Lot 103, Alexander McQueen by Sarah Burton peach draped jersey cocktail dress, S/S 2012. Estimate £200-300
Image courtesy of Ann Ray
To friends and family Annabelle was known by the pet name ‘Tinks’, after Peter Pan’s mischievous Neverland fairy friend, Tinker Bell. She was introduced to Lee in 1993 by mutual friend Isabella Blow, who had a talent for putting the right people together. At the time, Annabelle had no idea who he was (there was no Google in those days). Recalling their first meeting she wrote,
‘Lee was standing at the bottom of the stairs in his studio, at that time, as I remember it, there were just a couple of work benches with two old sewing machines. For Lee this was quite a step up in the world. Before then, he had been spraying clothes in the back of friends’ gardens and littering their living rooms with pieces of yet to be hand-stitched clothes by the future master himself ...I was immediately stripped of my clothes there and then. Lee exclaiming at that point, "Oh you are skinny, aren't you?" I walked into not only the greatest genius of our time in the world of fashion, but into a man who saw far ahead of his world and what fashion would become, and my journey beside him had only just begun …. Issy was happy. As she had predicted, she had found a new double act that might work for one of her shoots’.
The pair quickly became firm friends and Annabelle spent a lot of time hanging out at the Hoxton studio, and went on to model in many of the shows. During their 18-year friendship Annabelle became his most trusted ally and muse.
‘However odd we may have been to those who looked at us - we worked. East End gay boy meets skinny English posh bird with a naughty streak’. Years later when reminiscing together, they agreed that ‘the minute blue eyes met brown in his first Hoxton studio, we both knew “here is my soulmate”’
McQueen empathized with women and believed that hardships and struggle could ultimately lead to their strength and empowerment - a theme he was to repeat in many of his collections. He dedicated his critically acclaimed ‘Joan’ collection, Autumn-Winter 1998-99, to Annabelle in recognition of her resilience and ultimate triumph over the personal hardships she had suffered over her lifetime.
Lot 9, Alexander McQueen sequined 'Romanov' bodice, 'Joan', A/W 1998-99. Estimate £1,500-2,500
McQueen would often work out an idea for a garment, either in his studio or at home (Annabelle had a bedroom in every home he owned), using her as his dressing-up doll. Although he sometimes sketched ideas, he was a master tailor and liked to adapt or cut into the fabric or adjust a garment on a body or form.
‘I never quite felt comfortable with the way he would cut clothes with me in them, the scissors a skin cell away from a permanent scar. But Lee was my love, my great defender and my friend’.
Some of the pieces included in the auction are unique. Lots 7, 91 and 92 are examples of rare prototypes - works in progress, giving tantalizing glimpses into McQueen’s design and construction process. The Angels & Demons tunic, lot 92, for example, never went into production. Others he adapted especially for Annabelle, cutting into them to make them shorter or fitted to her individually.
Left: lot 92, Alexander McQueen tunic, probably a prototype for 'Angels & Demons', A/W 2010-11. Estimate £3,000-5,000
Right: lot 91, Alexander McQueen unfinished redingote for Annabelle Neilson, 2009 or early 2010. Estimate £800-1,200
Annabelle commissioned many garments over the years, but many were also given by Lee as presents. He gifted the only garment kept from his Givenchy years - the green lace bias-cut haute couture showpiece from ‘Eclect-Dissect’, Autumn-Winter 1997-98. Cut from myriad graduated bands of gossamer-fine green lace placed over satin, it is a masterpiece of construction, worthy of a 1930s Vionnet (lot 8). At Givenchy, McQueen experienced for the first time an haute couture atelier able to convert his ideas into garments of consummate perfection and they experienced a couturier who truly understood construction and could cut toiles himself if he so desired.
Lot 8, Givenchy haute couture by Alexander McQueen, 'Eclect-Dissect', A/W 1997-98. Estimate £4,000-6,000
After every show, the pair would bundle into a car and escape – either abroad or to McQueen’s favourite place in the world, his cottage in Hastings. Annabelle recalled,
‘There is one place that was Lee’s real love. A cottage by the sea with a great giant tree - a monolith, a living sculpture. I always called it the witch’s cottage and it was where he imagined the 2008 show "The Girl who Lived in the Tree".
