Pablo Picasso sagely advised, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist” – a sensibility that applies to Lee Alexander McQueen (1969-2010) and his longtime collaborator, French photographer Ann Ray, otherwise known as Anne Deniau. Between 1997 and 2010, Ray collaborated with the iconoclastic British designer who turned the world of fashion upside down, creating some 32,000 prints, contact sheets, and vintage works, most of which have never been seen by the public before.
“For 13 years, I never gave one photograph to anyone. After Lee left, I would talk to him, saying, ‘Okay this is my job. You knew what you were doing. I’m in charge now,’” says Ray, who has come to understand the purpose of this singular collaboration. “My archive is both tangible, prints and negatives, and also non-tangible: it’s my experience and memories. I have to be very careful and make sure his legacy is transmitted with dignity. These photographs belong to history.”
Now, more than a decade after the designer’s tragic death, Barrett Barrera Projects, one of the world’s largest private collections of garments and ephemera created by Lee Alexander McQueen, has acquired Ray’s photographic archive of the most revolutionary atelier of our time. The acquisition of Ray’s archive allows Barrett Barrera Projects to tell a richer story about McQueen, celebrating the complex artistry that lies at the heart of his work.
Let’s Get Free
Ray’s love of photography began as a child in France. “My father would take photographs and film us, and very early I was doing the editing with him,” she recalls. “What I found fascinating was the relationship between photography and time, the ability to capture something special, beautiful or frightening and to immortalize and show it. I love to learn, acquire the techniques then experiment and push boundaries to get free. If you know how to do things, you can do them your own way.”
Ray found liberation in 1996, when she got married, moved to Tokyo, and quit her job as a strategy consultant to pursue her love of photography. “New name, new life, new country,” Ray says. “I was getting closer to the real me.”
Fascinated by Japanese culture, which does not create an artificial hierarchy between art and craft, Ray began photographing the art of the kimono. Working with people deemed “national living treasures” by the Japanese government, Ray entered the hermetic world of textile artists. At the same time, she kept tabs on the French expat community, and learned John Galliano, then designer at Givenchy, was coming to Tokyo. She offered to create a unique book with photographs, and from there everything fell into place.
“It was a bit of a fairy tale,” Ray recalls. “They took it to Paris and showed it to John Galliano. He wrote me a letter saying, ‘Your work is astonishing’ and invited me to Paris to photograph his couture show in the summer of 1996. Then Galliano went to Christian Dior and there was this English boy coming to Givenchy — Alexander McQueen.”
The youngest of six children born to a taxi driver and a social science teacher in London in 1969, Lee Alexander McQueen dropped out of school at age 16 to apprentice with Savile Row’s Anderson & Sheppard, tailors for Prince Charles. He returned to school at 21 to pursue his Masters from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, with celebrated stylist Isabella Blow buying his entire 1992 MA collection provocatively titled Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims.
That same year McQueen launched his own label and quickly earned the title of l’enfant terrible for his daring approach to fashion design. He tested the waters with collections inspired by the Martin Scorsese film Taxi Driver and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, then came out swinging with the 1996 collection Highland Rape, which took on the British assault on Scotland from 1750-1860. Amid the media storm, McQueen was appointed head designer of Givenchy, which horrified founder Hubert de Givenchy. McQueen called the 70-year-old “irrelevant” and soldiered on.
But inside the atelier, things were quite different. Ray spent two weeks with McQueen as he organized his very first Paris couture show, the first designer to show at École des Beaux-Arts. By that time Ray had earned McQueen’s respect, her commitment to work equal to his own.
“What I found astonishing is how Lee McQueen couldn’t speak French and the Premier of the atelier couldn’t speak English but they had to work together to produce a couture collection and they fully understood each other,” says Ray. “We saw Lee McQueen, a young British rebel, arriving there but when he was at work it was immediate silence. He would take this piece of fabric and create something on the model. The only thing you could feel was immense respect.”
Keeping a Rendez-Vous
As fate would have it, Ray’s husband was transferred to London in September 1997. “As soon as I arrived, I dropped my suitcase and went to McQueen’s studio because he asked me to come. He asked me to be at the shows and drop in the studio any time I wanted,” Ray says.
McQueen struck a deal for their partnership: clothes in exchange for photographs. “It was a regular rendezvous,” Ray says. “I would arrive early at the shows and he would show me all the clothes, speaking about each garment. It was like a musician playing his music. Then I would be in my bubble working. I would bring the contact sheets to his studio and we’d look at them together. Then I was back to my other activities until next time.”
McQueen eventually decided Ray was the only one permitted to make his portrait. “I was working with a lot of nineteenth-century photographic processes at the time like cyanotypes, which Lee called ‘the blueprint.’ There was a cyanotype portrait of him that he wanted for the studio. He asked me how many different versions I could make, and I told him as many as I’d like. He asked if I could bring a few different versions the next day,” Ray recalls.
“I spent the night working and did something like 23-28 different versions. The next day I went to the studio and started to lay them out on the floor. We were both smiling. Lee taught me that if you have to do something, do whatever you can to materialize it. You must not think it is too complicated. You must find a way.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.