Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the V&A

UPDATE: A review of ‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’ is now online here

Lee Alexander McQueen often narrated a desire to reach an audience larger than the few who sit front row at fashion week. In 2009, his Plato’s Atlantis collection was the first to be streamed online but Lee died just four months later, without seeing his desire wholly realised.

In 2011, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York exhibited, ‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’; a post-humous display of McQueen’s most note-worthy pieces that captured the designer’s struggle with his outsider/insider identity and his brand’s amalgamation of fashion and art. The exhibition was frequented by 661,409 visitors in just three months.

At the time, there was heated discussion about the location of the exhibition. Lee McQueen was innately proud of his working class East-end London roots and whilst the Metropolitan Museum of Art didn’t initially feel like ‘home’, it was an immeasurable commercial success. However, in just over a week’s time, ‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’ opens to a European audience at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Already, 58,000 advance tickets have been sold and pre-bookable tickets for the first five weekends of the exhibition are completely sold out. The exhibition has also had to be extended by two weeks due to public demand. The show’s creative director, Sam Gainsbury has said that the emphasis on home and London will ‘make the show feel more raw’ whilst at the V&A, “It’s more about those early years, when McQueen wasn’t famous, when there was no money, no celebrity, just this incredible creativity.”

I am really fortunate to be attending the preview of the exhibition on March 12th and like most with an interest in fashion, I consider myself Alexander McQueen’s biggest fan. I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to interview Kate Bethune, Senior Research Assistant for Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty.

Jellyfish emsemble and Armadillo shoes from Platos Atlantis SS2010. Model: Polina Kasina

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

1. What does your role entail, regarding ‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’?

I am the Senior Research Assistant for the exhibition Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. I am part of the curatorial team and support Senior Curator Claire Wilcox.

2. What process or discussion was involved in bringing the collection to the Victoria & Albert Museum?

It has been the dream of both Martin Roth, Director of the V&A, and Claire Wilcox, the Museum’s Senior Curator of Fashion, to bring Savage Beauty to the V&A, the UK’s home of fashion. Lee Alexander McQueen was born, trained and based his business in London. He also had a longstanding relationship with the V&A. McQueen visited the Museum as a child, and he studied garments in our Textiles and Fashion archives and galleries when he was a student at Central Saint Martins. The V&A also presented McQueen’s No.13 collection (Spring/Summer 1999) as part of the Fashion in Motion series, and featured his work in the 2001 Radical Fashion exhibition. McQueen’s connections with London and the V&A are strong and we felt it important that his visionary body of work was presented in the UK. This will be the largest exhibition of his work to date.

© / Victoria and Albert Museum, London

3. What depth of work was required on the garments after exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art?

As a Museum we take seriously our responsibility to safeguard the objects in our care and to preserve them for future generations to enjoy. This also extends to temporary exhibitions. All of the garments and accessories in the exhibition were condition-checked to ensure they could withstand being on display for a period of four months. Our Textile Conservators also had to customise some of the mannequins to ensure they provide appropriate support for the garments.

4. How does the curation of the exhibition in the V&A differ to the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

Over fifty additional accessories and show pieces, one-off creations produced for the catwalk but not intended for production, have been added to this display.

The exhibition was originally curated by Andrew Bolton for the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011, to great acclaim. We are delighted to have the opportunity to stage this remarkable exhibition and to build on the curation for a new audience. The V&A’s exhibition spaces are a third larger and will include more than 60 additional garments and accessories. Some areas will be re-focused, and a new section looking at McQueen’s early career in London with loans of rare early pieces is being added. The Cabinet of Curiosities section will be the centrepiece of the V&A exhibition. At six metres high, it will be presented in our double-height gallery and it will be interspersed with film footage of many of McQueen’s catwalk shows. Over fifty additional accessories and show pieces, one-off creations produced for the catwalk but not intended for production, have been added to this display. We are delighted to be working with Sam Gainsbury, Creative Director and Joseph Bennett, Production Designer, who have redesigned the exhibition at the V&A with Anna Whiting as Consultant Producer, following their collaboration on the original exhibition in 2011. We are also thrilled that Katy England, McQueen’s stylist and creative director for more than a decade, has been involved as consultant curator of the new ‘London’ gallery.

5. What was the starting point for the curation and what narrative does the museum wish to tell their captive audience?

London was central to McQueen’s world, and one of the most significant changes to Savage Beauty at the V&A is the addition of a new display at the start of the exhibition which explores the raw energy of three of McQueen’s early London collections: The Birds (S/S 1995), Highland Rape (A/W 1996) and The Hunger (S/S 1996).

