Tucked away in the opening room of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, the V&A’s new exhibition that celebrates the life of the late fashion designer, is a quote that goes straight to the heart of McQueen the label, and McQueen the man. ‘I want to empower women’, it reads. ‘I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.’ The tipping point between empowerment and fear is a concept that’s embedded into the very fabric of McQueen’s designs, from the scarlet lining of a tailored jacket pulled from his 1994 graduate collection to the iconic ‘armadillo’ shoes that featured in Plato Atlantis, his last catwalk show.
The exhibition is an evolution of a retrospective originally staged at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Fittingly, as the V&A was one of the designer’s favourite research haunts, it occupies one third more space and includes 66 garments not previously exhibited. Arranged thematically, starting with ‘London’ and moving on to ‘Savage Mind’, it offers a unique perspective on one of the city’s favourite enfants terrible, allowing the viewer to explore and understand the themes, ideas and references that would frame his entire career. Unlike many designers, McQueen’s direction was set from that graduate collection, his ideas growing stronger and more mature but always circling back to key preoccupations, including death, decay and gothic romance.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ – a wonderfully varied, double-height room that showcase all the contradictions that made up McQueen. The 120 objects on display include carved wooden horn-like prosthetics, butterfly headpieces, feather-tipped nose bars, and floral body armour, many made in partnership with long-term collaborators Shaun Leane and Philip Treacy. These curiosities are by turn fantastical, fetishist, weird and uncomfortable… McQueen at his most uncompromising. The room is dominated by a rotating mannequin clad in the famous black and yellow spray-painted dress, a piece of performance art that closed the designer’s Spring/Summer 1999 show.
If McQueen was preoccupied with turning his fashion shows into theatre, the exhibition’s curator Claire Wilcox and production company Gainsbury and Whiting (who staged many of the designer’s catwalk shows) have taken that theme and run with it. Complaints that fashion exhibitions are too static and lifeless cannot be levelled here. Each room’s décor is inspired and captures the essences of the designs on display: ‘Romantic Primitivism’ is inspired by ossuary (the walls are covered with skulls and bones) whilst ‘Romantic Nationalism’ depicts a stately manor house. Other highlights include the mirrored box from the spring/summer 2001 Voss show and a scaled-down version of the Kate Moss hologram from the Widows of Culloden collection.
‘London’s where I was brought up’, McQueen proclaimed. ‘It’s where my heart is and where I got my inspiration’. It was clearly important for Wilcox to build on the success of the original Met exhibition and add something more, to make this homecoming retrospective truly spectacular. What’s lacking in chronology and context is more than compensated by the spirit of Lee McQueen that’s threaded through the rooms – from the arresting black and white video portrait at the entrance, to the echoes of his voice over a sparse electronic soundtrack and the McQueen tartan that symbolises the Scottish heritage he promoted with such pride.
And perhaps pride is the most important thing that this exhibition impresses – pride in a young talent who made good on the world stage but never forgot where he came from. Pride that Central St. Martin’s and Savile Row (where McQueen was a student and an apprentice respectively) could produce a designer with such technical skill. He seems like an easy designer to understand and laid his interests and obsessions out for everyone to see – but Savage Beauty captures something deeper, a spirit and a narrative that’s missing from much of today’s cookie-cutter sportswear minimalism. Go see and marvel. Just make sure you book tickets in advance.
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty bis showing at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London 14 March – 2 August 2015. For more information and to book tickets, see the V&A’s website.