Fashion is red-hot in London this summer as the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition takes centre-stage at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
This blockbuster show had crowds queuing around the block when it previewed in New York in 2011 but now it’s here in the UK – and it’s bigger and even better.
London’s hottest exhibition is a fitting tribute to the stunning work of the ‘bad boy’ of British fashion design who died tragically in 2010.
Fashion can be a fickle industry but McQueen’s provocative designs remain as fresh and challenging as they were when he burst onto the fashion scene. This must-see show is a spectacular cavalcade of his groundbreaking work.
Even those who don’t count themselves as fashionistas will be fascinated, captivated and sometimes shocked by the designer’s subversive visions.
From London to the world
As soon as you step inside the show, it’s like being on another fashion planet. It’s clear this isn’t going to be any run-of-the-mill retrospective.
There’s an explosion of style everywhere you look, from the production design of the exhibition to the clothes themselves.
Savage Beauty takes over 10 rooms of the V & A, each showcasing the major themes featured in McQueen’s work, from nationalism and exoticism to the gothic and romantic.
McQueen was born and bred in London with an early apprenticeship as a tailor on Savile Row, but his designs take us on a journey around the world.
Many of McQueen’s vibrant clothes draw on heritage, tradition and historical references. The designer’s fascination with his Scottish heritage is explored in some of his most striking designs.
His Scottish collections are perhaps the only time when I’ve found myself liking tartan dresses.
Here they’re given a consistent ‘red and black’ tartan colour scheme with accessories of black lace and ruffled collars. It’s Bannockburn meets Vivienne Westwood on Flodden’s bloody battle field.
McQueen also draws on iconography from around the world including the British Empire, colonialism and the twilight years of the Raj in India.
But the exoticism doesn’t stop there. The show also illustrates McQueen’s interest in Eastern cultures including designs which draw their inspiration from traditional Japanese kimonos and decorative motifs such as chrysanthemums. Simply beautiful.
There are also echoes of Eurasian culture in McQueen’s ‘Scanners’ catwalk show which takes us on a journey from West to East with nods to Russia, Tibet and Siberia.
Fashion as theatre
Savage Beauty is a marriage of fashion, art and theatre. It’s a beautifully designed show jam-packed with gorgeous clothes and boasting spectacular presentation.
The Cabinet of Curiosities at the heart of this remarkable show is jaw-dropping and visually sumptuous.
It made me appreciate how much Alexander McQueen had in common with the controversial Brit pack of artists. So strong are the links that I was half expecting to stumble upon a Damien Hirst dissected cow or diamond-studded skull in the midst of the exhibition.
Presented in a super-high gallery, dotted with video screens featuring a ‘greatest hits’ of McQueen’s catwalk shows, individual niches showcase over 120 garments and accessories.
The vertiginous effect is heightened by the sensory overload. At one point, I felt almost giddy and faint with the visual assault.
The same style of presentation was used to great effect in the recent David Bowie fashion show at the V & A. Once again, it’s a brilliantly theatrical way of making a visual impact with the costume displays.
My favourite unusual piece was a tunic made completely from mussel shells. How the hell did they make that?
Amongst the fabulous clothes, there are hats designed by one of McQueen’s favourite associates, milliner Philip Treacy.
A stunning head-piece buzzing with vibrantly coloured artificial butterflies is one of many highlights.
This also reminds me of Damien Hirst and his installations of butterflies. I’m not quite sure how you’d see where you were going, but guess this is more of a big show-off catwalk piece.
Only an eccentric fashionista like McQueen’s sadly departed friend, Isabella Blow, could have got away with wearing this in public.
There are also more subtle hats including pieces with stars and a moon, also by Treacy, which remind me of Greek goddesses or symbols of pagan worship.
The Grecian goddess style pops up in many of McQueen’s designs including a lovely, white robe which is surprisingly subtle and simple.
At the centre of the gallery is a rotating platform featuring the dress created by McQueen for one of his most memorable shows.
Former ballet dancer Shalom Harlow stood a rotating turntable surrounded by robots with spray guns squirting yellow and black paint at a pure white dress resulting in a Jackson Pollock style splash effect.
‘Mac the Dripper’ could be an apt nickname for McQueen at this phase of his career.
It’s hard to pull yourself away and leave this fascinating cabinet of creativity and curiosities.
The video wall of McQueen’s catwalk presentations had me transfixed for about 20 minutes but I could have stayed and watched these films all afternoon.
Alexander McQueen, the enfant terrible of the fashion world, was renowned for his daring catwalk shows and pushing the creative envelope.
Savage Beauty provides a great cross-section of his raw creativity but it’s also a brilliant insight into his traditional tailoring. Like fashion designer Vivienne Westwood before him , he knew how to deconstruct as well as construct clothes.
In fact, McQueen said that his early career in tailoring was crucial in enabling him to take apart and reconfigure his clothing designs.
A chessboard of beautifully-tailored models illustrates McQueen’s passion for strong silhouettes. The models are presented as pieces in a game of chess, inspired by a scene from a Harry Potter film.
I love the way McQueen plays with shapes and extreme silhouettes, from head to toe, as illustrated by the model below wearing a puff-ball dress and huge, platform shoes.
One of McQueen’s most notorious collections, his graduate show – Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims – is also here – and again demonstrates the genius of the designer’s tailoring, this time with a Romantic Gothic twist.
Look carefully and you’ll see locks of McQueen’s own hair stitched into the costumes like an artist’s signature on an oil painting.
