Gary James McQueen was introduced to the world of fashion via his late uncle, Lee, who inspired, mentored and guided him. Gary worked on the men’s ready-to-wear collections from 2005 at Alexander McQueen until Lee’s untimely death in 2010. This week, as Gary James McQueen officially launches his debut collection of made-to-order silk scarves, he finds support amongst industry veterans. Kim Blake, Lee’s first PR has taken a guiding role and Savile Row’s Anderson and Sheppard — home of Lee’s first tailoring position, are in talks as the premier stockist.
What was it like working with arguably one of the greatest designers in the world?
I wanted to please Lee but then everybody did. We all wanted his praise. When Lee was in the building you’d smell the smoke first and then hear his laughter. Lee did everything with feeling. He would tell a story and it was so believable. He had a charisma and vulnerability. Although I was his nephew, and 10 years his junior, I felt like I wanted to protect him.
Did you share a love of the same things?
I was always creating worlds and drawing characters. Lee knew I loved to draw and took the mickey out of the images I created in the early days when he would babysit us. During these times I would watch him sketching. He didn’t talk but he drew frantically. He’d draw things for me as well… mostly horror stuff. He’d bring horror films to watch and tell us scary stories. I was eight at the time. He’d be chasing us around the house and picking us up by our hair. He had that psychotic laugh. Not a Mary Poppins kind of evening at all but he really influenced my imagination and the work I produce today.
How did you get a job at McQueen?
I studied commercial graphic design. I wanted to do fine art but the tutor put me off it because he said there was no money in it. I was out of work for a spell and my mum Janet (Lee’s sister) asked if he could help me. I knew he wasn’t keen on taking on family members but..
What did you learn from Lee?
Lee pushed us. Coming up with an idea was just the start. Developing it to a point where it was so far away from the first thing you’d come up with, that was his speciality. You have to have something within yourself as well as the skill to be able to pull it off.
The first season was tough. I didn’t have a clue about fashion but I worked in patterns and soon developed a niche using them as a canvas for my artwork. Lee believed in me and really encouraged me to push the boundaries. I was soon placed in menswear to work printed shirts, T-shirts and scarves. I put every skull you can imagine onto the garments! Later I worked in woven jacquards engineering the printed image to work across two-piece suits. Towards the end I could see Lee had to a lot to carry on his shoulders. I knew he was tired. It was hard to see him that way but I didn’t feel like I could reach out to him. I was an employee and I knew my place.
What was the last thing you both spoke about?
I was designing a marble angel for the gravestone for Lee’s mother Joyce – my nan. He loved what I’d done but asked for the angel’s hands to face up so they could carry flowers. He told me he wanted me to take it on myself, source and oversee the sculptor. Basically finish it. I didn’t ask why. The next day he took his life.
You left the company two years after Lee’s death. Why?
Lee gave me my job and I was doing it for him. I didn’t study fashion. I was working in more of a fine art way specifically for Lee so I had no incentive to stay. His opinion was the only opinion that mattered to me… after he was gone, nobody else’s did.
Tell us about your collection.
It’s dedicated to Lee. It’s the story of life, death and rebirth. It’s my take on the cycle of creative energy. It’s what I’ve learned from Lee and taken forward for my brand. There are three different scarves and each scarf has an element of something that Lee loved or feared. Life is represented by birds because Lee loved birds. The second design represents death and references the ivory trade in the Victorian era. It’s an homage to endangered species. The terrible treatment of wild animals was something that was very close to Lee’s heart.
The final story is of rebirth and has a campaign image that references an entity from another sphere with an octahedron shape like a portal as part of its body. The print of the scarf is bodies that look as if they are floating in the void. Maybe the feeling is melancholic. My emotions have always influenced my work.
How do you like to work?
The quality of the silk is important, and Italy currently has the best printing, but I’d prefer it to be in the UK so I could visit the process as often as I can. The edges are hand rolled and stitched in the UK. I’d like to grow the business slowly that’s why my scarves are made-to-order. It’s slow fashion. I saw the pressure that Lee was under and it’s not for me so I will focus on my heritage and create something that has quality at its heart and a story. I thrive on stories because they can take me away to a different world. When I’m creating stories and artwork, that’s what gets me through life.
Interview and alongside images taken from i-D Magazine. Words by Caryn Franklin, who regularly interviewed Lee for millions of BBC viewers in the early 90s, she spoke to Gary, to get the continuing story of the McQueen fashion family.