Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty
Fashion retrospectives are proven draw cards for art museums the world over (in 2011 alone, there were reportedly 16 major global fashion exhibitions). And yet, even the curators of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty were surprised by visitors’ overwhelming fascination with this exhibition, which was initially presented by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2011, where it was one of the most popular in the museum’s history.
Advance tickets to Savage Beauty at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London sold out quickly, with punters eagerly queuing for hours to access limited daily releases. With one month before the exhibition is due to close, V&A have just announced they will open around the clock for the final two weekends to cope with public demand. McQueen at midnight, anyone?
Lee Alexander McQueen was a prodigious talent in the fashion world. The British designer and couturier was chief designer at Givenchy from 1996 to 2001, before founding his eponymous label. His suicide at age 40 was allegedly precipitated by the death of his mother from cancer, whom he couldn’t bear to live without (no doubt aided by the heady cocktail of drugs found in his system). During his lifetime, colleagues and collaborators were deeply protective over him and following his death their loyalty only intensified, adding to the mystique of the exhibition. According to the catalogue, the only intimate confidant to give an interview after McQueen’s suicide was a former boyfriend, who used the proceeds to finance a trip to South America. Once there, he was bitten by a spider and died.
The full dramatic impact of the exhibition is felt immediately upon entering the first room, where we encounter floor to ceiling visuals of McQueen’s striking creations modelled on the runway to an electrifying soundtrack. The following room displays his 1992 MA graduate designs, which emphasise innovative cutting and construction techniques to create strong, tailored silhouettes.
Each subsequent room is arranged thematically, with imagery of life and death, lightness and darkness, melancholy and beauty ever-present, achieving a heightened sense of spectacle throughout. His collections drew heavily on historical references, most notably Victorian Gothic.
His ‘Romantic Primitivism’ period, which drew on motifs of tribalism and noble savagery, is exhibited in a chamber lined with bones, with garments featuring exotic detailing such as impala horns and shoulders adorned with baby crocodile heads.
McQueen’s Scottish lineage influenced his ‘Romantic Nationalism’ collection, which was awash with iconic red tartan inspired by the final battle of the Jacobite Risings in 1745. It provided a catharsis to the anti-romanticism of his earlier, legendary Highland Rape collection of 1995 (not on display), which saw dazed models spilling out onto the runway in slashed, barely-there garments.
My highlight from his Romantic Naturalism period was a dress fashioned entirely out of pheasant feathers, capturing an exquisite avian beauty. His final collection, Platos Atlantis demonstrated a marked departure from his gothic inflected earlier designs. Part reptilian fantasy, part marine odyssey, the 2010 collection also introduced McQueen’s distinctive armadillo shoes.
McQueen conceived of couture shows as a form of performance art, and is said to have visualised his creations on the runway before even sketching them. In 1998, McQueen famously presented a single model, Shalom Harlow in a strapless white dress, rotated slowly on a revolving section of the catwalk whilst being spray painted by two robotic guns (the resulting gown is on display).
The room that left me reeling was the salon hang of McQueen’s cabinet of curiosities, which contained runway footage interspersed with primitive and fetishistic paraphernalia produced by McQueen in collaboration with a number of accessory designers, including the milliner Philip Treacy and the jeweler Shaun Lean. A kaleidoscopic soundscape of strings, bird calls, sweet lullabies and heavy handed fingers bashing at a typewriter created a whirling, disorienting effect. One could easily sit in the centre of the room and take in its treasures for hours.
Lost too young, the remarkable artistic achievements of Britain’s enfant terrible of couture are well captured in this expertly curated and exhibited collection of his highly imaginative creations, which transcend utilitarian notions of fashion, positioning it firmly in the realm of fine art.
The exhibition runs until 2nd August. For info and tickets, go here.
Words by Georgia Mckay. Photos courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.