Alexander McQueen retrospective comes home to London

A dream journey through late fashion designer's complex mind awaits visitors to the Victoria & Albert museum

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 March, 2015, 8:05am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 March, 2015, 8:05am

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There is a prescient quote from Alexander McQueen in the landmark retrospective Savage Beauty, just opened at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, which appears at the end of the show. It really should greet visitors at the start. McQueen says: “There is no way back for me now. I am going to take you on a journey you’ve never dreamed possible.”

With hindsight, he seems to predict his own tragic demise, while that dream journey is the one visitors will take through McQueen’s complex creative mind as the exhibition lays out the fantasies and inspirations that shaped one of the most compelling fashion talents of our generation.

“It’s about a homecoming,” says Martin Roth, director of the V&A. This is Lee McQueen (Alexander was his middle name) coming home, not only to the museum whose archives he would often  comb for inspiration, but because the exhibition –  first staged in New York at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute in 2011, a year after McQueen’s suicide – has come to his hometown of London. 

McQueen was renowned for his emotive catwalk theatre, each an imaginative journey created before the first dress was designed, whether it was Joan (A/W1998) a show that closed with a model encircled by a ring of fire echoing the martyrdom of Joan of Arc, or No 13 (S/S1999) that had model Shalom Harlow posing as a fragile music box doll rotating on a plinth as two giant industrial robots sprayed her with paint. A thread of brutality and voyeurism wound its way through much of his early work.

[McQueen] was an artist who just happened to use fashion as his canvas.
Nadja Svarovski

The team that helped bring these strong narrative visions in McQueen’s mind to reality are those that have created the dramatic staging for this exhibition.  Sam Gainsbury, of Gainsbury and Whiting, evocatively captures the darkness and the romance of McQueen’s imagination with sets like the giant gilded picture frame that encases the designer’s last, unfinished collection, for A/W 2010, and a room lined with bones that displays McQueen’s interest in romantic primitivism.

McQueen was fascinated by the animal world and on display are garments crafted from horn, ponyskin, leather and hair. There is even a leather bodysuit with two tiny snapping crocodile heads on the shoulders from his A/W 1997 It’s a Jungle Out There collection.  

One of the most poignant spectacles in the exhibition is the ghostly figure of Kate Moss slowly rotating in a flowing silk organza dress, as if swept up by underwater currents, seemingly returning to haunt the fallen heroes in his A/W 2006  Widows of Culloden collection. The Hologram of Kate Moss was created using Pepper’s Ghost a 19th-century projector and mirrors that had Victorians believing that ghosts had been revived  from the grave. 

“I think when Lee was designing collections he meant to move people and to touch people … that’s what’s so incredible about his work,” says his design successor Sarah Burton.

Savage Beauty has been captivatingly assembled by Claire Wilcox, the museum’s senior fashion curator, and Andrew Bolton, who curated the New York show, and lives up to its title in that it explores the darkness, the rage and the romanticism of McQueen’s mind. It also explores inspiration and themes such as nationalism (although born and raised in London’s East End, McQueen had Scottish ancestry), Victorian Gothic, the exoticism of Asia and the watery underworld (his last collection the sci-fi fantasy Plato’s Atlantis from S/S 2010 that produced the famous Armadillo boot), but also his place in fashion’s history books.

He was a superb tailor, having learnt from an apprenticeship on Savile Row, and constantly sought to reshape and refine the female silhouette.  The provocative “bumsters” from his 1995  Highland Rape collection started a major fashion trend for low-slung hipsters. As McQueen bluntly explained it:  “I wanted to elongate the body, not just show the bum.”

The Cabinet of Curiosities, an enlarged version of the one displayed at the Met in New York, illustrates how McQueen was a collaborator. There are the vicious silver-tusk mouthpieces and hoop earrings from jeweller Shaun Leane for one collection, a red butterfly hat from milliner Philip Treacy and porcupine spine headpiece from Dai Rees.  

Nadja Swarovski (Swarovski and American Express are partners for the exhibition) recalls their first collaboration, a crystal bodice that appeared in the No 13 collection. “He saw this crystal mesh usually used for trimmings and he said ‘OK I will take three rolls please.’ I said we couldn’t sell them, so you can have them. Then he came up with this corset and after that we could not sell enough ... every designer wanted it.” Introduced by Isabella Blow, who was McQueen’s great friend and champion, Swarovski collaborated on many collections.

“He was an incredibly nice, down-to-earth person,” says Nadja Swarovski. “Completely shy which was a surprise given how extrovert some of his pieces are. Lee was an artist who just happened to use fashion as his canvas.”  

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the V&A until  August 2. 2015 www.vam.ac.uk/savagebeauty