Elsewhere, you’ll discover experiments with the female silhouette including McQueen’s infamous ‘Bumster’ low cut trousers. They were inspired by Martin Scorsese’s film, Taxi Driver, and hip hop street culture.
I have to admit that despite the clever tailoring, I don’t like the bumster style. It looks great on pin-thin models with perfect shapes but for the rest of us, there’s the danger of looking like sweaty bricklayers showing too much bum crack!
Much better, in my mind, are McQueen’s ‘London’ designs where he gives classic tailoring his own twist.
Passion for nature
McQueen’s fascination for the natural world is another big theme throughout the exhibition with inspiration being taken from animal skin, shells and horns.
An astonishing razor clam dress is one of my favorites in the show. It was crafted from hundreds of shells into something that takes on a life of its own.
How these shells were assembled into a couture garment is a mystery. Even more mysterious is how to wear this dress with confidence and walk without rattling all over.
And how on earth do you sit down, given that it’s very spiky and razor-sharp? You have to admit that many of these clothes are for show rather than everyday wearing.
Elsewhere, McQueen plays with animal textures and patterns, something that has translated into the mainstream but in a more acceptable format. There are two dresses made from pony skin although I couldn’t help worrying how the fabrics were obtained. I hope no cute ponies were killed in the name of fashion.
He also likes to mix and match a splash of flesh in these designs with punk-like ‘torn’ fabrics revealing bare legs or plunging cleavages.
Towards the end of the show there’s a re-creation of McQueen’s celebrated ‘Voss’ collection. A mirrored cube is fitted with lights that flicker on and off to reveal a padded cell.
In the original fashion show, the displays were staged inside a huge two-way mirrored box, where the audience was reflected in the glass before the show began and then the models could not see out once the show started.
In the V & A version, we become voyeurs, gazing at the beautiful costumes. They include one of my favourite McQueen creations, a dress constructed from blood-red and black dyed ostrich feathers.
The ‘Voss’ collection is all about sublime beauty so expect to be bowled over by these gorgeous designs.
Alexander McQueen’s interest in’ romantic naturalism’ is also illustrated by a selection of gowns which take their inspiration from the beauty and fragility of plants and flowers.
The showstopper is McQueen’s spectacular ‘Sarabande’ design, a full-length dress covered from top to toe in flowers. This is a beautiful dress that I could see myself wearing at an arts ball – although, once again, you’d have to stand up all night for fear of damaging the rose buds!
When it was first presented on the catwalk, the dress was made up of real and artificial flowers, with the petals falling gently to the ground as the model walked.
The tag ‘romantic’ crops up a lot in the Savage Beauty exhibition, particularly in relation to McQueen’s Victorian inspired designs.
But there is also a heavy dose of eclecticism with strong elements of punk and street style in many of his collections.
The costume that epitomises McQueen’s love affair with the romantic is a dress with pale, lace tulle fabric and antler headgear. It looks like an outfit that could’ve been worn by the young Miss Haversham in Dickens’ Great Expectations.
It’s one of the many images that sticks in the head. McQueen’s life’s work was all about breaking down barriers so even the most romantic of pieces comes with an unexpected twist.
In this case, the headpiece made of deer antlers are draped with a diaphanous fabric which creates a confrontational, spiky edge to a soft romantic design (image by firstVIEW).
Towards the finale of the show, there’s a room with a glass box with a haunting evocation of Kate Moss from McQueen’s Widows of Culloden collection. An empty glass pyramid features Kate Moss as a ghostly spectre using modern technology.
This is as much a theatrical show as an exhibition… and the Moss exhibit draws us in further into that immersive experience.
Savage Beauty lives up to the hype. It’s a show like no other and demands to be seen, not just for the fashion designs but for its cross-over into the worlds of art, theatre and film.
What I also like about McQueen’s best designs are that they don’t objectify women in the way that so much fashion does.
OK, there are still difficult images of women to digest such as the model shackled to a silver frame or women made to stagger on ridiculously high heels. There are many fetishistic images in his designs.
Sometimes it can be hard to know what point the designer is making – a subversive critique of society’s sexualisation of the female or a purely provocative portrayal of womankind.
There are also plenty of references to mortality, sexuality and decay thrown into the mix. You could spend hours trying to decipher the multiple meanings behind the clothes.
To this end, I would have liked a bit more commentary and information on the designs, without having to buy the exhibition catalogue.
One of his most enduring images is of a pale-faced, androgynous model wearing a remarkable jet-black dress and headgear made from bird feathers. The model becomes a chimera, a fusion of human beast and bird.
There are many images of empowered women and McQueen often challenges conventional perceptions of beauty.
Famously, McQueen made double amputee and Paralympic champion Aimee Mullins the subject of a photo shoot. On display in the show are the intricately carved prosthetic legs which Mullins wore on his catwalk show.
Savage Beauty is what it says on the tin – a challenging, dramatic, subversive and sometimes confrontational exhibition that makes us think about the meaning of fashion.
It’s a great presentation of Alexander McQueen’s artistic legacy.
This is a powerful, provocative and compelling show. An extraordinary journey in creativity. You’d be crazy to miss it!
Tammy’s Guide – Savage Beauty at the V & A Museum
Savage Beauty: Alexander McQueen is at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London from 14 March-2 August 2015. Book ahead as demand for tickets is high. The nearest Tube is South Kensington.
Look out for details of talks, workshops and lectures taking place around the exhibition.
Credit: Stills are courtesy and copyright of the Victoria and Albert Museum.