“That’s what I’m here for, to demolish the rules but keep the tradition.” – Alexander McQueen
Recently, we travelled to London to see the exhibition in homage to Alexander McQueen at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is safe to say that it was one of the most spectacular fashion presentations we have ever seen.
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty is a ten-room exhibit following the beginning and end of the designer’s career, from his early beginnings as a student to his last runway show in 2010.
Visitors first enter into a pitch black hall faced with only the glow of the famous golden hued skull hologram as seen on the book cover of Savage Beauty. It was a chilling welcome to the dark yet magnificent exhibition. The first London room is made of gray concrete walls and plays a black and white video of McQueen’s first runway show behind several mannequins dressed in his earliest pieces. Loud, haunting music is played alongside the voice of McQueen describing his fashion and influences. “London’s where I was brought up. It is where my heart is and where I go for my inspiration.”
The next space, Savage Mind, has an industrial feel. Dismal lighting and mute walls are accompanied by more unnerving music. This area highlights the beginnings of McQueen’s experimentation with tailoring and his deconstruction of blazers, skirts, dresses and other pieces to create new forms. Early in his career as a tailor, McQueen had learned the workings of garments from the inside out. He is quoted saying that one must understand the ways of the garment before reinventing them, as seen with his jacket It’s a Jungle Out There from autumn/winter 1997–98.
Progressing into the Romantic Gothic gallery, there is a dimly lit setting adorned with some of McQueen’s most elaborate pieces and set to tunes of classical Victorian music. Antiqued mirrors with golden gilt frames line the walls, framing the backdrops for three stages of black gowns with bondage undertones. Feathers, silks, and the black face masks of lace and leather showcase a gothic collective of McQueen’s designs. The most captivating part of the room was the glass case, framed similarly in gold, but with bright lights that made the box glow amongst the blackness of the room. A golden feathered dress is center accompanied by several mohawked mannequins.
Romantic Primitivism was one of the most spine-chilling themes. The small, dark room has the feeling of a catacomb, with floor to ceiling made of carved bones. A few bone-plastered niches highlighted by pinspots display pieces inspired by the ideal of the “nobel savage” with horsehair and other exotics. The narrative is represented in paradoxical combinations, contrasting modern and primitive, civilized and uncivilized, life and death. The ceiling holds what looks like an almond-shaped eye, protruding outwards with a video playing on the surface of its oval form. It is a woman, swimming in a deep body of ocean-blue water, surrounded by an aquatic darkness and layers of a long and flowy garment. The visual is hard to make out, but amongst the sounds of moving water and the underwater breathing of an oxygen tank, it becomes quite disturbing. Long horns that look like transparent animal tusks are placed at the mouths of the mannequins, further invoking a sense of terror in the room.
Into Romantic Nationalism, the mood changes again with a string instrument melody. The room is warm with wood paneled walls and antler sconces emitting a warm amber light. Three platforms feature ivory, gold and red pieces. McQueen’s Scottish heritage is highlighted with his signature tartan pieces, including the dress similar to what Sarah Jessica Parker wore with McQueen to a Met event. Gold face masks accompany Indian-style shoes and beaded chiffons alongside looks from The Girl Who Lived in the Tree (Autumn/Winter 2008).
The heart of the exhibition is the Cabinet of Curiosities. Constructed as a more grandiose version than the Met’s of 2011, the gallery creates an emotional intensity that completely overwhelms the senses. The square space, what seems to be two-floors high, has four walls of varying sized open cabinets with some of McQueen’s most elaborate pieces. Over 100 shoes, head pieces, body jewelry, bodices and gowns sit in each alcove, along with around twenty television screens dispersed throughout showing all of McQueen’s catwalk shows simultaneously. Some pieces are rotating inside their cabinet to the sound of classical music and more voiceovers. In the center of the room is the slowly rotating dress that was spray-painted live during the finale of the S/S 1999 presentation. Directly above it, a square video projection of the performance by model Shalom Harlow. The room completely submerses the viewer in a wonderland of McQueen’s atavistic and fetishistic paraphernalia. It is hard to know where to focus one’s attention with different sounds, movements and provocative pieces triggering a complex set of emotions all at once.
