An interview with Instagram guru and Alexander McQueen archivist John Matheson

3rd February 2021

John Matheson is a writer and fashion archivist, running the hugely popular instagram account @McQueen_Vault posting often never-before-seen work of the late Alexander McQueen. It has fast become one of the most significant resources for McQueen enthusiasts, and provides a valuable archive for generations to learn from and be inspired by. We spoke to John about his motivation to start a McQueen archive online and what makes for an interesting feed.

BB: Can you talk a little bit about your background. When did fashion become important to you and what does it mean to you now?

John Matheson: Fashion was my first obsession. My professional background is in learning and education so even though I worked in cosmetics, I was always focused on the development and teaching aspect of the makeup brand. I always had this fascination with cataloging and sharing things.

It grew out of just being so obsessed with consuming fashion magazines and documentaries and fashion programs. I fell in love with Versace and Westwood, Gaultier, and Mugler, and then I developed a little bit more of an English-centric taste. Around that time, McQueen popped up and I realized there was something quite different about him. Fashion is interesting because it's something that is part of everything that we do, whether you want it to be or not. You make a choice whether or not to wear a black or a blue shirt. It's a very interesting form and expression.

BB: In 2018, when you started the account, what was your vision? What did you want to do by starting an archive?

I had lost a family member, unfortunately, around that time, and I was looking for something to keep myself busy and thought, "Okay well, I have all these years worth of magazine clippings and colors, and media and such, so if I put time into organizing this and maybe post a few things here and there, that'll keep me occupied and my mind busy.”

I started the account in late August and by January, I was being contacted by Dazed Magazine wanting to feature the page. The community started to grow - it made sense based on the amount of people that were attending things like Savage Beauty and wanting to see more of his work.

As time went on, it became obvious that a younger generation was coming through educational systems and the fashion community, and they didn’t quite understand the impact that he had. Now I find they are naturally curious about who he is and what he's done.

BB: What is about his work and character specifically that captures your imagination and that you relate to?

There are a few things. McQueen was a true underdog. By all accounts, he should have never made it in the fashion world. He didn't look the way he was supposed to. He didn't act the way he was supposed to. He didn't speak to people the way he was supposed to. So from a class and a social standing, he never should have made it. He was treated horrifically in his early career and yet he fought back and proved them all wrong because he just had this sheer talent in bucket loads that no one could deny. There’s also his ability to world-build in a way that packs so much emotion.

Even though he broke things apart and would approach things in abstract ways, they were very understandable dialogues that people could access. It was a movie reference or it was a book, or it was a piece of art, things that people could easily recognize. He did it so effortlessly while at the same time, with so much effort at work behind it.

BB: Why was it important to you to create an archive of his work? What does that moment in fashion tell us, more widely, about the culture and history of that particular period?

In terms of the culture behind it, I think it's quite critical because each generation makes their mark on things, don't they? So this was to me, one of the most critical time periods in the cultural history of the UK, when London was literally the epicentre of everything that was happening. This includes the art that was being developed at the time, the technology, and even the subcultures and how they were impacting. There he was, literally smack in the middle of it, changing the shape of what people would view for years to come.

He actually changed things seismically in terms of how we wear our clothes on a much bigger scale. And so for me to try and preserve little bits of that in whatever way I can, I think it's quite important. There would have been no Tom Ford velvet hipsters, boot cut 70s moment without that shift that McQueen created where everyone's eye went slightly below the natural waistline and the mom jeans went out the window. And things evolved and the spine expanded and the silhouette got a little bit shifted.

BB: Where do you see the Instagram account in 10 years time?

That's a great question. I just hope that people see it for the value of what it is and at a time where information and things or products are consumed so quickly, I hope that people can see that there was an emotional and cultural value that was considered.

It wasn't just about the 'it' bag or the shoe at the moment, we were actually creating stories. There were things being revisited in meaningful ways, whether it was 16th century frock coats or a certain fabric adapted from this type of technique. It actually had something more behind it than it just being on a celebrity. With social media having its commentary on everything, it can saturate peoples lives, so for things to have a little bit more longstanding impact, that's important to me.

BB: Whether it was accidental or not, you have a crazy big following, do you have advice for people who want to build a social media platform that is important, as well as popular?

I think it has to be something that you feel really deeply connected to and you're passionate about. Everybody has access to Google now, so you can look up anything and if you type in Alexander McQueen, you'll see the same 10 images come up. So it has to be something authentic and it has to be something that's driven by a genuine interest because I've been fortunate enough to make quite a few friends that like me, did the same thing when they were in their teens and 20s.

They just started hanging onto magazines or recording television programs. They also have these really incredible accounts with all this incredibly deeply researched information that they built themselves, but those are becoming so much more fewer and been almost pushed out of a conversation because there's all these other accounts that are wanting to do it, but not want to put in the work behind it. So it has to be something that they genuinely are passionate about and they want to spend the time growing.

Thanks John! Follow @mcqueen_vault for amazing archival imagery from the collections of Alexander McQueen

We know instagram acts as a great tool for archiving one's year. Why not create a photo book using your social media images?