A talented writer, Annabelle produced a manuscript for him ‘based around a magical girl who travelled like his shows to the end of the world’ and it was on this fairytale that the show was based. The key colours for the collection were blood-red, black and white, the fabrics floating chiffons, rich ruby satins, digitally-woven silk, figured with a girl and a gnarled ancient tree and McQueen’s beloved Highland tartans. In the story, Annabelle’s heroine Isabelle leaves her tree, goes through a giant’s garden and through a marble palace where she is pursued by a menacing Prince -
‘The tree that had given her life, the tree she had left to be here. Running, she ran into one of the palace gardens, now she could hear people chasing her, palace guards and him, she needed to escape. She saw each deep blood-red rose that stood, sentries, black crystal thorns, as she felt her own pain. Then she saw it, freedom, there, a small gate, she ran. If it was locked, there would be nowhere to run or hide, she pushed on the gate door and slipped through.'
Left: lot 66, Alexander McQueen cocktail dress, 'The Girl Who Lived in the Tree', A/W 2008-09. Estimate £800-1,200
Right: lot 65, Alexander McQueen suit, 'The Girl Who Lived in the Tree', A/W 2008-09. Estimate £1,500-2,500
Annabelle’s prominence on the London social scene, her role in the reality TV series ‘Ladies of London’ and as a frequent companion to McQueen on red carpets everywhere – meant that a glamorous wardrobe was a necessity. Usually dressed from head to toe in McQueen, she became the perfect ambassador for the firm.
She wrote, ‘He liked my wackiness—and the fact that when I went out, I made his outfits live.'
To accompany McQueen to the Metropolitan Museum Gala in 2006, she wore the black lace showpiece from ‘Widows of Culloden’, Autumn-Winter 2006-07. For his posthumous retrospective at The Met’s May 2011, she wore what she called her ‘wedding’ dress. A one-off from Angels & Demons, AW 2010-11, which it seems was specially-made for her, as it never went into production.
Lot 43, Alexander McQueen jumpsuit, 'Widows of Culloden', A/W 2006-07. Estimate £2,000-3,000
Lot 90, Alexander McQueen gown, 'Angels & Demons', A/W 2010-11. Estimate £3,000-5,000
Uniquely, he also made Annabelle sportswear! In 2001 she decided to race across the Himalayas in the middle of winter in aid of charity and he made a pair of rally jumpsuits in purple and white leather. Annabelle loved to ride and shoot and looked very fetching in her McQueen tweed hacking jacket.
Lot 73, Alexander McQueen tweed hacking jacket, pre-Fall 2009. Estimate £300-500
Lot 17, two Alexander McQueen bespoke rally suits, 2001. Estimate £500-800
Two of the more dramatic pieces of evening wear in her wardrobe came from ‘Le Dame Bleu’, Spring-Summer 2008, a show dedicated to Isabella Blow who had tragically died in May 2007. The mutual friend who had brought them together was deeply missed by them both.
Left: lot 54, Alexander McQueen dégradé silk kimono, 'La Dame Bleue', S/S 2008. Estimate £8,000-12,000
Right: lot 63, Alexander McQueen 'Butterfly' dress, 'La Dame Bleue', S/S 2008. Estimate £3,000-5,000
Some of Annabelle’s favourite and most frequently worn pieces were from the ‘'Natural Dis-tinction, Un-Natural Selection' collection, Spring-Summer 2009. The last time the pair went out together they mischievously decided to gate-crash Tom Ford’s private dinner at Harry’s Bar in celebration of the British premiere of his directorial debut ‘A Single Man’. Annabelle wore the lovely pink kaleidoscope-print gown with Swarovski crystals down the back (lot 69) She wrote:
‘I thought it was a terrible idea, but I loved a laugh and the thought of us being denied entrance to Harry’s bar was too exciting as all the good and fabulous had been invited except us. So Lee dressed me up (I had clothes in my bedroom in his place). He went in all beige and I had a pink dress covered in diamonds and a fur coat with a hoody.’ When belatedly offered a place at the table, they declined. ‘Lee just said, “We’re not hungry.” This was his last social engagement, a week before his untimely death. Annabelle later wrote that she thought 'Lee had gone to say goodbye'.
