Rendevous: Lee Alexander McQueen and Ann Ray

Alexander McQueen (1969–2010), known to family and friends by his first name, Lee, redefined contemporary fashion with his extraordinary ability to blend exquisite craftsmanship with imaginative storytelling. Mythologized in his own lifetime, the press promoted him variously as l’enfant terrible (the terrifying child), a troubled genius, and one of the era’s most visionary designers. Yet there were few who truly knew him. Famously insular, McQueen’s creative world comprised a tightknit group of collaborators that included jewelry designer Shaun Leane, milliner Philip Treacy, model Annabelle Neilson, and, notably for this project, French photographer Ann Ray.

Ray and McQueen met in 1997, and they cultivated a creative partnership based on friendship and trust. As a result, Ray was the only photographer granted exclusive access to McQueen’s world, and her assignment was straightforward: to document everything she saw. Several times a year, they would have what Ray called rendez-vous, or “weird, unexpected . . . warm, essential meetings.” In total, she shot forty-three collections over the course of thirteen years, creating a massive body of work and an indelible record of McQueen’s process.

This exhibition offers a rare glimpse into the life and mind of Lee Alexander McQueen and introduces Ann Ray to audiences in the United States. Through Ray’s photographs, a story of McQueen emerges that only she can tell—that of a singularly private artist who drew support and inspiration from an intimate circle of friends and muses.

Lee Alexander McQueen & Ann Ray: Rendez-Vous provides a unique opportunity to reevaluate the legacy of a beloved but widely misunderstood figure and to disentangle the person from the persona, the man from the myth. While there have been many exhibitions of McQueen’s work, the unprecedented inclusion of Ray’s captivating photographs here enables a different kind of rendez-vous—one in which new and perhaps more truthful narratives emerge.


Ann Ray and Lee Alexander McQueen’s creative partnership began shortly after his appointment as creative director at Givenchy in 1996. It was a stressful chapter for the twenty-seven-year-old, who was suddenly responsible for his own eponymous label as well as one of the world’s most storied couture houses. He needed someone to record the ephemeral, fleeting moments rarely documented by the editorial fashion press. Ray became that person; however, the two famously never had a formal contract. Rather, their partnership was simply built on what design historian Michelle Millar Fisher has described as “a special kind of trust”—trust that Ray would faithfully document the rawness of McQueen’s process and he would give her unrestricted access to his world in return.

Gifted Garments

As with many of the artists and designers McQueen enlisted to help realize his vision in the early days of his career, he could not afford to pay Ann Ray. The two therefore established a barter system in which Ray would receive garments in exchange for her labor. While some of these pieces show wear and tear, many went unworn, for Ray’s quintessentially French personal style was oftentimes at odds with McQueen’s particular brand of English romanticism. Ray, however, held onto everything. In Ray’s eyes, these fruits of their unusual contract were always more than just clothes. Before his passing, they served as tokens of their mutual admiration for one another. In the aftermath of his death, they became relics as well as conduits for the grieving process. In 2020, these pieces, along with Ray’s complete McQueen photographic archive, were acquired by Barrett Barrera Projects, owner of the world’s largest privately held collection of McQueen’s work. The labels in this section recount the stories behind the garments as told by Ann Ray. 

Lee Alexander McQueen Fashion Survey

The fashion objects featured throughout the exhibition follow the arc of Alexander McQueen’s career from his first collections after graduating from Central Saint Martins to his final, posthumous collection. Arranged chronologically, these pieces—including ready-to-wear, one-off samples, and extraordinary examples of haute couture—trace the evolution and refinement of McQueen’s artistic voice and evince his virtuosic gifts as a tailor. Throughout, specific looks have been chosen to tell the stories behind the collections and to demystify McQueen’s design process.

Ann Ray Photography

During the thirteen years Ann Ray spent working alongside McQueen and his design team, she took over 32,000 photographs that now reside in the private collection of Barrett Barrera Projects. From the frantic minutes before his runway shows, to the more contemplative moments in his London design studio, Ray saw and captured everything. The photographs displayed throughout the exhibition were selected and organized into thematic chapters by Ray herself. At once surprising, tender, and intimate, these photographs add nuance and texture to McQueen’s legacy.

The Sky Is the Limit

Although Ray and McQueen did not have a particular end goal in mind for their creative partnership, Ray was acutely aware of the possible significance of their collaborative body of work. While McQueen struggled with the negative criticism he received from the press for his boundary-pushing runway presentations at Givenchy, for Ray it was clear that he was destined to become one of fashion’s great talents; the sky was the limit for her friend. But how does one capture the ineffable qualities of brilliance on film? For Ray, it meant documenting everything, from the heady seconds before a show to the more somber periods in between. Monumental images, including the Wind Tunnel triptych, position McQueen as a radical innovator who reinvented the fashion runway. Others are more subtle in their portrayal of his singular talents. White Dream, Givenchy, for instance, simply depicts the awe of an assistant staring at a gown that seems to defy the laws of gravity.

