It’s Easter Saturday, April 4th (strangely quiet in London) and we’ve got tickets for the exhibition Alexander McQueen – Savage Beauty at the Victoria + Albert Museum.
“The first and largest retrospective of the late designer’s work to be presented
in Europe, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty showcases McQueen’s visionary body of work. Spanning his 1992 MA graduate collection to his unfinished A/W 2010 collection, McQueen’s designs are presented with the dramatic staging and sense of spectacle synonymous with his runway shows” – source: V+A.
Savage Beauty exhibition sponsored by Swarovski – photo of promotional booklet
It’s extremely well organised, with a restricted number of people being able to enter the exhibition at 30 minute intervals to prevent over-crowding. It’s very well produced, spectacular, an emotional experience, mind-blowing. Immense.
From the moment we step into the darkness of a small entrance room (an interim space that serves to eradicate, or neutralise me from the more traditional V+A museum space I’ve just left behind) I’m intrigued by the loud music and film I can hear emanating from the first display room I’m about to enter. Suspense – heightened.
Turning the corner into the exhibition, my attention is actively sought by video footage playing on a giant screen on the back wall, music pounding, and Alexander McQueen’s 1992 MA graduate collection before me. Where to look first? It’s a feast for the senses.
Photography and sketching are not permitted in the exhibition.
See the V+A’s photos Inside The Exhibition.
While the display items are from 1992, the story starts in 1985 (the written texts are – in part – hard to read, poorly lit, and sometimes don’t accurately depict the garment they refer to; it’s the weakness of the exhibition but even so – it doesn’t detract from the overall, powerful and mesmerising experience) when McQueen began a Savile Row apprenticeship, developing the tailoring and cutting craftsmanship that would serve him well in later years.
Already I’m transported back to 1985 – a time when I was studying dress and design at school and would bunk off classes I didn’t like, to put in extra time in the sewing room (my *lovely* sewing teacher, Mrs T, covered for me when I got found out and would otherwise have got in trouble. By the by). A time of outlandish New Romantic/futurist fashions when, as a teenager, I loved making my own, unique clothes (think zips, big clasps, double breasted shirts, pencil skirts, balloon pants, adapted men’s clothes) from what seemed like an endless supply of beautiful cloths that came my way from my granddad who worked in a Huddersfield wool mill (truly bringing out the Taylor in me).
But back to 1992, to McQueen’s St Martin’s College graduation collection Jack The Ripper Stalks His Victims inspired by McQueen’s East End London upbringing, and with hair locks sewn into each garment.
“London’s where I was brought up.
It’s where my heart is and where I get my inspiration”
– Alexander McQueen, January 2000
Savage Beauty is all about (L.) Alexander McQueen the designer, not Lee McQueen the person (personal relationships remain unexplained; it’s objective, you don’t get a subjective narrative of his complicated relationship with Isabella Blow who bought his graduation collection in 1992 and effectively launched his career). And if you ask me, that’s a good thing.
Each room conveys a different – perfectly staged – sense of theatre for each very different collection (which surprises and pleases). Yet, simultaneously, some common themes run throughout his designs (such as nature and Romanticism).
Collections from the 90s include the controversial Highland Rape of 1995-96 (despite saying he wanted to empower women, the disturbing torn clothes and bloodied flesh in this collection were seen as misogynist at the time though McQueen claimed the story here is embedded in the history of the Scottish Clearances by the English, rather than the rape of women, and pays tribute to his Scottish ancestry) also featuring bumster designs that draw attention to the lower back (acknowledging the lower spinal area as “the most exciting part of any person’s body, whether male or female”. I like that) and outlandish but meticulously tailored Dante of 1996-97 (his fame grew in the Britpop and Cool Britannia era).
“I want to empower women.
I want people to be afraid of the women I dress”
– Alexander McQueen
Dress no.13, spring/summer 1999
So what do I like best? What really grabs me?
This is where I wish I’d been able to snap some photos:
1. an ostentatiously big, black, fitted/shaped dress – all rips and buckles, erotica-stylie (from the graduation collection I think, certainly the 90s) – as with many of the dresses, I *really want* to try it on
2. black cashmere wool trousers (beautifully cut, with red piping on shin-high roll-ups and a vertical trio of buttons under each hip, from late 90s – either Dante or Joan)
no image available
3. that he always cut his clothes to suit the wearer sideways-on (sideways-on being where all the lumps and bumps are)
4. that there *is* a coherent and thoughtful story to his designs when individually, they often seemed crazy and way OTT
5. the sheer scale of talent and success (massive!) by someone who achieved so much and died so young; it’s mind-blowing to see it all in one space
6. the huge central room packed with exhibits (dresses, accessories, screens playing video) floor to ceiling on all four walls and – in particular – the robot-spray-painted white cotton muslin dress centre-stage (ie. dress no.13, spring/summer 1999)
7. animal shapes incorporated into designs (eg. Thomson Gazelles in It’s a Jungle Out There, autumn/winter 1997–98)
8. the blend of east and west (in both the VOSS, spring/summer 2001 collection and It’s Only A Game, spring/summer 2005 (eg. Japanese kimonos morphing with the padding of American football strips)
“There’s blood beneath every layer of skin”
– Alexander McQueen
9. those armadillo shoes
10. the abundance of corsets (sigh)
11. the swash-buckling ‘kings of the wild frontier’ tailored jackets in the Dante collection autumn/winter 1996–97
“I spent a long time learning how to construct clothes, which is important to do before you can deconstruct them”
– Alexander McQueen
K too is hooked: he sees the influence of an early Final Fantasy costume in a particular McQueen design from the noughties. But then again, I can’t see how anyone couldn’t be hooked by this exhibition – there’s something for everyone. The experience is an hour of pure sensation.
Reasonably priced tickets @ £16.00 each
V&A on Savage Beauty
Further reading + viewing
Vogue’s Inside Savage Beauty
Intrigued? Want to know more? Check out these links
~ Met Museum NYC: Savage Beauty USA – select items
~ V+A: Museum of Savage Beauty
~ V+A: Inside The Exhibition
~ The Guardian: Savage Beauty review – superficially magnificent
~ Collections (images): on Culture Whisper website
~ Collections (images): The Widows of Culloden
~ Collections, including: Graduation collection images
~ Savage Beauty photos: exhibition collages
~ New York Times: Timeline of McQueen
~ Bio: See Alexander McQueen’s timeline
~ Vogue: Alexander the Great
~ Michelle Olley: Box naked and all those moths
Filed under: British culture + arts, London by day | Tagged: Alexander McQueen, armadillo shoes, bumster, Dante, Highland Rape, Isabella Blow, It's a Jungle Out There, Jack The Ripper Stalks His Victims, Lee McQueen, London, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Savage Beauty, Savage Beauty review, V&A, Victoria and Albert Museum, Voss, Widows of Culloden | Leave a comment »