll it in dirt and roll it all over the model’s body – and that was probably half an hour before the show” – Katy England
SHEDDING TEARS AT SPRAYPAINT
One of the most famous McQueen show moments, and one that makes up a key element of the Savage Beauty exhibition, is the finale of show No. 13 for SS99, where model of the moment Shalom Harlow rotated on a platform, her white dress coveted in paint by two giant robots. For England, it's a stand out moment: "It was really one of the most amazing shows," she remembered, and it wasn't just her who felt that way. "Lee could not believe how we’d pulled this off. He was totally gobsmacked when he saw it all come together. He was actually crying when he saw the finale, and that’s perhaps the only time he’s done that in my history."
FASHION-ABLE ON THE RUNWAY
The Dazed cover shoot they created actually went on to inform McQueen's next runway show, No. 13, which opened with amputee athlete Aimee Mullins (who McQueen had fallen somewhat in love with) walking in a pair of legs hand carved out of elm to resemble beautiful boots. They had one famous fan: "Björk was at the show and she came backstage and she said, ‘Ooh can I get the legs?’ She thought they were boots! Even fashion editors did, they wanted to feature them in magazines," revealed England.
Although McQueen's collaborations with hat maker Philip Treacy are famed, they would never actually work together on a collection, instead England acted as their go-between, making the journey between Battersea and the East End where each held their studios. The hats would only be revealed hours before the show. "There would be a great unveiling backstage. It was a really special moment,” England said. I wanted that surprise for Lee, because I knew the hats would be even better than he could have ever imagined.” The only time this didn’t quite work out? When Treacy’s dog ate some pink feathers McQueen had hoped to incorporate for his AW06 Widows of Culloden collection.
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, in partnership with Swarovski, supported by American Express, with thanks to M∙A∙C Cosmetics, technology partner Samsung and made possible with the co-operation of Alexander McQueen, runs until 2 August 2015. Tickets still available. www.vam.ac.uk/savagebeauty
For more Savage Beauty, check out the dA-Zed guide to Alexander McQueen and Katy England, Norbert Schoerner and Val Garland on working with McQueen