I was born in Gibraltar and spent the first six years of my life there. My father was Gibraltarian and my mother was Spanish, but I was a child of the Commonwealth. When we arrived in London, my parents experienced a feeling perhaps best described as safe—and the personification of that feeling was Her Majesty the Queen. We forget now, but the Seventies in London were a crazy time, a really crazy time, when people often had to run out of tube stations or department stores because of bomb threats.
The Queen also inspired in my father a real sense of British pride that he passed on to me. Every Christmas, our entire day was built around her 3pm speech, which we’d watch sitting in silence, hanging on her every word. And ever since then, on each and every Christmas—it doesn’t matter where I am—I’ve tuned in for her speech: scanning what she’s wearing, what’s on her desk, is Nick’s [photographer Nick Knight] portrait of her in place in the room she’s sitting in.
Her Majesty was a beacon of Britishness, dressed in colors of joy and optimism. That was all her doing—the idea of wearing those bright colors just so that we could catch a glimpse of canary yellow, or lavender blue; so we could see her in the crowds and go away and say, “I saw the Queen! I saw the Queen!”, which reveals quite a sense of both her duty and how she wanted to present herself to her subjects. There was, simply, no one like her. I was watching footage of people—from all over the world: China, Colombia; not just the UK—queuing up to pay their last respects, and it’s so moving. It’s funny, but back when I traveled a lot, people would often ask me, ‘How’s the Queen? Like I knew her or something. “How’s the Queen?” I’d always reply, “I think she’s great.”
The Queen reigned by example. Her understanding of etiquette and protocol was informed by her own knowledge of history: She made the world a safer place by knowing how to navigate it with grace, poise, and charm. I think you could say the same for the way she dressed. The quiet authority she exuded carried such wisdom and decisiveness. She may not have been a political leader, but she led through diplomacy. The way she handled situations—no matter their nature or significance—was just so chic. And that shone through in her wardrobe.
I’ve always been surrounded by portraits of her, whether at my grammar school in South London, in the Boy Scouts, right down to the deli across the road from Taboo [the infamous Eighties London nightclub]—they had one behind the counter! And of course one thinks of the early portraits by Cecil Beaton, these immaculate exercises in shaping the image of a young Queen yet to form the identity we know so well today, from the early Princess—poised, elegant, full of grace and charm—to a mother playing with her children in the garden. Or at the races, with that burst of emotion sometimes, with her passion for horses.
Through clothes, the Beaton portraits depict the many characters that would shape that identity: the monarch in her robes and jewels; the wartime Princess in her military uniform, looking like someone you could just believe in and follow. We didn’t often hear her speak, but her clothes and jewelry told a thousand tales. I’ve often taken her style and played with it: For me it’s the underlying heartbeat, the absolute sense of tradition.
Even today at Maison Margiela there are always pictures of the Royal Family on my mood board—at the races, the Trooping the Colour. I’ll go back and forth in eras, and sometimes I have to explain the British aristocracy—or hunting, shooting, and fishing, and why these fabrics are relevant, or Hunting Pink is, or why something is lined in Tattersall—to the younger team members. My love of British yarns or wovens is inspired by her, though I do like to subvert it a little! The Land Rover, the headscarf, the corgi, the Barbour jacket. I mean, yes, yes, yes. Of course, I think those have been an influence to all creatives, if I may be so bold to say. It’s all timeless—it could be part of a design brief last week, or twenty years ago. Tradition, always tradition, no?
I used the Union Jack for jackets for a Spring 1993 collection called Olivia The Filibuster, which was one of my earliest shows in Paris, and Kate [Moss] wore one of the jackets in the show. It was the early days of her career and she’d only done a few shows, and at that time I would give only one outfit per muse—and Kate was backstage crying and crying, saying she didn’t understand why she didn’t have three outfits and that maybe I didn’t love her. But I love the image of our queen, Kate, wearing that same jacket from the show in the presence of Her Majesty on the bus that drove down the Mall during the Platinum Jubilee. I asked myself: I did give Kate that jacket, right? Did I? I’m not sure. I must have done. [Laughs]
Her Majesty had the incredible gift of always putting everyone at ease. Before I received my CBE [in 2001], you can imagine that I was in a real state, especially after all the months of preparations and fittings at Savile Row for my morning suit to wear to Buckingham Palace. But I walked in and joined a small queue on the left, and suddenly there was an elderly gentleman in front of me being knighted, and there I was, just trying to breathe, to keep myself together—it was such a momentous event for me.
As I got closer and closer and closer to the Queen, I studied how everyone bowed, how they walked, how they approached her—trying to remember it all. Then, suddenly, the aide called my name, and as I stepped forward, at that very moment, the orchestra started to play “Hello, Dolly!”—Hello, Dolly, it’s so nice to have you back where you belong. At which point I just lost it completely. There was the most charming twinkle in Her Majesty’s eye. I don’t think she composed the playlist, but some queen at the palace must have had the idea. It was the campest thing ever. So I was very smiley—mute, but smiley—and received my award.
Her late Majesty made me proud to be British. She was an example by which to live—and someone you could always turn to in the face of crisis. Her presence was so constant, so resilient, so eternal. The Queen was—and will remain—a shepherdess of Britishness: someone to lead the way. She reflected the finest of the qualities we associate with our nationality: loyalty, discipline, belief. And because we were so proud of her, she became a symbol of British pride itself.