“I want to be a purveyor of a certain silhouette, or a way of cutting, so that when I’m dead and gone people will know that the 21st century was started by Alexander McQueen.”
Unless you’ve been living under a seriously well hidden rock you’ll know that the V&A is currently hosting a retrospective of the career of designer Alexander McQueen and as far as exhibitions go, this one is pretty damn magnificent. The Savage Beauty exhibition began its life at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and has since been expanded and tweaked for its hotly anticipated arrival in London, McQueen’s home, and the city where he honed his craft.
Savage Beauty is as raw as it gets, and walking around the exhibition so close to this body of work, it feels almost voyeuristic, like you’re viewing something sacred and holy which was meant to be kept secret…..
The exhibition is presented over ten rooms which aim to showcase the most prolific of themes that Alexander McQueen himself showed during his runway shows. Savage Beauty takes you on a journey through McQueen’s entire career from his previously unseen 1992 MA graduate collection through to his final, incomplete FW10 collection.
As you enter Savage Beauty, the atmosphere is palpable, dark, eerie and bordering on uncomfortable, the air peppered with a recording of McQueen’s voice played over jutting soundbytes, an image of the late designer’s face is projected onto a black wall which slowly morphs into the Skull Lenticular. The first section of the exhibition, London, concentrates on ten of McQueen’s more famous early pieces spanning three collections: The Birds (S/S 1995), Highland Rape (A/W 1995) and The Hunger (S/S 1996) and runway footage is played behind the installation. This is your first glimpse at the world and the mind of Lee Alexander McQueen and it’s beautifully poetic.
The next room, Savage Mind, displays some of McQueen’s very early signature tailoring and his inventive cutting techniques, McQueen always designed from the side, saying that this was the best way to see all of the lumps and bumps and to decide how to skim these. His Kickback Trousers for example, form a perfect semi-circle when laid out flat, but on the body they drape at the back of the knee and create a flattering elongated kickback shape at the back of the ankle. In this room the famous “Bumster” trousers are displayed, although rather surprisingly from the front rather than the rear. A sharp shouldered jacket featuring an image of Robert Campin’s The Thief to the Left Of Christ by the Master of Flemalle c.1430 from the FW97 It’s a jungle Out There collection gives an early glimpse into McQueen’s fascination with gothic symbolism.
The Romantic Gothic room is breathtakingly beautiful, set in an eerily dark and atmospheric room, the display is almost too much to take in. There are strong references to the Victorian Gothic aesthetic that McQueen excelled in, garments featuring hair as a centrepiece and the famous Black Swan takes centre stage, emanating a certain sadness that you can’t fail to feel when you look at this awesome display of craftsmanship. It’s this particular room which holds pieces from McQueen’s final unfinished collection and it’s here that you feel part of an important moment in fashion history, McQueen was working on these pieces when he died and they’re dark and twisted and beautifully intricate.
“I don’t think like the average person in the street - I think quite perversely sometimes.”
Romantic Primitivism takes us deeper into the mind of McQueen, in a room where the walls are adorned with skulls and bones reminiscent of a catacomb and in the ceiling a hanging bubble plays the short film Irere directed by McQueen and John Maybury to accompany the SS03 collection. The smell of leather and skin hits you immediately and it’s the first time you appreciate just how close you actually are to these masterpieces. This section of the exhibition explores McQueen’s interest in the animal world and in particular the survival of exotic creatures in the wild, his FW97 collection: It’s a Jungle Out There was inspired by the Thomson’s Gazelle with McQueen saying his interest was borne out of the fact that “the life of this particular creature is over before it has even begun”.
“Animals fascinate me because you can find a force of energy, a fear that also exists in sex……”
The adjoining room houses the Romantic Nationalism section of the exhibit and it’s perhaps the most emotionally evoking room in the whole exhibition, and certainly the most dramatic. Darkly romantic and rebellious, the pieces in this display make a clear statement about patriotism.
“As a place for inspiration Britain is the best in the world, you’re inspired by the anarchy in the country….”
