A beetle painstakingly crafted from 22 carat gold; a pavé diamond bracelet inspired by the vertebrae of a serpent; thorns, and horns, and sharp protrusions piercing flesh and wrapping extremities. For 20 years Shaun Leane's creations have been a prickly, difficult thorn in the flank of the rarefied sphere of fine jewellery. Thorns are something he loves – physically, but also metaphorically. "A rose is so beautiful, but you have these thorns on a rosebush that are just vicious," he states. "It's the balance of that, this beautiful flower, then its thorns are so deadly, protecting it. That's what I love about nature, the strength and the fragility of it… I did a lot of roses with Lee."
'Lee' is a reference to Lee Alexander McQueen, with whom Leane collaborated throughout his career – under his own label and at the house of Givenchy (for whom Leane created a cast-metal corset festooned with silver roses). A selection of the finest pieces will feature in the Victoria and Albert museum's re-staging of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art's blockbuster "Savage Beauty" exhibition, opening next March.
Their working partnership started with the autumn/winter 1995 collection that McQueen provocatively dubbed 'Highland Rape'. It was related to the 'rape' of Scotland by England during the Highland clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries – hence the fact that Leane was engaged to create silver, Victorian-inspired jewellery. He was well-trained: at the age of 15, Leane was apprenticed into the fine jewellery trade, where he worked for eight years. He was working at English Traditional Jewellery, a company whose work included restoration of antique pieces for various Bond Street fine jewellery houses, when he and Lee McQueen began to collaborate.
"When we first met, we were friends… then he came to my workshop, and he was beside himself. It was a traditional Victorian workshop, there was gold and diamonds everywhere, and I was making a tiara. And he was like: 'This is what you do?!'" Leane laughs. "He knew I had the craft. I can't answer for him, but he had Savile Row training and fine tailoring was the beginning for him, and how he translated that."
Leane carried on working for the company – entrusted with the delicate restoration of antique pieces which, Leane says bluntly, only he had "the skill and the patience" to work on. At the same time, he created showpieces for McQueen – like a cast-aluminum corset in the shape of a human ribcage (complete with vestigial tail), savage spears projecting from the temples, or a crown of thorns for a show presented in a church. "I had my full-time job which was my bread and butter, and allowed me to do what I did with Lee," says Leane. "I was the Jekyll and Hyde of the industry! Tiaras and skeletons!"
Leane's work is easily allied, both in themes and in date, with the YBA school of art and a generation of fashion designers that produced not only Alexander McQueen but Hussein Chalayan (who buried his graduation collection so that it would decay) and lesser-known names like Andrew Groves, on whose spring 1998 catwalk a model unleashed a swarm of Hirst-ian flies from the interior of a jacket.
Hirst incidentally is a friend of Leane, and contributed a piece to his current exhibition at Nick Knight's SHOWstudio gallery space, running until the end of August. "I wanted to create a natural-history museum – but contemporary," says Leane, while also referencing the idea of the curiosity cabinet. Rather than a pure – or, in Leane's thoughts, staid – presentation of just the nine custom pieces created for the show, Leane approached a cross-medium group of friends and like-minded creatives to contribute.
"It was about how two different artists – whether they be fashion, or art, or jewellery – interpret a subject," says he. "That's how it started. I asked Damien, Philip [Treacy, the milliner]; we asked people who were from different arenas." It also charts the connections between Leane and these individuals – an antique kimono, for instance, is loaned by Daphne Guinness, with whom Leane collaborated on a one-off diamond-studded glove based on medieval armour and titled Contra Mundum (Against the World). "We're a very unique jewellery house," allows Leane, thinking of that piece. "We're known for fashion, our collaborations."
McQueen was the first of those collaborations: and, Leane says, the reason he got into jewellery in the first place. "It was Lee, admittedly, who pushed me. When he first approached me and said 'I really want you to make some pieces for my shows,' I wasn't really in fashion, it wasn't my arena. I didn't really get it at the time. I said 'I don't really know how I can do that… I work in gold, and platinum, and diamonds.' I was quite conditioned." But, again in Leane's words, his collaborations with McQueen "unleashed" something. It also helped establish his aesthetic: a horn earring, first created for McQueen's spring/summer 1996 show "The Hunger" has become a house classic. It, too, is included in the SHOWstudio show.
"I always wanted to make avant-garde fine jewellery," says Leane. "I wanted to break the boundaries – and why not? You've got these skills, you've got these beautiful materials. We need to move with the times – jewellery can't stay on its own. I try to make things different".
'SHOWcabinet: Shaune Leane' is at SHOWstudio, 19 Motcomb Street SW1, until 29 AugustReuse content