First Look – ‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’

As you enter the ‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’ exhibition, the first sense which is engaged is not sight but hearing. The deep cackle of Lee Alexander McQueen echoes over the entrance. The sound is harmonious but tinges of darkness can be aurally discriminated. Alexander McQueen was no ordinary designer and Savage Beauty is no ordinary exhibition.

There is no way back for me now. I’m going to take you on journeys you’ve never dreamed were possible. – Alexander McQueen

From my first few steps into the Victoria & Albert Museum yesterday, signs which read ‘Press Preview: Savage Beauty’ dotted the corridors. Much like Hansel and Gretel, I followed the proverbial breadcrumbs to the opening address by Martin Roth, Director of the V&A. He began to narrate a story of homecoming and celebration which appears to be not only an intrinsic and unifying thread throughout the entire exhibition but also for the staff who worked on Savage Beauty. Alexander McQueen was almost family to the museum.

The collections of the V&A never fail to intrigue and inspire me. The nation is privileged to have access to such a resource… it’s the sort of place I’d like to be shut in overnight. – Alexander McQueen

McQueen

Alexander McQueen was driven by the world’s juxtaposing beauty and savagery. He was vigorously anti-establishment and his designs oft provoked terror, fear, curiosity and awe. Even more disconcerting is that much of his work was autobiographical. Choosing to exhibit such a vastly diverse spectrum of work is daunting but to do so at ‘home’ can appear insurmountable.

Curator Claire Wilcox was not phased by the challenge but embraced the complexities of McQueen’s designs and character. Across ten rooms in the museum, Wilcox and the curatory team teased the themes of subversive tailoring; his Gothic sensibility; primitivism and the animal world; heritage and ancestry; nature and the natural world; and technology and handcraft.

Four years ago, ‘Savage Beauty’ exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. It received an unprecedented number of visitors but this year at the Victoria & Albert Museum, the exhibition has expanded by a third with 66 additional garments being showcased including rare early pieces, a selection from the Isabella Blow Collection and the House of Givenchy. Other pieces have been recreated including Philip Treacy’s ‘Chinese Garden’ hat and jewellery by Shaun Leane.

As you enter, one meanders through a chronological narration which has ten chapters. The introduction being McQueen’s MA graduate collection and the unfinished Plato’s Atlantis as the denouement. The garments are not the sole characters but space, technology, audio and set design have been expertly executed to create a multi-sensory journey that resonates with the audience long after you vacate the museum.

The ten curated chapters are:

1. London: An apt introduction that cements the theme of homecoming and explicitly illustrates the amalgamation of savage and beauty. It features three of McQueen’s most memorable early collections: The Birds (S/S 1995), Highland Rape (A/W 1995) and The Hunger (S/S 1996).

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2. Savage Mind: Alexander McQueen began his career on Saville Row as a tailor to HRH the Prince of Wales. He had a natural flair for the art and used his skill to mutate the traditional definition of tailoring. The ‘bumster’ and coat from ‘Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims’ feature in ‘Savage Mind’.

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3. Romantic Gothic: McQueen appeared fascinated in the conception of light and dark, he juxtaposed Gothic Victorian tailoring with billowing fabric and tortuous heels. Pieces from McQueen’s final unfinished collection are also on display in a beautiful gold-embellished cabinet in ‘Romantic Gothic’.

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4. Romantic Privitism: The designer’s fascination with the theme of survival often manifested itself in his fabric of choice. In this dimly-lit room, McQueen’s garments which fixated on the rawness of the animal world are spotlight. Many of the pieces are crafted from horn, skin and hair.

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5. Romantic Nationalism: Escaping the dark and primal pieces from ‘Romantic Privitism’, guests happen upon a regal and open space which would be apt for an audience with royalty. Lining the walls are decadent and dramatic gowns imbued with tartan, lace and exquisite embroidery, denoting McQueen’s Scottish heritage and pride.

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6. The Cabinet of Curiosities: This focal point of the exhibition is akin to a scene in ‘Harry Potter’ – if the young adult film featured a mélange of metal bodices, crucifix motif millinery and Swarovski-embalmed dresses. The centre-piece of this room is from Alexander McQueen’s S/S 1999 collection where model Shalom Harlow rotated as two robotic arms spray-painted the white dress. Hidden among the garments are almost thirty Samsung screens displaying McQueen’s catwalk videography.

With more than 120 pieces in this gallery alone, this double-gallery space heralds McQueen’s collaborations with Philip Treacy, Sarah Harmarnee and Shaun Leane. If the walls could talk, this room would narrate an encyclopaedia.

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7. Pepper’s Ghost: At the finalé of Alexander McQueen’s ‘Windows of Culloden’ (A/W 2006) presentation, a hologram of Kate Moss appeared centre-stage in a glass prism. Wearing one of the key pieces of the collection, the hologram displayed the intricate work which McQueen employed to create effortless movement in his gowns. This hologram has been rehomed for ‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’.

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8. Romantic Exoticism: Alexander McQueen’s fascination for culture and tradition was not unique to London and Scotland. It spanned geographically further and this gallery is dedicated to McQueen’s interest in Japanese form and motifs including the kimono and chrysanthemum.

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9. Romantic Naturalism: The botany motif continues in the next room but returns from Asia to Europe and denotes McQueen’s long-standing passion and interest in the natural world and subsequently, the inspiration he derived from the world’s bountiful exterior.

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10. Plato’s Atlantis: In this final gallery, McQueen’s last fully realised collection is displayed. The garments and surrounding technology narrate a futuristic tale of an era when melted ice caps have forced the human race to live sub-merged beneath the sea. Plato’s Atlantis was widely-considered to be McQueen’s greatest achievement.

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Hours later as I furiorsly type and edit photos, what I saw at ‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’ continues to affect me. The exhibition is not just fashion. It is an experience. It is art. It is a commentary on the era in which we live. It questions our definition of beauty. It makes you think. It makes you feel. Most importantly, it makes you respect a man, a talent and a city that is unique, visceral and proud. Do everything that you can to attend, maybe even more than once. It is exceptional, as was Lee.

All hail McQueen.

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. http://www.vam.ac.uk/savagebeauty

All photos taken by Sinéad Burke on a One Plus One.

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.

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