“You take inspiration from the street, with the trousers so low…” said the late, great British fashion designer on the creative effect that London had on him.
Butterfly headdress of hand-painted turkey feathers, Philip Treacy for Alexander McQueen, La Dame Bleu, Spring Summer 2008, copyright Anthea Sims
Speaking of London, I remember Alexander McQueen or ‘Lee’ as he was affectionately called, from my fashion school days at Central Saint Martins. Back then I would spot him in Dave’s – the second floor coffee bar – which was so much more than just a coffee bar. It was THE place to be seen. There he would often quietly sit smoking in a corner or hold court with a mix of textile and fine art students. He was portly and wore baggy jeans and a Fred Perry T-shirt most days but there was definitely something about him – enough for the well-connected stylist and fashion editor Isabella Blow to snap up his entire MA collection in 1992. The rest as they say is history.
So it’s good to see ‘Savage Beauty’, a major retrospective of McQueen’s work on show at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Having originated at New York’s Metropolitan Museum in 2011, it feels right that it should return to the designer’s birthplace.
Installation view of ‘Platos Atlantis’ gallery, Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty at the V&A (c) Victoria and Albert Museum London
At the opening night gala, models, fashion editors and actresses gushed over his designs. “Whenever you wear a McQueen dress you feel powerful – there’s something about his clothes,” said Salma Hayek. Meanwhile, Kate Moss quipped, that had Lee still been alive he probably would have avoided such a lavish soirée. It’s funny to think of him as shy, hiding behind the skirt tails of his exuberant creations but then that’s how he was.
Curator Claire Wilcox is responsible for telling McQueen’s story, which she splits into several defining years. There are 240 ensembles and accessories on show – ranging from a striking frock coat inspired by the story of Jack the Ripper from his aforementioned graduate collection, to pieces in his 2010 show which was to be his last.
The first part of the exhibition aptly called ‘London’, focuses on three of McQueen’s early collections: ‘The Birds’ (S/S 1995), ‘Highland Rape’ (A/W 1995) and ‘The Hunger’ (S/S 1996). The second category, ‘Savage Mind’, demonstrates his razor-sharp tailoring, a skill he learnt as a young apprentice first at Anderson & Sheppard and later at Gieves & Hawkes on Savile Row. The low-slung ‘bumster’ trousers, which he invented, serve as a reminder of the street culture influence that he drew upon at the very start of his career.
Bird’s Nest Headdress, made with Swarovski Gemstones by Philip Treacy and Shaun Leane for Alexander McQueen AW 2006
McQueen’s fascination with the dark and the macabre is touched upon in the next section, ‘Romantic Primitivism’. He loved dying roses, insects, skulls and bones and feathers – great plumes in shades of heart-pounding red and Gothic black, which he painstakingly applied to voluminous ball gowns. Meanwhile, ‘Romantic Nationalism’ demonstrates his creative fling with all things Scottish, along with the twilight years of the British Raj. As you walk further into the show, you come to the Cabinet of Curiosities, a specially designed display room that forms the heart of the exhibition. This double height gallery is interspersed with accessories such as the wild headdresses he created in collaboration with milliner Philip Treacy and jeweller Shaun Leane. The tottering ‘armadillo’ shoes, which were adored by Daphne Guinness, also fill the display shelves. Meanwhile, a reproduction of the iconic strapless gown model Shalom Harlow wore during McQueen’s S/S 1998 catwalk show takes centre stage. A video reminds us of how she once stood on a revolving section of the catwalk as robotic arms on either side sprayed coloured inks from the hem up.
Spray painted dress, No. 13, SS 1999, Model – Shalom Harlow represented by dna model management New York, Image – Catwalking.
Personally, I would have liked to see more space given to runway footage. As it stands, a lot of the screens appear hidden behind the mannequins. When ‘Fashion Galore’, an exhibition celebrating Isabella Blow’s life and wardrobe ran at Somerset House last year, it featured a darkened room with an enormous floor-to-ceiling screen, which played McQueen’s infamous ‘Dante’ catwalk show on loop. If you were lucky to find yourself watching alone, it felt as if you were right there, standing at the end of the runway as each model fixed you with her gaze and then turned on a heel.
Installation view of ‘Romantic Gothic’ gallery, Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty at the V&A (c) Victoria and Albert Museum London
To sum up a static exhibition that’s easy. The designs speak for themselves and confirm that he really was one of the greatest designers of a generation. To sum up McQueen, the designer, that’s best left to the biographers who have released several books around the show. One thing is for sure, the artistry he put into ever creation and the theatrical drama he weaved into every show will be matched only by my fond coffee bar memories.
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, in partnership with Swarovski, supported by American Express, with thanks to M∙A∙C Cosmetics, technology partner Samsung and made possible with the co-operation of Alexander McQueen, runs from 14 March – 2 August 2015. www.vam.ac.uk/savagebeauty