Making jewelry can be a therapeutic, almost hypnotic act. That’s precisely the case for Shaun Leane, whose wildly imaginative pieces have graced fashion runways for nearly three decades and elevated perceptions of jewelry from traditional craft into the realm of fine art. The coveted designer is perhaps best known for the raw and menacing pieces created during his fruitful partnership with the late fashion legend Lee Alexander McQueen, whose limitlessly innovative visions allowed Leane’s creativity and originality to flourish.
The two famously met outside of a London nightclub, where Leane sprung to McQueen’s defense after witnessing fellow party goers heckling his outlandish outfit. They immediately became inseparable—the genesis of a nearly two-decade creative partnership that ranged from McQueen’s own label to his five-year tenure as creative director at Givenchy. The two were ideal creative counterparts: While McQueen excelled at manipulating and cutting fabric at high speeds, Leane’s nonpareil goldsmithing prowess required patience, precision, and refinement. “What was so beautiful about our relationship was we were so close as friends, and we had so much in common,” Leane tells the writer Claire Wilcox in Shaun Leane, his new monograph through ACC Art Books. “We had this voice, which I suppose we were never allowed to have before.”
When the two joined forces, no mind-bending concepts were off-limits. For McQueen’s Spring/Summer 1996 show, “The Hunger,” McQueen demanded that Leane create a metallic exoskeletal corset with a spine and a tail. Having never before made anything bigger than a tiara, Leane was hesitant. McQueen, however, insisted. “This was the powerful thing about working with Lee,” Leane recalls. “He never challenged you—instead he had a special way of making you challenge yourself.” Leane cast human vertebrae and modeled the ribs in wax before rendering them in aluminum, delighting and confounding onlookers in equal measure.
Such triumphs empowered him to enter an entirely new creative arena. Fully immersed in McQueen’s universe of freedom and fantasy, Leane began delving deeper into jewelry’s inextricable relationship with history and the human form, yielding pieces that blended, as Vivienne Becker describes in the book, “fairy-tale romance with warrior-like savagery.” Take the cover of Björk’s landmark 1997 studio album Homogenic, on which the Icelandic songstress dons a McQueen-designed silver satin gown embroidered with filigree flowers. Leane’s brass coiled necklace, which resembles the striking metal neck rings worn by the Kayan Lahwi people of Myanmar, subtly elongates her neck. Paired with her razor-sharp squint and icy backdrop, the look forges an imposing, futuristic visual that flawlessly embodies Homogenic’s trailblazing fusion of trip hop beats with melancholic strings and lyrical yearning for the sublime. “I saw today’s woman as a warrior, romantic, strong yet also vulnerable,” says Leane. “I wanted my jewels to provoke different, even conflicting emotions—confidence, fragility, seduction, and protection—and to deliver a sense of inner strength and identity.”
By the time Leane launched his own house, in 1999, his idiosyncratic style emerged fully formed. Channeling the same audacity of early McQueen collaborations yet playfully departing from them, Leane’s jewels offer exceptional studies in contrast by balancing age-old techniques with avant-garde sensibilities. They also display a deep reverence for nature, specifically the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth—a phenomenon exemplified in the Storm necklace, a swirling diamond vortex that captures the dramatic movement of a squall, for the British jeweler Asprey. Ditto for Queen of the Night, an asymmetric necklace for Boucheron complete with blackened gold blossoms that open and close depending on the time, much like the South African flower that blooms in moonlight.
Leane enjoyed a spate of high-profile collaborations in the aughts, with the artists Sam Taylor-Johnson and Nick Knight, heritage jewelers Asprey and Boucheron, and even to design gates for a residential building in London’s tony Kensington neighborhood. More than 30 of his jewels appeared in the acclaimed “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011, one year after McQueen’s death. Despite his illustrious career, Leane remains humble and curious: “I consider myself still very much a student, ever inquisitive about what’s possible and dreaming about the future. What I know for certain is that the drive and passion to create burns brighter than ever before.”
To celebrate the 21st anniversary of Leane’s creative house (and his 50th birthday), he reflects on six of his career’s most provocative pieces.
“The Coil Corset was elegantly formed to celebrate every curve of the female form, but its armor-like structure portrayed strength and protection—an ethos that ran through many of our works and a balance that McQueen and I strived toward. This innovation of body adornment resembles the boundaries that we pushed in design and materials, fusing fashion and jewelry.”
“I created the Silver Rose Corset for the McQueen/Givenchy Jan ‘00 show. I was trained as a goldsmith and educated myself to become a silversmith to meet the demand of McQueen’s runway shows. The Silver Rose Corset is the perfect example of where my skills went; to craft a silver piece of body armor slashed to portray blooms of roses from within was a real challenge in craft and design. My aim was to juxtapose ferocity and vulnerability.”
Couture Quill Choker
“The Couture Quill Choker is an intricate and architectural piece inspired by the ancient warrior woman. The sculptural silhouette frames the jawline with repeating lines of porcupine-inspired quills, a signature shape that I developed for a commission for Isabella Blow in 1997.”
“The Sabre diamond earrings are the iconic silhouette of the House of Shaun Leane—a fine, elegant line projecting a powerful statement. They’re one of the most empowering earrings I’ve ever created—they’re not only sensual, but they also convey strength and intrigue.”
Thorned Pearl Shoulder Piece
“This piece was a statement for us as we believed that our jewels should reflect the persona of a person, not the wealth. This piece was sponsored by one of the world’s highest-quality pearl companies, so we used hundreds of Grade AAA Tahitian pearls. With these beautiful and classic pearls that one would normally mount in drapes of diamonds, we broke tradition by using this precious material to celebrate a concept of organic beauty and strength.”
Irere Parrot Feather Earcuffs
“Lee was a visionary in exploring new materials and techniques, and always encouraged his collaborators to do the same. These Fan Feather Earrings were my first exploration in working with feathers, one of nature’s most beautiful byproducts. I wanted to take something so delicate and detailed but create a powerful silhouette to resemble the woman that defines Leane and McQueen: a romantic warrior.”