Lot 70, Alexander McQueen 'Kaleidoscope' suit, 'Natural Dis-tinction, Un-Natural Selection', S/S 2009. Estimate £2,000-3,000
Right: lot 69, Alexander McQueen 'Crystal' dress, 'Natural Dis-tinction, Un-Natural Selection' S/S 2009. Estimate £4,000-6,000
Their birthdays were just six days apart and so each year they had a joint party and went on holiday together – skiing in the Alps, scuba-diving in Thailand and the Maldives, to name just a few. McQueen often used time spent with Annabelle to devise concepts or think through ideas for his next collections. On their last holiday in Thailand, Annabelle described,
‘We had adjoining rooms. I went in to have breakfast with him, but the room was empty. There were 12 pieces of paper on the table, all with the same simple sketch, almost like a tailor’s dummy, but then I got to the last sheet and there was the first dress from the Plato’s Atlantis show [SS10], and it was perfect. It literally took my breath away — a tingle ran through my body, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. This was going to be one of his most amazing shows. I said: “My God, you’ve done it.” He just smiled.’
This Spring-Summer 2010 collection was arguably his finest, combining as it did his love of nature, the use of innovative fabrics, glorious colour palette and sublime sculptural shapes. The construction, though seemingly complex, was pared-down, simple but devastating.
Left: lot 83, Alexander McQueen 'Moth' dress, 'Plato's Atlantis', S/S 2010. Estimate £8,000-12,000
Right: lot 84, Alexander McQueen printed dress, 'Plato's Atlantis', S/S 2010. Estimate £3,000-5,000
Lot 85, A rare pair of Alexander McQueen 'Shipwreck' boots, 'Plato's Atlantis', S/S 2010. Estimate £2,000-3,000
The idea for the ‘Shipwreck’ boots with heels formed from tarnished, rivetted strips of metal and verdigris-effect leather was inspired by one of their subterranean scuba explorations to a rusting hulk resting on the seabed.
Image courtesy of Ann Ray
Annabelle is photographed here wearing the ‘Shipwreck’ boots, holding a kestrel. She wrote ‘People who have been hurt are like birds — they flock together. We loved each other. I felt him before me, behind me and at my side... I wanted to be photographed with a kestrel because it was a bird he loved and admired. If I imagined him coming back as anything, it would be a kestrel’.
McQueen didn’t complete his last show, ‘Angels & Demons’ (AW10) before his death but his trusted assistant and right hand Sarah Burton finished it for him. Annabelle recalled,
‘His mood board was covered in pictures of purgatory, Dante’s Inferno and work by the Chapman Brothers. There was also a poem by Edgar Allan Poe that included both our names, Annabel Lee, which he had found and loved. It’s about a love so strong it reaches across the grave. We read it together a lot: me to him, him to me; it was another one of those things we did together’.
Left: lot 89, Alexander McQueen 'Hieronymous Bosch' dress, 'Angels & Demons', A/W 2010-11. Estimate £4,000-6,000
Right: lot 88, Alexander McQueen 'gothic' silk dress, 'Angels & Demons', A/W 2010-11. Estimate £2,500-3,500
Annabelle’s close relationship with the McQueen fashion house continued via her friendship with creative director Sarah Burton and her collection a reflects this, in the form of beautiful evening gowns, cocktail wear and fabulous shoes and evening bags (lots 94-123).
Lot 96, Alexander McQueen by Sarah Burton cocktail dress, S/S 2011. Estimate £800-1,200
Lot 120, Alexander McQueen by Sarah Burton clutch, circa 2015. Estimate £250-350
Annabelle’s premature death from a heart attack aged 49 came as a shock, following her beloved Lee’s death just 8 years earlier. She left behind a wardrobe that is so much more than mere clothes. Each piece was carefully selected by herself or Lee. Because of her closeness to the designer for whom she acted as muse, she came to know the ideas, the concepts, the journey behind every thread of every garment, making this a unique collection indeed. In her speech at the V&A’s own McQueen retrospective in 2015, she said,
‘Lee above all things was a great storyteller. He transported us all to different worlds with his narrative genius, which brought us willingly and passionately to admire his creations. I loved the storyteller in Lee - the man and human being I miss. I could not have asked for a greater man to share my life with’.
At quiet, shared moments together, Lee liked to read a favourite poem to her that combined both their names – ‘Annabel Lee’ by Edgar Allan Poe, written in 1840. Indeed, as a gift he had the text embroidered onto silk tulle and made into a shawl for her. She said, ‘It’s about a love so strong that it reaches across the grave’. Its theme is the death of a beautiful woman and a love so strong, that even the angels are envious:
And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabelle Lee
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabelle Lee
The Annabelle Neilson Collection
of Alexander McQueen
Date: Tuesday, 22nd September 2020 14:00
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