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Inside Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the V&A

By Danielle Wightman-Stone

13 Mar 2015

Culture

“Homecoming”, is how Martin Roth, director of the V&A described the opening of the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition, adding “the V&A is its natural home” due in part to the love McQueen shared for the museum, he found the collections both intriguing and inspiring, as well as the retrospective being staged in the late designer’s home town.

Savage Beauty is the largest fashion exhibition that the V&A has produced, it’s larger than the highly successful Metropolitan Museum of Art of four years ago, and it features a staggering 240 ensembles and accessories, an additional 66 pieces, which has transformed three of the museum’s large gallery spaces.

Even with the size and scope of the exhibit, the V&A team has managed to keep an intimate feel in its layout and design, with McQueen’s life and career showcased in a series of 10 rooms covering his love of nature, Victorian gothic, romantic exoticism, and fittingly ending with, Plato’s Atlantis, his final show.

With London being where McQueen’s heart lay, he has often been quotes as saying the city is where his inspiration came, it was where the exhibition opens in a concrete room reminiscent of the Gatliff Road warehouse where the designer held his first shows, and where the display delves into his earliest work, including pieces from his ‘Highland Rape’, spring/summer 1995, and ‘The Hunger’, spring/summer 1996, collections that are filled with raw creativity and emotion that highlights from the offset the journey the exhibition is going to take you on discovering the incredible talent of McQueen as well as how impactful his designs still are.

Commenting on his designs, McQueen was quoted as saying: “When you see a woman wearing McQueen there’s a certain hardness to the clothes that makes her look powerful. It kind of fends people off.”

His early career continues in the second room, Savage Mind, with an ode to his tailoring skills, including a closer look at his infamous ‘bumster’ trousers, which are presented alongside a quote from McQueen saying: “You take inspiration from the street, with the trousers so low. You don’t need to go to India, you can find it in places like Bethnal Green and Brick Lane.”

Quotes from McQueen feature throughout the exhibit, they are funny at times, insightful, as well as showcasing his creative thinking, it is unlike any other fashion exhibition, the clothes aren’t all separated on pedestals with long captions on what, where and how they came to be, there isn’t a generic emotional tribute video from his fashion friends, and thankfully the sensational aspects of his personal life, which sadly led to his death in 2010, aren’t laid out for everyone to see. This exhibition is a true fashion tribute to his beautiful clothes and immense talent.

V&A presents its largest fashion exhibition dedicated to Alexander McQueen

The opening two rooms are quite tame, considering McQueen’s larger-than-life character, but then you walk through to the grand Romantic Gothic room with its wood panelled floors and glided vintage mirrors, and you’re greeted with a dark romantic backdrop you would have seen at one of his catwalk shows. The setting really brings alive his designs showcasing his references to Victorian gothic, as well as the notion of the metamorphic female body, of animal to woman, and bird to woman that can been seen in his Horn of Plenty, autumn/winter 2009 collection. There are pieces in this room that just make you gasp aloud at their beauty and drama.

The designer’s evolution, especially his fascination with the natural world continues in the next room, a bone-lined carven showcasing garments he crafted from horn, skin and hair, a chilling sight that leads into the Romantic Nationalism catwalk-like corridor exploring McQueen’s love affair with tartan, and his fascination with his Scottish heritage, with a highlight being the gorgeous red ballet dress from The Girl Who Lived in the Tree, autumn/winter 2008, a new addition to the Savage Beauty exhibit here in London.

The centre-piece or the heart of the exhibition has to be The Cabinet of Curiosities, an impressive double-height gallery showing more than 120 garments and accessories in a multitude of box frames. It’s a room that takes your breath away, as well as leaving your head spinning a little, like the ballerina-style display of the famous spray paint dress worn by Shalom Harlow in the finale of the spring/summer 2009 collection in the centre of the room.

It’s filled with wonders that evokes all your senses as your eyes are constantly being drawn around the gallery thanks to the moving exhibits, and the 27 screens playing McQueen’s incredible catwalk shows. This is where the artistry of McQueen really shows, as well as giving an insight into the scope of his imagination. There are so many highlights from his signature Armadillo shoes to the numerous headdresses by his friend and collaborator Philip Treacy, especially the stunning butterfly headdress from his spring/summer 2008 collection.

Pepper’s Ghost recreates the haunting hologram of Kate Moss, from McQueen’s Widows of Culloden collection, another aspect that is larger here in London, with Kate growing from Tinkerbell-sized seen at the Met to more fairy-sized.

Movement continues in the Romantic Exoticism room, where the mannequins dressed in painted fibreglass kimonos with American football helmets and shoulderpieces rotate in mirrored music boxes, while the glass cabinets and nature noises within Romantic Surrealism represent McQueen’s lifelong passion for nature and the inspiration he drew from its beauty and fragility.

The exhibition finishes on a high, closing with Plato’s Atlantis, his last fully realised collection that fused his love of nature with technology, with mannequins standing to attention in front of a large screen displaying the catwalk show, which ends with McQueen’s final, rather shy wave.

Commenting on the exhibition, Sarah Burton, creative director at Alexander McQueen, said: “Savage Beauty is a celebration of the most imaginative and talented designer of our time. Lee was a genius and a true visionary who pushed boundaries, challenged and inspired. He believed in creativity and innovation and his talent was limitless.”

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty runs at the V&A from March 14 to August 2, admission is 16 pounds for adults, concessions are available, and advance booking is advised.

Images: Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the V&A