Conceptual artist and photographer, Nick Waplington's work with Alexander McQueen is the focus of a major exhibition opening today. From March 10 at Tate Britain, Nick Waplington/Alexander McQueen: Working Process presents the result of a unique, creative collaboration between the artist and his subject. Waplington was given unprecedented access to McQueen’s creative journey as the designer prepared for his final Autumn/Winter collection, Horn of Plenty, in 2009. The exhibition juxtaposes a series of images of McQueen’s intense working process with photographs of recycling plants and landfills. This glimpse into the designer's life reveals not only a raw, unpolished side of the fashion world, but also a rare behind-the-scenes look into one of the most innovative and iconic figures in the industry. 

Because: Hi Nick, can we begin by finding out a little about you – where are you from?
Nick Waplington:
I was born in Aden in Yemen, but have lived in various places, amongst them are: California, New York, London, Zurich and Woking.

Of all those glamorous places, Woking sounds interesting. Why Woking?
I went to school in Woking. My informative teenage years were there. I’m very fond of the place.

When did you get into photography?
When I was there in Woking. I had a camera and the school dark room. I was taking pictures of anti-Apartheid demonstrations and pictures of The Clash in concert, my friends, and skateboarding. Teenage boys stuff, really. 

How did the project with McQueen come about?
: He was an old friend of mine and he liked my photography. He was worried about his legacy so he approached me in 2006 about the idea of me making a project where he would be the subject matter. He would be the subject and I would create a photo book using him as the template for that.

Can you tell us about the first time you met McQueen?
I was invited around to the flat for drinks by Katy England. He was living in a flat above the old post office in Old Street. It was a funny night actually. The party consisted of Phil and Katy, my girlfriend and I, Lee, Kate Moss and Robbie Williams. It was in 1995. It was a great night.

How did the name of the exhibition, Working Process, come about?
: It signifies my working process as a photographer creating a photo book, and creating a series of photographs that document something. But it also refers to the subject matter itself, which is McQueen’s working process and the creation of his fashion. So it’s a collaborative project that couples the two things together at once.

What was it like working with McQueen during the Horn of Plenty collection?
: I was very much in the background and would come and go and do my thing. I had very little interaction with him or the staff. It’s extremely important when you’re making this kind of work that people don’t become familiar with you, because I didn’t want them to address me directly. I would be someone who was around but not around. That was the way of getting the work done, so I didn’t deal with the staff at all until after the show. But with him [McQueen], once the show was over, he would come here to the studio and we would edit the work together. We would talk about the layout and sequencing of the photos. So there were two sections to it really. And at that point I started to create the other pictures that are in the book as well, once we got to the editing process.

Can you tell us about the themes of the exhibition and his Horn of Plenty collection, particularly destruction and creative renewal?
Well, it was just after a famous bank collapsed and contemporary society figured in his work. He also saw the culmination of 15 years of his practice, so it all came together and he would try and lift little bits from everywhere to try and give the work a theme, I guess.  

Are there parallels between the themes and motifs in McQueen’s Horn of Plenty collection and your own work in its broader context?
Yes. Waste-ground, rubbish and objects of a more political nature are things that figure a lot in my work, so there was a crossover there. Especially when I was making the landscape pictures that figure in the exhibition. That was the fun part for me. I was trying to create images that can work with images of fashion creation. Things that weren’t related to fashion, to try and create a work that transcended fashion and fashion books, and could become a more conceptual work of art. That’s what I was about really. That’s why he wanted to work with me. I don’t have a fashion aesthetic, and ultimately that paid off. This is why the show is at The Tate, and not at The V&A.

Do you have similar creative ideals to McQueen?
Well, I definitely want to be innovative, so on that level I’m definitely making work about the world around me. So yes, there is definitely a duality to our working process even though our lives and our backgrounds are very different; which is another thing that feeds into our creative endeavor.  


Interview and text by Ray Kinsella