“There is no way back for me now. I’m going to take you on journeys you’ve never dreamed were possible.”
A magnificent new show at the V&A exploring the life’s work of legendary British fashion design Alexander McQueen is a moving, immersive experience that will leave you breathless.
The widely anticipated Savage Beauty exhibition builds on the success of the smaller Metropolitan Museum of Art show in 2011. Claire Wilcox, senior curator of fashion at the V&A, worked alongside the Met’s Andrew Bolton as consultant curator to produce a show as rich as the work itself, exploring the wealth of references and materials of the collections, with the aim of reflecting the imagination that McQueen poured into his work, and inspire new generations with the thought that creativity and fashion needn’t be limited by function.
Shown top: Duck feather dress, The Horn of Plenty AW 2009/10; Above: Butterfly headdress of hand painted turkey feathers, La Dame Bleu S/S 2008
“I oscillate between life and death, happiness and sadness, good and evil.”
The late Lee Alexander McQueen, born and raised in London, trained as a tailor on Saville Row at just 16 years of age, and went on on to work with theatrical costume and fashion designers before studying fashion design at Central St Martins. He was both a true visionary and so very much of his time, and his suicide in 2010 shook the fashion world and beyond.
From top: Tahitian pearl neckpiece, Voss S/S 2001; Voss room, with works from the 2001 show; Romantic Nationalism room.
“I don’t think like the average person on the street, I think quite perversely at times.”
Visitors to the show are met at the entrance by McQueen’s face darkly merging with a skull image on a large screen, in a reworking of the hologram invitation for his NATURAL Dis-Tinction, Un-Natural Selection, s/s 2009 collection; and his presence is felt throughout the show beyond the garments, with interpretation labels often including quotes like little whipsers, and other statements printed boldly across walls.
The exhibition design is magnificent, with themed rooms including bespoke mannequins and beautifully designed sets by McQueen’s long-term collaborator creative director Sam Gainsbury, and production designer Joseph Bennett, along with well-considered lighting and some incredible, and often haunting, sound design.
“I want to be the purveyor of a certain silhouette or a way of cutting, so that when I’m dead and gone people will know that the twenty-first century was started by Alexander McQueen.”
Rooms include London – an epicentre for McQueen – setting the scene with iconic early works including his Bumster trousers, with more revolutionary early constructions from the hero-artist found in the next room, Savage Mind. Black leather and golden feather, Victorian-inspired creations mix lightness and darkness in Romantic Gothic, a room of Poe-esque ‘shadowy fancies’, as McQueen once remarked.
From top: Romantic Gothic room; Romantic Primitivism room; dresses from Romantic Nationalism and Romantic Gothic rooms.
“I find beauty in the grotesque, like most artists. I have to force people to look at things.”
The hair and horns of the Romantic Primitivism room play out fantasies of ‘nature’s gentleman’ and the ‘noble savage’ in a cave-like room lined with bones and skulls; and the tarten and lace of the grand Romantic Nationalism room reflect his ancestral history and Scottish heritage, whilst reminding us of the autobiographical narratives that so often run through his collections, mixed with irony and pastiche.
From top: Cabinet of Curiosities room; details from the same space including bell jar dress with swarovski crystals, leather and horsehair dress, armadillo shoe and bird’s nest headress; still from the spray paint dress live show footage.
“It was about trying to trap something that wasn’t conventionally beautiful to show that beauty comes from within.”
Cabinet of Curiosities is the most intense and thrilling display, with sublime one-off creations, extravagant, bejeweled silhouettes and fetishistic accessories, along with AV displays of some of his infamous catwalk shows. Iconic pieces include the spray paint dress rotating in the centre of the room, originally painted by two robots in the live show; examples of his signature armadillo shoes; and the butterfly headdress made from hand-painted turkey feathers.
The next room is home to a film installation of the poignant finale to The Widows of Culloden show, featuring Kate Moss suspended as an ethereal form, involving the ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ technique, using projectors and mirrors.
From top: Romantic Exoticism room; Romantic Naturalism room; dried flower dress and razor clam shell dress from the same room.
“It was time to come out of the dark and into the light.”
The final, lighter rooms include Romantic Exoticism exploring global influences; Romantic Naturalism, looking at nature as one of McQueen’s most enduing influences with dresses made from dried flowers and razor clam shells; and finally Plato’s Atlantis – the last fully realised collection shown before his death in February 2010, with complex digitally engineered prints inspired by a narrative on humankind and its devolution and Darwin’s Origin of Species, often seen as offering a potent vision of the future of fashion.
Savage Beauty is an unmissable and moving exhibition, full of spectacle and theatricality, liberation and intense creativity, that leaves you with a real feeling of sadness at the loss of such an inspiring artist, but also a sense of celebrating an incredible talent.
From top: Plato’s Atlantis room; Alexander McQueen and Skull lenticular prints – a smaller version of what is seen on screen in the entrance.
A beautiful book accompanies the show, with essays from fashion commentators and industry figures, with backstage portraits, previously unpublished sketches and research boards from the archives.(vandashop.com £35)
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty opens Saturday 14 March at the V&A in London.
Check out the online interactive here – vam.ac.uk/museumofsavagebeauty
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty in partnership with Swarovski, supported by American Express, runs 14 March – 19 July 2015.
Photos: V&A/Anthea Simms/Swarovski Archive/Antonia Wilson/Creative Review