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“He’s a wild bird,” Alexander McQueen’s benefactor, muse and friend Isabella Blow once said of him: “…he makes clothes fly.”
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, a retrospective look at the work of the British designer, started life at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and was a huge success. The exhibition has been tweaked and expanded, and has come home to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It’s currently the hottest ticket in town, and that’s not likely to change any time soon.
McQueen, who sadly committed suicide in 2010, was known for his animalistic, romantic, surreal, and sometimes dark and disturbing designs. It would be more accurate to refer to him as an artist than as a fashion designer; he simply chose to express himself through the medium of clothing. While Savage Beauty is by no means a complete overview of his work, the exhibition brings together a cross-section of spectacular pieces from his entire career, beginning with his 1992 Central St Martins graduation collection, and finishing with his spring/summer 2010 collection Plato’s Atlantis, which reimagined the human race in a post-apocalyptic underwater world, and is considered by many to be his crowning achievement.
As you might expect, the theme of death, corruption and decay casts a large shadow over parts of this exhibition. One section has walls that seem to be made of bones (layers of femurs alongside piles of skulls) in a rather successful attempt to appear crypt-like. One darkened room is haunted by the swirling spirit of Kate Moss, projected using the classic ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ illusion, an installation that formed the finale of McQueen’s catwalk show Widows of Culloden (the white dress Moss has on, which encases the wearer in reams of white frills, looms spectre-like in the doorway as you enter). Even the softer, lighter pieces are tinged with the macabre; one pale leather dress is moulded to resemble a naked body adorned with floral tattoos, while a magnificent gown covered in multi-coloured flowers trailed crushed petals when it was sent onto the catwalk.
Famously, McQueen stated that he wanted people to be afraid of the women he dressed. Judging by the selection displayed here, he certainly achieved his aim. Many of his designs are disquieting, but in a manner which also fascinates and beguiles. Some of the more standout pieces include a dress made of black feathers with a hood that encases almost the entire head, a blush pink jacket with a black thorn print, the lining of which is stuffed with human hair, and a dress made entirely out of razor clam shells.
Some of McQueen’s pieces cross the line into distressing, and a few can be considered offensive, misogynistic even. His 1995 collection Highland Rape (some pieces from which appear in Savage Beauty), which he claimed as a commentary on England’s historic ravaging of Scotland, saw some models stumbling down a heather-strewn catwalk in ripped and dishevelled clothing, looking as if they themselves had been attacked. Later collections see women reimagined as animalistic hybrids, eastern princesses, patchwork Frankenstein’s monsters, or alienesque amazons.
“His image of women is very inaccessible…They’re not the kind of women you see every day on the street,” an observer says of McQueen’s models in documentary McQueen and I. But what is discernible from Savage Beauty is just the opposite. The McQueen woman is the woman you see every day on the street, but armoured for battle; dressed as she might see herself in her most empowered dreams. You might be afraid of a woman wearing McQueen, but a woman wearing McQueen certainly isn’t afraid of you.
It becomes clear – even to those who know little of the designer before attending the exhibition – that his designs revolve very much around the highly choreographed catwalk shows through which they are first presented to the world. McQueen seems to have operated by hitting upon an idea for a show and working backwards, creating clothes that matched the concept.
This is never more obvious than in the room titled the Cabinet of Curiosities; the walls are shelves, stuffed with innumerable accessories from McQueen’s fashion shows, as well as more than a few complete outfits. The infamous white cotton dress from his No. 13 collection, that was spray-painted black and yellow by robots, takes pride of place in the centre, while various screens feature edited excerpts from a cross section of catwalks.
Carefully studying these clothes while standing half a foot away from them affords an amazing opportunity to spot details that simply don’t translate in photographs. However, paradoxically, McQueen’s designs can only be really understood when you see them moving along the catwalk, in the complete culmination of his vision.
Because of course, a McQueen catwalk wasn’t like any other; models walked through water or trudged through snow, they circled around a giant pile of blackened trash, they gambolled madly inside a mirrored box, gilded skeletons clutched at their ankles, they wore antlers on their heads, or huge boxes filled with live moths. Seeing these clothes standing statically in a museum is breath-taking, but something huge is lost with the absence of dynamic movement (YouTube is our friend).
As stunning as this exhibition is, the curation of it certainly isn’t without fault. The walls in the Cabinet of Curiosities are groaning with objects begging to be studied, but most of them are far too high above head level for you get a decent look at (lots of craning, usually in vain). The labels that inform you which piece is which are tiny, and badly placed, usually flat on the floor; you have to stand directly above to read them, at which point your head casts a shadow so that neither you – nor anyone standing around you – can actually make out the words.
There is also a surprising dearth of information about McQueen himself. The walls are dotted with significant quotations, but there is little to no material about the designer’s life or influences in the actual exhibition (further reading is required for that).
Even so, the exhibition as a whole is a fascinating and thought provoking experience. Each room pounds with a hypnotic soundtrack taken from the corresponding catwalk show (McQueen was very clearly influenced by film, from The Shining to The Piano to Schindler’s List), and by the end your head reels, almost as if you’ve awoken from a strange hallucination populated by fantastical beings.
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty is showing at the Victoria and Albert Museum until August, and you can purchase tickets here.