Ten of McQueen’s earliest designs – some of which have never been on display before – are included in this section. Savage Beauty will be presented in ten sections which explore the dominant themes and concepts in his body of work. These include his subversive tailoring, his Gothic sensibility, his interest in ancestry and heritage, and his fascination with other cultures and the natural world. The sections are built around garments which span the breadth of McQueen’s womenswear collections, from his MA graduate collection in 1992 to Autumn/Winter 2010, McQueen’s final collection which was presented posthumously.

© Ann Ray / Victoria and Albert Museum, London

© Ann Ray / Victoria and Albert Museum, London

6. What role did the Alexander McQueen house have in the curation and exhibition?

The V&A has been working closely with the fashion house on the show, and the majority of loans come from the Alexander McQueen archive.

7. Is there a sense of nervousness prior to the opening due to the location being intrinsic to the garments and the designer, himself?

The response to Savage Beauty coming to London and the V&A has been exceptional. With a week still to go, over 58,000 tickets have already been sold for the exhibition. This breaks a record for the most advance tickets sales for any V&A exhibition. A trusted circle of art director, production designer, show producer, stylist and music and lighting directors enabled McQueen to turn his visions into a reality on the catwalk. We are delighted to be working with Sam Gainsbury and Anna Whiting of Gainsbury and Whiting, who produced all of McQueen’s shows from 1996, as well as other of McQueen’s key collaborators, including production designer Joseph Bennett, director of scenography Simon Kenny and stylist Katy England.

Working with McQueen’s trusted collaborators has been fundamental in ensuring our exhibition meets the uncompromisingly high standards that McQueen set for himself, in bringing the sense of spectacle that was synonymous with his catwalk shows, and in ensuring Savage Beauty pays worthy tribute to his creative vision.

7. What is the main talking point you aspire for the museum visitors to emerge with having seen ‘Savage Beauty’?

We want visitors to leave the exhibition understanding why McQueen was one of the most important and influential designers of his generation.

McQueen combined craftsmanship of the highest level with showmanship. He amazed with the dazzling range of materials he used – for example dresses made from hand-painted microscope slides and razor clam shells – and he astonished with his avant-garde catwalk shows which combined elaborate narratives, installation, music and film. One particular highlight that will make a lasting impression on visitors is the recreation of the finale to The Widows of Culloden (Autumn/Winter 2006) show. It was one of McQueen’s most memorable catwalk moments wherein a 3D holographic image of Kate Moss floating in a gown of rippling organza appeared on a glass pyramid at the centre of the catwalk. At the V&A it will occupy an entire room.

8. Why, in your opinion, is there such a demand for tickets?

When Savage Beauty was first presented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it became one of the ten most popular exhibitions in the Museum’s history. The V&A is offering visitors the opportunity to see an expanded version of the show in McQueen’s home city and many people regard it as a homecoming. With one week to go, the Museum has sold more than 58,000 advance tickets. This breaks a record for the most ever advance sales for a V&A exhibition at this point. People will still be able to buy tickets in person at the Museum every day of the exhibition run. The V&A is the home of fashion and exhibitions related to fashion are always very popular.

This exhibition will be the largest of McQueen’s work to date and the only opportunity to see this show in Europe.

9. What is your highlight from the preliminary stages to the execution of the final project?

The opportunity to study McQueen’s garments first-hand in the archive, and to understand their construction and intriguing material qualities, stands out as one of the biggest highlights of working on this project.

Kate Bethune, Senior Research Assistant, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, in partnership with Swarovski, supported by American Express, with thanks to M∙A∙C Cosmetics, technology partner and made possible with the cooperation of Alexander McQueen, runs from 14 March – 2 August 2015.

Written by

Sinéad Burke is an academic and a writer with an obsessive interest in fashion, education and 'Extraordinary Women'. She is an ambassador for the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the National Women's Council of Ireland.

One thought on “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the V&A

  1. Great interview! Alexander McQueen is my favourite designer of all time. When I worked in Brown Thomas Designer Rooms, his clothes were so easy to sell. Customers would put them on and instantly fall in love. The tailoring and shape was impeccable and the designs so woman-centric. I have been obsessing over the images for this exhibition for ages as I wrote a little piece about it in the Jan/Feb issue of Irish Tatler in our A to Z and I can’t wait to get over. Lucky you heading to the unveiling! Great work Sinead. x

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