McQueen dream scene
As a major retrospective of Alexander McQueen’s work opens in London K asks, in the first of two articles, if the exhibition does this fashion genius justice.
“London’s where I was brought up. It’s where my heart is and where I get my inspiration.” Those were the words of the late, great fashion designer Alexander McQueen talking about his beloved hometown.
It seems so utterly fitting then that the first, and largest retrospective dedicated to his life and work, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, has finally arrived in the capital.
It has been a long wait for his most dedicated fans. The show was initially staged at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2011, where it became one of the top ten most visited exhibitions in the institution’s esteemed history.
Fast-forward to today, and the same show has opened at London’s Victoria and Albert museum in a flurry of press coverage and glittering launch parties. So what can we expect from the show, and will this much lauded exhibition live up to McQueen’s enduring personal legacy?
Savage Beauty will display more than 200 retrospective pieces by the late British fashion designer, including 66 new ones not seen at the Met. And that's not the only highlight; the exhibition promises a comprehensive look at the career and life of a creative genius.
From McQueen's MA graduate collection, which was bought in 1992 in its entirety by his long-standing mentor and friend Isabella Blow; to his catwalk show sets; raw and unfinished tulles; inspirational reference images and photographs; as well as a glimpse of some of his most iconic show pieces; his awe-inspiring body of work is on display.
Fit and flare
A walk around the museum on the opening morning proves to be a breath-taking experience.
The first thing that strikes one as a visitor is the sheer breadth of McQueen’s work, and the significant level of influence that he has had on designers today.
His handwriting can still be seen on the catwalks of some of the brightest current creative talent.
The first section of the exhibition focuses on McQueen’s early years and on his London roots. He trained as an apprentice on London’s Savile Row; his father was a cab driver and he studied at Central Saint Martins. London was the epicentre of his world, and his love for the capital had a searing impact on his collections.
His deft tailoring and innovative outlines became his signature.
And, thanks to his apprenticeship training, those iconic Bumster trousers with echoes of the London punk scene, and his incredibly flattering fit and flare, the tailored silhouettes paved the way for this modern-day design genius.
Romantic Gothic – the section of Savage Beauty dedicated to his enchanting riffs on traditional gothic dress and the era’s macabre sensibility, is another highlight.
McQueen was perhaps best known for his rebellious approach to fashion. It was the gleeful thought of turning on his audience by surprising them with a theatrical show or making them feel uneasy with a bizarre soundtrack or set which thrilled him.
He also got a kick out of challenging the women who wore his clothes – his Horn of Plenty show and it’s commentary on a nation on the brink of recession, was one just example of the way he provoked his customers to question society.
McQueen, the man, has been given many labels to describe his personality and approach to design ever since his tragic, untimely death in 2010. Agent Provocateur and Enfant Terrible are two familiar adjectives; both have been used over and over again to sum up his agitating approach to design.
But perhaps curator of the exhibition Claire Wilcox describes him best: “When I first saw the exhibition in New York I was struck by how marvellous it was. His work was multi-layered and rich in references. He liberated fashion to be more theatrical and spectacular on the catwalk.
What’s particular about his work is the richness in terms of references – he drew on art, nature, film, but also in the richness of the garments themselves.
The imagination he poured into his collections was second to none”.
The show has already shifted record numbers of tickets, with 70,000 sold in advance of the opening. Demand has been so great that the exhibition run has already been extended for two weeks, into August.
So what would the man himself have thought of the event and all of this hype? It is no coincidence that the show is being staged here and that McQueen was a great fan of the V&A. “The collections at the V&A never fail to intrigue and inspire me,” he said before his death. “The nation is privileged to have access to such a resource.... it’s the sort of place I’d like to be shut in overnight.”
Jellyfish ensemble and Armadillo shoes, Plato’s Atlantis, Spring-Summer 2010 – Model: Polina Kasina – Image Lauren Greenfield/INSTITUTE.
Spray-painted dress, No. 13, Spring-Summer 1999 – Model: Shalom Harlow – Image Catwalking.
It’s Only a Game, Spring-Summer 2005 – Image firstVIEW.
Portrait of Alexander McQueen, 1997, photographed by Marc Hom – Credits Marc Hom/Trunk Archive.
Butterfly headdress of hand-painted turkey feathers, Philip Treacy for Alexander McQueen, La Dame Bleue, Spring-Summer 2008 - Model Alana Zimmer – Photo Anthea Simms.
Duck feather dress, The Horn of Plenty, Autumn-Winter 2009-10 - Model Magdalena Frackowiak – Image firstVIEW.
Tulle and lace dress with veil and antlers, Widows of Culloden, Autumn-Winter 2006-07 - Model Raquel Zimmermann at Viva London – Image firstVIEW.