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On Nick Waplington/Alexander McQueen: Working Process at Tate Britain

By Alistair O’Neill

Tate Britain’s first-ever exhibition to focus on a living photographer features the work of Nick Waplington, who documented the late designer Alexander McQueen as he created his Autumn/Winter 2009/10 collection, which would be his last before his death in 2010. Since the 1980s, Waplington has worked in a wide variety of photographic mediums on diverse subjects, and has been particularly notable for his treatment of the photobook as an art form, and McQueen specifically commissioned him to create one about his process. Fashion, however, has hardly ever featured into Waplington’s work that is usually documentary in nature, such as in the projects Living Room (Aperture, 1991); Weddings, Parties, Anything (Aperture, 1996); and Other Edens (Aperture, 1994). Here, Alistair O’Neill, a senior research fellow at Central Saint Martins in London, examines how the unlikely pairing of a fashion designer and photographer unfolds across Tate Britain’s galleries. The show runs in tandem with the V&A Museum’s presentation of McQueen’s designs in the exhibition Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. This article also appears in Issue 8 of the Aperture Photography App, a new biweekly publication from Aperture: click here to download the free app.

In line with the Victoria and Albert Museum’s staging of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty in London, is a revealing exhibition at Tate Britain displaying a body of work by British photographer Nick Waplington, commissioned by British fashion designer Alexander McQueen to document the process of building his Autumn/Winter 2009/10 collection, Horn of Plenty. If Savage Beauty makes use of McQueen’s extraordinary showpieces and sense of spectacle for exhibits and scenography, then Waplington’s exhibition Working Process relies on an examination of the processes that lie behind the craftsmanship and staging inherent to McQueen’s work, conveyed through documentary photographs.

When commissioning Waplington, McQueen asked, “Can you make me something dirty and messy like your photobooks?” To which the photographer replied, “. . . This is fashion. I don’t think it’s very dirty and messy, but we can try.” What is captured is neither dirty nor messy in literal terms, but is rather a visceral and textured rendering of fashion being made. From this tight focus (a collection rather than a career; photographs on display instead of fashion) springs a richly articulated and detailed account of the designer at work.

This is informed and inscribed by the words of fashion journalist Susannah Frankel, who worked closely with McQueen (and features in a number of the photographs), and Waplington himself. Her words adorn the walls of the exhibition and are also available as audio on a free mobile resource via Tate WiFi, bringing us closer to the creativity the photographs document, and investing journalist and photographer as both witness and guide.

Horn of Plenty was inspired by the visual sign for cornucopia, but in McQueen’s hands the symbol was reworked to point to the excesses and spoils of late capitalism, assuming a cynical starting point as he returned to his archive and reassessed his career. For the fashion show, McQueen’s team made a black bonfire of all the props he had used in his fashion shows to date, as if a pyre for a black mass to sustainability. Waplington contributed to the theme by offering photographs taken in an East End landfill site to sit among those taken in McQueen’s Clerkenwell studio. In the exhibition, these juxtapositions relate bound bales of recycled paper to the gridded baste stitches that underpin embellished fabrics. Waplington also compares a mound of ground-up glass with the shimmering effect of hand-sewn sequins, linking the transformation of everyday materials with the glimmer of fashion’s visual effects. Frankel’s commentary reminds us that these are not themes born out of interpretation, but ones woven through the collection from the outset: “There was an irony to the recycling element of the collection. The clothes that are supposed to look like they are made of bin bags are actually made from the finest, most expensive silks.”

All photographs, Untitled, by Nick Waplington, from the series Alexander McQueen: Working Process, 2008–09 © Nick Waplington


Such transformations are also delineated by the use of photographic images in McQueen’s studio as part of the fashion-design process. An outfit in toile is photographed back, front, and side, then printed and tacked to a board before its skirt is redrawn with two lines of marker pen: from A-line to tulip shape. Mood boards force the mid-century Dior woman into company with the racetrack attendees of My Fair Lady and a ragbag of Felliniesque clowns and vamps. Through McQueen’s working process in cloth, they reappear, altered, as an army of models that shift and shape, look by look, until they document the fashion show’s outfits and runway order. There is a strong dexterity in using images: they slice and reassemble in the McQueen studio like scissors into cloth. Working Process offers a remarkably intimate portrait of the designer at work and a fitting portrayal of fashion design as craftsmanship.

Working Process ran at Tate Britain from March 10 to May 17.

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