The morning immediately after I had got back from a gruelling fashion month, I went to the press preview of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, at the V&A. I was whisked straight to the heart of the exhibition, the Cabinet of Curiosities because I was filming interviews there for a little short for Art Fund. It felt like the perfect starting point though in which to immerse yourself into the exhibition. Substantially larger than the Cabinet of Curiosities than the one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where the exhibition was original staged in 2011, you’re engulfed in McQueen objets and silhouettes looming large over you in the dark. In the centre, a dress from the S/S 99 No. 13 collection where Shalom Harlow was famously sprayed by a robot spins around, further spinning your senses around to take in archive show footage and the 120 memorable items with a focus on accessories created with the likes of Phillip Treacy and Shaun Leane. Pieces include not just Lee McQueen’s own collections but from ones he created for Givenchy between 1996 and 2000. There’s no room for filler in here – everything from the dramatic (a S/S 09 Bell Jar dress glittering with Swarovski crystals) to the bijoux (a Faberge-inspired ‘Empire’ egg bag from the Girl Who Lived in the Tree A/W 08 collection) catches your eye . Maybe it’s the scale of the double height ceiling space. But maybe it’s down to the intimacy rewarded to you as glass vitrines are eliminated. Plunged into relative darkness, you’re in awe of the breadth, the detail and the uncompromising artistry of McQueen’s output in this central showcase cabinet. In this non chronological, thematically structured exhibition, starting from the middle and working your way backwards feels like an appropriately non-linear way of seeing this exhibition, much like the zig-zag motion in which Lee McQueen himself traversed his way through ideas.
Back to the beginning of the exhibition and you find yourself confronting the primary reason of why Savage Beauty at the V&A, despite being being housed in a bigger space with more ensembles and accessories on display than the one at the Met, will always feel more intimate and heartfelt. We’re in London, the birthplace of McQueen and his creative home. “London’s where I was brought up. It’s where my heart is and where I get my inspiration,” he once said. Early pieces lent by key collectors and collaborators like Katy England, Annabelle Neilson and Isabella Blow from collections like The Birds S/S 1995, Highland Rape A/W 1995 and The Hunger S/S 1996 – some that have never been seen before since they went down the runway – are on display. Whilst raw-edged and anger filled, they were superbly made, which segues nicely onto the next section Savage Mind in a space created to resemble the workrooms of Central Saint Martins to demonstrate McQueen’s skills as a superior tailor.
Knowing the rules and breaking them. His Savile Row training and his Central Saint Martins training was what qualified McQueen to go far and beyond anybody’s imaginings of pre-conceived wearability. His jackets displayed here on traditional stockman figures here exude a sharpness of cut and innovative pattern cutting. His famous “bumsters” aren’t just trousers with a wide waistline – they hang properly to reveal the top of the bottom just so. I was struck by how precise every seam looked.
Every theme is then headed up by the word “Romantic” and the first is “Romantic Gothic”. This is where McQueen’s broad referencing really begins to kick up with everything from Hieronymous Bosch to Victorian mourning to Edgar Allan Poe. The darkness and macbre element of McQueen is always highlighted as a link to his persona but here you understand the contrasts between life and death and lightness and darkness that he played with, whilst never overstepping into historical pastiche.
Romantic Primitivism explores McQueen’s fascination with the animal world – or rather the primal one – where tribal costumes and beasts could push his silhouettes further but also to present a distinction between predator and prey and notions of Darwinism. Like the gothic led collections, it’s all too easy to simply read McQueen’s work as “aggressive” or “angry” when there are so many more nuances beneath facile darkness. McQueen’s collections posed questions about civilisation and about social constructs created by men. Nothing is created for the pure shock of it.
Romantic Nationalism centres around two collections – A/W 06 The Widows of Culloden and the A/W 08 The Girl who Lived in the Tree where his Scottish and English identities are explored in what ostensibly are his most ‘softly’ beautiful moments with ensembles of tartan and lace, romantic chiffon and Indian-inspired embroidery. Still critique on the actions of the British Empire, lies beneath those aesthetic pleasures.