Just outside, Kate Moss’ gown from the Pepper’s Ghost hologram stands before entering a black room. The finale of the Widows of Culloden collection is played, but not quite Kate-sized as at the show. It creates an illusion in which a vision of Kate Moss is materialized out of thin air in Tinkerbell-sized form by a Victorian technique that uses projectors and mirrors, which originally fooled viewers into believing they saw ghosts. Moss twirls around in mid-air to the deeply tragic song from “Schindler’s List” until she vanishes again out of sight.
Transition into Romantic Exoticism where you will find rotating mannequins each in elevated mirrored recesses. It is the McQueen version of a ballerina music box, playing the light whimsical melody “Frosti” by Björk. The lure of the exotic was a central theme in McQueen’s collections. The Japanese kimono is one look that twirls in this room that the designer endlessly refashioned in his collections. A peaceful, lighter mood is evoked, with a large open space and pastel pieces elegantly presented, directly opening up to a large glass case at its end.
The case presents four looks from the VOSS collection (Spring/Summer 2001), also known as the “Asylum” show, which was staged inside a vast two-way mirrored box. After a few minutes, the glass turns opaque black and a video fades into the back screen which shows the finale of VOSS when Michelle Olley was revealed reclining nude on a couch inside of the glass box breathing through a tube from her mask, surrounded by moths. The soundtrack was that of the show, the eery sound of a heart monitor, building to the climax of Olley’s appearance, where the heart monitor stops. The glass is then lit and turns clear again, revealing the quote by McQueen: “It was about trying to trap something that wasn’t conventionally beautiful to show that beauty comes from within.”
One of the most peaceful, seraphic areas was the Romantic Naturalism gallery. The gallery, covered in an ecru, floral wallpaper, displays gowns in glass casings from various collections. With nature as the common theme, garments like the razor clam gown from VOSS and the pheasant feather dress from The Widows of Culloden line both sides of the room. The sounds of nature play with birds chirping, evoking a feeling of the British outdoors. There is a stillness and calm before the highly energetic final gallery of the exhibition.
The last room is a white tiled gallery featuring McQueen’s final, complete collection: Plato’s Atlantis S/S 2010. A full wall has been transformed into a video screen running the original film from this last show along with the hyperactive music composed for its collection. Silver mannequins are wearing futuristic antlers and the nature-inspired collection that is said to be McQueen’s greatest achievement. McQueen’s complex, digitally engineered prints inspired by sea creatures alongside his ‘Armadillo’ boots (most famously worn by Lady Gaga) are the last pieces to an ultra-sensory experience.
Leaving the museum, it is hard not to feel a sense of sadness for the tragic genius that was Lee Alexander McQueen. His ground breaking body of work was ahead of his time, and the introduction of multimedia technology is something we are only seeing now from other designers. He made fashion more accessible via technology and created narratives around each collection like an autobiography. His works were aggressive, forcing the viewer to see the grotesque, the unpleasantries. He triggered different emotions each time with theatrics, music, and what many view as performance art on the catwalk. Though the museum does an excellent job, it would have been nice to see more from his time at Givenchy, his relationship to the art world and the full storyline of McQueen’s career. The first two parts of the exhibition follow those early moments and then it abruptly ends. As Suzy Menkes of Vogue wrote, “Context is so important in fashion. Clothes do not come to life by themselves, but from roots which are watered by the culture of their time.”
It is hard to appreciate artistry without witnessing the work in person. Seeing McQueen’s collections and reliving his runway shows, by courtesy of the museum, completely transforms the viewer’s understanding and appreciation for him. McQueen was not a designer, but an artist. The exhibition gives the public the chance to be a part of the passion, tensions and process of McQueen’s catwalks and designs.
“Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” runs until August 2 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Check out the V&A website to see the reissuing of a scarf and handbag from McQueen’s final collection available for purchase in limited quantities.