WYLDE MEETS SHAUN LEANE
Jewellery designer Shaun Leane is contradiction personified. A modest master, he straddles the traditional and the avant-garde with ease. And behind the often-terrifying metal masterpieces? A down-to-earth soul championing the next generation of artisans.
Portrait by Nicky Emmerson
Interview by Luke Singleton
"As a young boy I was quite wild. Over time I became more controlled and better behaved. By the age of 18 I was making tiaras for Asprey and that little boy was in awe of what I was doing!”
Shaun Leane is an anomaly in his industry. On the one hand, he is the archetypal traditional English jeweller, with over 30 years of experience at the workbench. Leane’s world-class jewellery house creates bespoke, one-off pieces for the magniﬁcent and great, using only the rarest stones and most precious metals. On the other hand, he is a genuine trailblazer, a modern thinker, a social commentator, and he’s revered for it. The combined genius of the Leane and Alexander McQueen partnership (1994 to 2008) produced some of the most iconic, cinematic moments in fashion history, setting the standard for showmanship and spectacle of unrivalled magnitude.
Shaun would be the last person to tell you of this, however. He is quick to inform me that he hasn’t changed at all in the 32 years that he’s been in the business. He has lived in the same North London ﬂat for the past 20 years, has the same close group of friends he’s had since childhood, and a large extended family stretching from Essex up to Manchester; an extraordinarily close and convivial tribe. Loyalty and familiarity is clearly important to him and he still strongly identiﬁes as “that working-class street kid from Finsbury Park” – said with deadpan sincerity. He wears his success lightly, making him enormous fun to be around and popular in the industry.
His backstory is a fascinating one. Shaun dropped out of school at 14, at a time when the British national curriculum didn’t provide enough opportunities for creative kids who weren’t manifestly academic, and a chance meeting with a careers adviser called Gum(!) guided him towards the jewellery design and goldsmith foundation course at Kingsway Princeton College in Clerkenwell. He ﬁnished the course six months early, coming out on top and having produced his ﬁrst acclaimed piece: a sterling-silver sheath knife, despite the exam guidelines requiring him to create a bouillon spoon. Thus the Shaun Leane ethos was born: to defy expectations, and to rely solely upon his gut instinct. He soon won an apprenticeship at the world-renowned English Traditional Jewellery in London’s Hatton Garden, training and working there for 13 years.
It was in this creative arena that his talent was allowed to thrive. Shaun describes turning up for his ﬁrst day “with attitude written all over me”, wearing an all-white BOY London outﬁt, including three-quarter-length ﬂares, and black patent Dr Martens. He was mentored by “two of the masters of the industry”: Brian Joslin and Richard Bullock, who patiently nurtured him, and whom he credits with teaching him everything he knows. By day, he was learning the precise disciplines required by his industry, and at night, London’s burgeoning rave scene and the alternative fashion crowd were becoming an exhilarating inﬂuence.
It was then that a spontaneous, life-changing encounter with a young and hungry Lee McQueen in a Soho pub in the early Nineties, sealed Shaun’s fate and led to their 14 year collaboration. There is something curiously fatalistic about this story, and arguably characteristic of London – how this city offers an energised, gregarious landscape, that brings together creative groups who are on the cusp of their career breakouts, the city itself encouraging them to ﬂourish. Both Leane and McQueen took pride in their working-class roots, and the colloquiality of how they expressed their ideas. Their group, which included Katy England and Philip Treacy, was a phenomenon, deﬁning their era and reshaping the cultural zeitgeist. The adoration of tribes, manifested in many of McQueen’s shows, mirrored the genuine clanship backstage. Shaun’s star shone brightly. Success beckoned. He launched his own brand in 1999, and stores such as Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and Matches rushed to stock him.
Coming in to meet Shaun in his showroom off New Bond Street, I was already familiar with his work on these shows. I had seen, close up, at the McQueen V&A exhibition, the infamous aluminium and leather “coiled corset” he made for 1999’s “The Overlook” collection, comprising 97 aluminum coils, enclosing the model’s upper torso. The sides are screwed together with the wearer inside. As Sahun tells me: “I think it’s important as an artist to provoke a reaction, even if it’s something dangerous.” There is also the unforgettable, life-threatening Tahitian pearl and sterling-silver neckpiece that Karen Elson wore in the 2001 “Voss” collection, its razor-sharp spikes circling her face in a death-like clasp. It has pride of place in the showroom and I was captivated all over again by its visceral power.
There is also, in Shaun’s work, a vulnerability that constitutes, in my eyes, true talent and a gift for story-telling and craftsmanship. True to himself, he has kept his brand trading as an independent business since 1999. With real humility he is expressly interested in nurturing the new generation of designers, inspired by his own success in an unpredictable business. He supports the BFC’s Rock Vault initiative, curated by Stephen Webster, which mentors up-and-coming jewellers. “It’s daunting when you’re young and you don’t know what you’re doing,” he admits. “In life, you’ve got to give it away to keep it.” That’s the kind of man he is. Having values and principles in the fashion world; that is brilliant. He conﬁdes that he’s going back to the bench too. Ultimately, he’s an artist. “The bottom line is: I wanna be making things!”