Presented in a room of red walls, on the left plinth the MacQueen tartan takes pride of place and music specially composed by John Gosling is played, creating a sense of spine prickling drama, the dress worn by Sarah Jessica Parker to the 2006 Met Gala is displayed and up close, McQueen’s genius in cutting is evident, matching diamonds and creating lined patterns rather than matching the tartan repeat. Pieces from the FW08 collection entitled The Girl Who Lived in the Tree are displayed on the right, a collection which was inspired by an Elm tree in the garden of McQueen’s country home near Fairlight cove in East Sussex and a story he created about it in his younger years. The collection was tinged with irony and pastiche and very romantically nationalistic with swathes of red and white and a million feathers.
His patriotic loyalty is never more evident than in this room, McQueen was once asked about his heritage and what his Scottish roots mean to him, his reply? “Everything.”
From here you make your way into the most breathtakingly heart wrenching room in the exhibition: The Cabinet of Curiosities. This forms the beating heart of the exhibition and the room is double height featuring various screens showing runway footage and iconic pieces displayed in gallery format. There are over 120 pieces on display in this one room and it’s understandably a lot to take in, it’s overwhelming, like a feast for the senses and when you first enter the room, you literally don’t know where to look. In the centre of the room is the now iconic spray painted dress from No.13 SS99. Just laying eyes on this dress pulls on my heart and I feel a real sense of privilege. The installation is set up to mimic the positioning of Shalom Harlow as she stood centre stage on that spinning disc, minus the Fiat plant robots, and it’s such a powerful display that it actually moved me to tears and I wasn’t the only one who felt it. There’s a real sense of awe in this room, just being amongst so many amazing pieces reminds you of what a talented and courageous designer McQueen was. Throughout his entire career, No.13 was the only show that ever made the designer himself cry and when you’re there, right in front of it, you can understand why.
The Yashmak from McQueen’s SS00 Eye collection was painstakingly rebuilt for The Cabinet of Curiosities and is displayed in show on a screen nearby, other pieces on display in this room are the Armadillo boot, first introduced in the SS10 Plato’s Atlantis collection and worn by Lady Gaga in her promo for Bad Romance, the Butterfly headdress made by Philip Treacy for McQueen to accompany his SS08 La Dame Bleue collection and the mask and Crown of Thorns from the FW96 Dante collection. This is a room that has been designed for viewing, there are bench seats in the centre and you could seriously spend all day looking at these objets de curiosite which have been staged so beautifully.
as you move through The Cabinet of Curiosities, you find yourself in a viewing area with a pyramid set up to display the haunting Pepper’s Ghost created for the finale to the FW06 The Widows of Colloden finale, using a technique pioneered by Harry Swan in the 19th century, the spectral image of Kate Moss is conjured and it is completely mesmerising. For the short period of time that the spectre appears, the room is silent and the surrounding people are as transfixed as I am, the whole spectacle utterly draws you in and is tinged with an almost palpable sadness. I spot more than one person wiping away tears as they exit this section of the exhibition and it’s hard not to be moved. Not one to shy away from a spectacle, McQueen was fascinated by death and the macabre and insisted that “death is part of life, I‘ve always been fascinated with Victorian views of death…. when they used to take pictures of the dead. It’s not about brushing it under the carpet like we do today, it’s about …celebrating someone’s life. and I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think it’s a very sad thing but it’s [also] a very romantic thing because it means the end of a cycle and everything has an end… it gives room for new things to come behind you“.
There’s a real shift as you enter Romantic Exoticism, this section of the exhibition explores McQueen’s interest in eastern culture and influence. On display are the designers take on traditional Japanese kimonos and silk trousers all with that dark twist synonymous with McQueen.
“Fashion can be really racist, looking at the clothes of other cultures as costumes. It’s mundane and it’s old hat. lets break down some barriers…”
At the end of this room is another sinister installation, one you are almost forced to take in. Part of the SS01 Voss (AKA “Asylum”) runway show, McQueen put on a completely unexpected live finale based entirely on a 1983 Joel-Peter Wilkin photograph entitled “Sanitarium” which depicted a glass box housing a voluptuous, masked woman connected to a stuffed monkey via a breathing tube, McQueen selected fetish writer Michelle Olley to play the part in the finale and the image has become synonymous with the Voss collection. McQueen later said of Voss: “It was about trying to trap something that wasn’t conventionally beautiful to show that beauty comes from within. It’s to do with the politics of the world - the way life is - and what beauty is”
“I find beauty in the grotesque like most artists. I have to force people to look at things…“
As you move away from the Earthy Voss display, you enter the Romantic Naturalism section and it’s exactly that. There are flowers and beautiful delicate lace in the pieces in this room and it’s almost too pretty for words, each piece is displayed in its own glass case and each piece flows seamlessly into the next like a passionate and romantic story, the lace dress pierced by resin antlers from the FW06 The Widows of Culloden is centre left and up close appears almost fluid. On the opposite side is the razor clam shells dress from the SS01 Voss collection as worn (and originally trashed) by Erin O’Connor and it’s a sight to behold. Seeing this piece in print is one thing but being right up in front of it is another thing altogether, you simply can’t describe the craftsmanship and the beauty of this piece, it’s almost other-worldly. McQueen wasn’t a designer to conform or be limited by materials and fabrics and took pleasure in using unexpected items to create his masterpieces.
“It was time to come out of the dark and into the light.”
The finale of the exhibition is Plato’s Atlantis. McQueen’s last fully realised collection shown for SS10 and based on a predicted future in which the polar ice cap would melt and life on earth would have to evolve in order to live beneath the ocean once more or perish; humanity would return to the place from where it came. Displayed in front of a giant screen showing the same short film used in the runway show featuring Raquel Zimmerman writhing and twisting as she morphs into a semi-aquatic creature, Plato’s Atlantis is futuristic, fresh and delightfully strange. This is the collection which unveiled the Armadillo boot silhouette for the first time, the Bell Jar dress and the JellyFish print which spawned so many high street tributes. Hailed as McQueen’s greatest achievement, Plato’s Atlantis is so far removed from anything we’ve previously seen from the designer, and perhaps alluded to a new direction for him, sadly we’ll never know what McQueen had planned for us for beyond FW10 but we do know that it would have been spectacular, and awe-inspiring and beautiful.
If you’re a lover of fashion, and even if you’re not, the Savage Beauty exhibition at the V&A is an absolute must see, there is no doubt that you will be transfixed and it’s unlikely that such an incredible body of work from such an iconic designer will ever be on display like this again. Curator Claire Wilcox was given unrestricted access to the McQueen archives in order to create this exhibition and has done an amazing job in creating the ambience to match each of the definitive themes featured here. There are footnotes to each piece and in some cases these are hard to find and even harder to read given the sheer volume of people making their way through the exhibition at any time. I would have loved to see more biographical information about McQueen, his heritage and his rise to become fashion’s enfant terrible, there are many subtle references to Isabella Blow, long time muse of Alexander McQueen but any reference to their tempestuous relationship is notably absent. However, the exhibition was always going to be about the clothes.
I’ve talked you through what I took from the exhibition but at the risk of sounding like a cliché, this is something you need to experience for yourself, it’s so much more than just looking at beautiful clothes, it’s a feeling, an ambience, a collective experience for the senses. So give yourself up to fashion and soak up the dark gothic atmosphere of Savage Beauty, and then go and do it all again because you’ll never get another opportunity to be a part of something of this magnitude and you’ll definitely leave there with more questions than you entered with but you’ll absolutely feel inspired. And if you really do want to know more about Lee Alexander McQueen, splash out and buy the book that accompanies the exhibition, it’s a gorgeous book that you’ll pick up repeatedly in the days following your visit(s) to the exhibition.
“There is no way back for me now, I’m going to take you on journeys you’ve never dreamed were possible…”
The exhibition runs until August 2nd 2015 at the V&A Museum and tickets and further information can be found here: http:/www.vam.ac.uk/savagebeauty
All quotes used in this article are by Lee Alexander McQueen.
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, in partnership with Swarovski, supported by American Express, with thanks to M∙A∙C Cosmetics, technology partner Samsung and made possible with the co-operation of Alexander McQueen, runs from 14 March – 2 August 2015. http://www.vam.ac.uk/savagebeauty