London Vibes: Fierce

McQueen established the Alexander McQueen label in 1992, the same year he graduated from Central Saint Martins. Its debut collection, Taxi Driver, was part of the autumn/winter 1993 season and immediately caught the attention of the fashion establishment with an aesthetic and emotional content distinct from the ’90s-era minimalism that pervaded the moment. His time in London overseeing his namesake label was messy and disorganized, but also exhilarating. With McQueen leading the charge, British fashion was undergoing a renaissance of sorts as the traditionalism of English tailoring was supplanted by the grittiness and nihilism of neo-punk. In a conversation with hat designer Philip Treacy, Ann Ray observed that the London studio was “fierce” compared to the sedateness and conservatism of Givenchy’s Paris atelier.

Chapter One: 1992–1996

In 1992, Lee Alexander McQueen graduated from the prestigious graduate fashion program at Central Saint Martins and, with the support of socialite and fashion editor Isabella Blow, founded his eponymous label. Working on a shoestring budget, his early collections deftly juxtaposed traditional English tailoring with darker themes of sex, drugs, and violence. While he quickly earned a reputation as fashion’s enfant terrible (terrifying child), his rise to fame was as swift as it was disorienting. Encouraged by Blow to go by his middle name, which she felt sounded “grander and more romantic” than Lee, McQueen found it challenging to reconcile his working-class background with the glamor and superficiality of the fashion industry. While these tensions are evident in his early collections, the years spanning his first postgraduate work to his appointment as creative director at Givenchy in 1996 were, by most accounts, some of McQueen’s happiest. Largely insulated from the convulsions rocking the world of luxury fashion in the early 1990s, he was free to hone his talents as a storyteller and to refine what would become two of his most iconic silhouettes: the gravity-defying “bumster” waistline and the sharply tailored frock coat.

Tenderness & Climax

In the final moments of McQueen’s spring/summer 1999 fashion show, No. 13, model Shalom Harlow staggered and swayed on a rotating platform to a soundtrack of Camille Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan” as two seemingly sentient robots aggressively sprayed her white gown in alternating streams of black and neon green ink. As the robots retreated, Harlow surrendered to the audience while McQueen openly wept offstage. It was something of a creative climax for the young designer, or what Ray has described as “a radical act of communion, both violent and tender” with the model. McQueen relished the opportunity to work with other creative minds in bringing his vision to life, and his collaboration with Harlow was no exception. The two worked tirelessly over the course of weeks to choreograph a performance that lasted mere seconds but would be immortalized as the defining moment of late twentieth-century fashion.

Chapter Two: 1996–2008

In 1996, McQueen was appointed creative director of Givenchy—one of Paris’s oldest and most storied couture houses. For most designers, the chance to oversee the operations of two fashion houses would have been regarded as the opportunity of a lifetime. McQueen, however, was somewhat ambivalent. Shouldered with producing upward of ten collections per year, he was in equal parts fascinated and horrified by the machinations of the global fashion system and his place within it. As he explored themes of power and exploitation in collections for his own label to great critical acclaim, he struggled to find his place in the rigid hierarchy at Givenchy, and departed in 2001. Despite McQueen’s struggles within the fashion system, it was a period of great professional abundance—his runway shows became more theatrical, his references more eclectic, and his silhouettes more extravagant.

Paris Vibes: Couture

At Givenchy’s Avenue Georges V atelier, Ray had the privilege of observing McQueen, who had mastered the craft of English tailoring, immerse himself in the complex art of Parisian couture dressmaking as the newly appointed creative director. Having previously worked mainly as an editorial photographer, Ray was also relearning her vocation, this time as a documentary photographer. In her words, that first year represented their “first tentative steps together . . . carved out of innocence.” Ever present in the workroom, Ray captured fleeting moments of fashion in process—of McQueen consulting with his petits mains (craftspeople who execute haute couture collections), of pen hitting paper, and of a fitting model donning a sample for the first time. Upon seeing these earliest photos, McQueen remarked to Ray, “You’re observing everything,” to which she replied, “I do. Just like you.” As she explained in a 2018 interview with V Magazine, from these shaky beginnings, the two found a kinship forged through “mutual care” and “radical honesty.”

Eyes & Souls

McQueen, who struggled with his body image, trusted few to take his photo. When he did find himself in front of a photographer’s lens, McQueen frequently assumed a tough demeanor—one that was entirely in keeping with the “bad boy” persona fabricated by the media. In Ray’s photos, however, we see those layers peeled back to reveal the softer, lighter, and more vulnerable side of her friend Lee. The intimacy of Ray’s portraiture is the product of the close bond that she forged with her subject. Indeed, Ray viewed her work as deeply collaborative—as a negotiation of power between subject and viewer and as a responsive performance of trust. When standing in front of one of Ray’s tightly cropped portraits, it can therefore feel as if her subject is looking right through you or, better, directly into your soul.


