With his extraordinary vision and boundary pushing designs, Lee Alexander McQueen was often referred to as the provocateur and enfant terrible of fashion. The V&A’s latest exhibition, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty was originated by the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It was one of the most popular exhibitions in the Museum’s history and promises to do the same in London, especially with 66 additional garments and accessories. The exhibition is curated by Claire Wilcox and the V&A collaborated with those who knew and understood the designer, to create this authentic and visionary experience.
With a thematic presentation, the first of the 10 rooms is London. A place where McQueen grew up and a place that has always inspired his work. This room features pieces from his early collections, such as The Highland Rape. The merging of traditional and subversive design is exemplified here, especially with the bumster trousers. The concrete blocks in the room really add to the gritty atmosphere. Savage Mind focuses on McQueen’s silhouettes and the craftsmanship and tailoring that can be seen in his work. From Victorian London to Jack the Ripper, you really get a sense of the diverse inspiration and historicism in the garments on display. Now onto Romantic Gothic, that is reminiscent of the Hall of Mirrors in Versaille, albeit with a distinct Poe-esque darkness. The pieces on display here have an emphasis on the prevalent historic touches and the dichotomy between life and death, as well as light and dark, that can be seen in McQueen’s collections. A standout in this room is the gold painted goose feather coat and silk skirt from the A/W 2010 collection.
As you enter a cave that is embellished with bones and skulls, also known as Romantic Primitivism you feel the immersive nature of this exhibition. The sound, visuals, garments and lighting, transport you into the world that McQueen inhabited. In this instance, it’s the animal world and tribalism. Scottish heritage and autobiographical narratives can be found in the tartan display in Romantic Nationalism. A silk tulle and feather dress from The Girl Who Lived in the Tree collection of A/W 2008 is showcased here. The gold headpieces with Swarovski crystals worn on most of the mannequins, is striking. The Cabinet of Curiosities is held in a double-height gallery and has 120 garments and accessories on display. As you walk into the room of theatrics and exemplary exhibition design, it is truly captivating, but most importantly it is exciting.The Cabinet of Curiosities challenges traditional fashion exhibition design, with screens showing most of McQueen’s catwalk presentations intertwined with his collaborative accessories. Pepper’s Ghost is such a fitting section to enter into next, as this viewing room certainly makes you take a moment to be still. The poignant finale to The Widows of Culloden A/W 2006 is recreated here and depicts a hologram of Kate Moss floating, using 19th century technology with mirrors and projectors.
Romantic Exoticism emphasises the idea of exoticism and finding inspiration in Eastern cultures. With mirrors and mannequins slowly rotating, you get the unique opportunity to see the entire garment and the stunning Japanese inspired motifs. The ethereal background music is an ideal soundtrack to the pieces on display here. As you enter the next room, you’ll see the mirrored box from the Voss show of S/S 2001. The blood red glass and ostrich feather gown placed within it, is spectacular. Romantic Naturalism focuses on the enduring influence of nature in many of McQueen’s collections. A silk organza dress with silk and dried flowers from the Sarabande collection of S/S 2007, encapsulates this theme perfectly. The final room is a stark white, otherworldly place also known as Plato’s Atlantis. This was McQueen’s last fully realised collection and was live-streamed during S/S 2010. The dramatic pieces, imbued with digital prints and reptile colours are a great contrast to the all white room.
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty isn’t a chronological rehashing of the designer’s work. It isn’t a greatest hits situation in a pretty setting. With its thematic concept, this exhibition takes you into his mind, one room at a time. You see first hand, the beauty in the grotesque, the absorbing darkness and the historicism that he referenced in a thoroughly modern and, at times, futuristic way. McQueen provoked in the same way that he inspired. The V&A has captured his innovative designs and encapsulated them into this must-see major retrospective.
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, runs from 14 March – 2 August 2015.
Written by Giselle La Pompe-Moore. Images © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.