The culminating “Pepper’s Ghost” finale of the A/W 08 show, as the hologram of Kate Moss wafting about in a tiered chiffon dress is recreated here. This is really where the exhibition goer gets to be immersed in a McQueen SHOW moment.
Romantic Exoticism is one of my favourite sections in terms of personal aesthetic intricacies. Collections like S/S 05 It’s Only a Game where the West is pitted against the East sees McQueen playing with traditional Japanese designs and garments but instead of looking at other cultures purely as costume rehashings, he reinterpreted that traditional language and said something new. Kimono sleeves are made more dramatic, the necks higher and embroidery and motifs worked with American football uniforms.
Another infamous show moment is recreated here as you’re immersed inside the glass smashing moment of S/S 01 Voss where fetish writer Michelle Olley was revealed as a curvaceous nude, connected through a breathing tube to a stuffed monkey, covered in moths, in reference to a Joel-Peter Witkin photograph entitled “Sanitarium”. Voss confronted society ideals of beauty head on and McQueen’s questions about idealised beauty are still largely unanswered as the demand for perceived perfection have only really been exacerbated in the age of social media.
Romantic Naturalism is where you can appreciate McQueen’s use of unusual materials such as discarded clam shells used in a dress from the Voss collection (the one which Erin O’Connor ripped herself out of) or dried hydrangeas and roses in S/S 07 Sarabande. McQueen constantly referenced the fragile and ephemeral state of the natural world. It’s the in-flux nature of these materials that give these dresses such verve, even when housed in glass cases like natural history museum specimens.
The final part of the exhibition is dedicated to the one and only Lee McQueen show I personally witnessed – Plato’s Atlantis – a landmark collection in itself because of its use of digital landscapes and live streaming. This was one part of the exhibition I could “relive” whereas so many of the other journalists seeing everything, recalling show anecdotes and memories. My own knowledge and memories of McQueen lie in The Clothes Show, old magazines, early Style.com images and discussions on The Fashion Spot. I imagine it will be much the same for the hordes of people coming through the exhibition. It’s never going to be the same as those visceral shows but at the very least you come to something of an understanding as to what made McQueen so brilliant.
Due to bad timing, I never got to see Savage Beauty at the Met. In a weird way, I’m glad that my first experience of the exhibition was in London. I’m in no position to say which one was “better” (people that I polled tended to just remark that the exhibition at the Met felt smaller and more “squished”) but certainly in terms of emotion, it just feels “right” that it’s finally in London. That emotion was conveyed by various speeches at the opening night Gala, which I was lucky enough to attend thanks to American Express, who were a longtime sponsor of McQueen’s working with him since 1996. McQueen’s key collaborators are also all mostly Londoners and the exhibition was as much about celebrating them as it was McQueen.
But the exhibition comes at a pertinent time too. The conversation about an industry where product has replaced creativity and polish has eliminated personality is going strong. At the Gala Suzy Menkes talked about McQueen being held up as a bastion against the landscape of “normcore” fashion today. The small voice inside me says that the likelihood of witnessing someone like McQueen is low to none, when the education system is making fashion even less of a meritocracy than it already was. Savage Beauty serves as a reminder of a figure in fashion that may not ever be seen again. For a fervent public (70,000 tickets pre-sold so far outselling even the David Bowie exhibition), it’s an incredible opportunity to witness the mind and process of one of Britain’s great designers and artists. For the fashion industry, it calls to question whether another Lee McQueen will ever be seen again.
Savage Beauty at the V&A on until the 2nd August 2015 – yes tickets have been sold out for the first few weekends but everyday 200 tickets to the public will be released if you go in person to the museum.
Here’s the result of that short I filmed with The Art Fund: