Before Alexander McQueen became the iconic, illustrious fashion designer of the twenty-first century he worked for a costume design company Berman’s and Nathan’s cutting clothes for major West End theatre shows. At the time he was only 19 but this thread of knowledge was one of the influential parts of his career that made his highly prized fashion designs and international catwalk shows theatrical, bold and hard to forget.
The V&A’s highly anticipated exhibition “Savage Beauty” is a landmark spectacle celebrating McQueen’s life work from his unique couture and accessories, inspiring tailor made clothing and the performance art and avant-garde installations he applied when presenting them to the world.
Lee Alexander McQueen was raised in South London. He worked as an apprenticeship at the age of 15 in Saville Row tailoring for high-end clientele including HRH Prince Wales. But it was in 1992 that fashion editor Isabella Blow discovered him at his graduate show at Europe’s leading art college, Central Saint Martins, who introduced him to the grueling world of fashion.
“Savage Beauty” follows from the 2011 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MOMA). The V&A has put on an amplified version of the show with a double height gallery in “The Cabinet of Curiosities” that encases 66 additional garments and accessories including rare pieces from his earlier work. The exhibition is an overview ranging from his first collection (1992) to his final unfinished collection A/W (2010). It spans over 10 rooms of multiple genres with a total of 240 ensembles and accessories.
“Savage Beauty” aims to convey a journey of McQueen’s artistic ambition and creative visions, a blend of conceptual artistry with a talent for precision tailoring. Most of all, the exhibition proves how defiant and anti-establishment his designs were alongside his rebellious work approach. He constantly strived to challenge the norms of the fashion industry, which made him, evidently, an exceptional designer.
In the first room, London, the exhibit presents a mix of McQueen’s catwalk ensembles from his earlier collections: “The Birds” (1995), “Highland Rape” (1995) and “The Hunger” (1996), with a large video screen playing recordings of the shows. In “Savage Mind” we see more detail of McQueen’s meticulous skill for cutting clothes through embellished blazers and dresses. He incorporated 15th century triptych styling and 18th century tailoring such as the ‘S-Bend’, which led to his signature ‘Bumster trouser’ design.
Romantic Gothic depicts a darker side to McQueen’s inventiveness with black dyed feathers, hot leather and notes of BDSM. On the other side of the room are daring black Victorian dresses with gothic jewelry and lace designs including pink chopine platform shoes. What’s interesting is that these mannequins wear gimp masks and this is where McQueen’s transformational designs make a point about feminine repression. This notion was also employed when McQueen decided to showcase these pieces of his collection “Supercalifragilisticespialidocious” (2002) at the medieval palace where Marie Antoinette was incarcerated.
The most powerful and thought provoking design in the room is the black swan dress. It causes one to question its empowering beauty in juxtaposition with the aggressive fashion world. The tightly framed couture looks stifling and crushing for the wearer, which McQueen deliberately portrayed in his collection “Horn of Plenty,” where the dress belongs.
“Romantic Primitivism” shows McQueen’s use of animal skin, hair and horn, and fetishism design. He had a fascination for animals and saw them as forces of sexual energy, which he found inspiration through the Yoruba people of West Africa. The room is designed as a tomb, of skulls and bones, which references his fashion motif of the skull.
We are taken on a detour in the next room with “Romantic Nationalism.” With light baroque music playing in the background, it focuses on British history, his Scottish heritage and his eponymous ‘MacQueen’ tartan designs. On the other side of the room his collection The Girl Who Lived in the Tree (2008) is showcased, which was his first collaboration with Swarovski Crystal. These designs are more demure, dreamy and quixotic; some of which were designed for ballet.
Yet the journey shifts as you enter the “Cabinet of Curiousities” – you have to take a step back and give yourself more time to take in the overwhelming sight. The video sequences, absorbing garments and accessories include his collaboration with hat designer Philip Treacy and jewelers Shaun Leane and Sarah Harmarnee. The piece at the centre of the room is the yellow and black strapless gown where former ballerina Shalom Harlow had colours sprayed on her by robots.
“Pepper’s Ghost”: a 19th century technique involving projectors and mirrors was another installation method that McQueen used in his “The Widows of Culloden” (2006) collection. It is a captivating and touching hologram of Kate Moss in an ethereal white dress rotating in mid-air to the theme song of Steven Spielberg’s film “Schindler’s List.”
“Romantic Exoticism” hones in on McQueen’s interest in the Japanese kimono and the motif of the chrysanthemum in his collection It’s Only a Game (2005). The V&A presents this in a two-way mirror box with the designs rotating to twinkling music from a jewellery box. The tone changes to “Romantic Naturalism” with couture made from razor clams, microscopic slides and radiant handmade flowers.
“Plato’s Atlantis” ends McQueen’s journey. He was influenced by technology and Darwin’s book, “On the Origins of Species.” Hard-core club music pump the air as we marvel over his digitally engineered prints and its complex relevance to nature. It also features McQueen’s 30.5cm high ‘Armadillo boots’, which scared models so much they refused to work with him on the show.
“Savage Beauty’s” curator Claire Wilcox said, ‘McQueen set the bar very high for future designers. [He has proved] if you are brave and fearless you can do what you want.’ Savage Beauty is an artistic experience that everyone should see. It has been six years since his death and with such a successful and highly dramatic exhibition, that “Savage Beauty” is, it demonstrates how consistent McQueen was at breaking the rules.