There are a number of recurring motifs in Ray’s body of work. Hands, flowers, eyes, and crucifixes appear with regular frequency; however, perhaps none are as central and significant as wings and feathers. Unsurprisingly, her photographs on view here evidence McQueen’s passion for birds, which was nurtured by his benefactor and closest friend, Isabella Blow, who had introduced the designer to falconry on the grounds of her ancestral estate. Avian themes pervade McQueen’s work, but it was through the brilliant creations of hat designer Philip Treacy that they achieved their most fantastical form. The towering headdresses that Treacy created for spring/ summer 2001’s Voss and autumn/winter 2006’s The Widows of Culloden included exotic feathers manipulated into surrealist shapes and, in some instances, whole taxidermy birds. Of his work for McQueen, Treacy said, “I could make the strongest hats and it was fine, his shows could take it, that proportion, extremity, modernity.” For Ray, these headpiece-sculptures were ideal photographic subjects.


While McQueen was not one to shy away from dark, macabre, and occasionally violent themes in his collections, at heart he was a hopeless romantic. When asked by his mother what made his heart skip a beat in a 2004 interview for The Guardian, McQueen replied, “Falling in love.” While this quote could be construed as a reference to romantic love, Ray saw McQueen’s particular brand of romanticism as a “vibrant tribute” to the women in his life. In order to protect these women he held so dear, he created silhouettes that were at once fragile and strong, beautiful but disquieting, and that functioned as a kind of armor so sublime that a man “wouldn’t dare lay a hand” on the wearer. Ray felt it was her duty to bring to light these more romantic facets of McQueen’s work and, in doing so, to deepen and complicate his legacy beyond that of a “misogynist” and “l’enfant terrible” (the terrifying child), as the media so often branded him.

Chapter Three: 2008–2010

The final chapter of McQueen’s brief but storied career was bookended by the deaths of his friend and fiercest supporter, Isabella Blow, in 2007, and of his beloved mother, Joyce, in 2010. During this dark period, McQueen retreated inward, finding some solace in his design practice. Through his collections, McQueen rekindled a love for the drama and romance of fashion that had begun to wane during the Givenchy years. In the dormant periods between shows, however, McQueen quietly struggled with his mental health and drug use. Alienated from his closest friends and family and unable to cope with his mother’s untimely passing, Lee Alexander McQueen died by suicide on February 11, 2010.


Ray described the atmosphere backstage at a McQueen show as being on a “world apart from ours, the McQueen planet . . . a cosmic chaos full of creatures, both close and distant. . . . It was a whirl . . . unusual and intimate, new and recurrent.” Her behind-the-scenes photos capture some of this freneticism, finding beauty in the organized madness. Ray had always been attentive to the formal aspects of documentary photography, and her backstage photographs thus display a harmony between light, setting, garment, and subject. Rendered in archival gelatin silver, a process as old as the medium of photography itself, these photos are at once monumental and ephemeral—fleeting moments of stillness made eternal with a snap and a click.

Blue Period

In 2009, McQueen was reeling from the death of his friend and fiercest supporter, Isabella Blow. Yet, as he struggled to compartmentalize his grief, he produced work of the utmost beauty and also found some solace in a new hobby: scuba diving. Ray’s cyanotype photos from this period evoke McQueen’s “blue” demeanor while also nodding to the prevalence of the color blue, which he had rarely used previously, in his late collections—perhaps most notably in spring/summer 2010’s Plato’s Atlantis.


At the time of his death, McQueen had been working on his autumn/winter 2010 collection, posthumously titled Angels & Demons. Meticulously researched, the collection drew heavily upon Byzantine and Renaissance iconography and referenced paintings by revered artists such as Sandro Botticelli (ca. 1445—1510), Jean Fouquet (ca. 1420—ca. 1481), and Hugo van der Goes (ca. 1440—1482). The sixteen looks that comprised the intimate, lyrical collection had all been cut and draped by McQueen himself but were finished by his trusted confidant, head of McQueen womenswear Sarah Burton. It was also a poignant eulogy for a designer who had managed to forge so much beauty from so much private anguish and given so much of himself to an industry that often failed to understand his vision. As the world reeled from the loss of a singular creative mind, the twenty-first century global fashion machine that McQueen had helped create but at times felt exploited by continued to grow and evolve under the leadership of Sarah Burton. Today, with Seán McGirr as the new creative director, the Alexander McQueen label remains one of the world’s most sought-after luxury brands.


Throughout the duration of their creative partnership, Ray and McQueen didn’t have a precise sense of how their photos would be used. In 2009, a year before McQueen’s death, it became clear to Ray what they had been working toward all along. As the pair discussed her archive of over thirty-two thousand negatives, McQueen told Ray, “You have my life in pictures.” In that moment, Ray gained a new understanding of her body of work, as well as her role as McQueen’s memory keeper, eyes, and biographer. Since McQueen’s passing in 2010, Ray has used her photos to find closure and to fortify his legacy. Throughout this process, she has accepted and even embraced the fact that the person and the persona may never be reconciled. Indeed, every occasion she has to revisit her archives enables her to both reexamine his impact and their relationship—to have another rendez-vous.

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