First published on The Cut, 12 March 2015
In May 2011, only a year after the suicide of Alexander McQueen, "Savage Beauty" opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: a sweeping retrospective of the designer’s work that explored everything from his 1992 postgraduate collection to his final runway show. It was an enormous success; attendance for the exhibition became the Met's highest in 40 years. But in the U.K., many in the fashion industry were disappointed — after the loss of one of London’s most-loved designers, it was jarring that a museum closer to home hadn’t secured the exhibition first.
Four years later, "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" has finally arrived in the city where he grew up, trained, and worked. It opens this weekend at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, in what the museum describes as an “enhanced” form.
So, what does that mean? Well, perhaps in an attempt to redress the balance, the show opens with the London room, an addition that explores how McQueen drew inspiration from his home city, where he took a tailor’s apprenticeship on Savile Row and earned a master’s degree at Central Saint Martins. There are the ragged lace dresses and leather "bumsters" of his fall-winter 1995 Highland Rape collection, and the "S-bend" trousers, gathered at the knee, that were inspired by 18th- and 19th-century tailoring. In large letters on the wall is McQueen’s declaration of intent: “I want to be the purveyor of a certain silhouette or way of cutting, so that when I’m dead and gone people will know that the twenty-first century was started by Alexander McQueen.”
The famous hologram of Kate Moss, first seen at the fall-winter 2006 "Widows of Culloden" show, is here in a larger version than at the Met, with its own dark gallery space for full impact. The score that accompanies the show is almost as prominent as the design — from eerie recordings of McQueen’s voice in the London room, to birdsong in the Romantic Naturalism gallery, where a rose-smothered gown from the Sarabande collection takes center stage.
It may not be a wholly new exhibition, but this restaging brings a timely reminder of what McQueen achieved. The almost unthinkable textures and materials that he brought to his work — from a gown made of gold-painted goose feathers, to a skirt of beaded horse hair — are proof of the vastness of his imagination. Opening so soon after Fashion Week, it underlines something that the industry lost when McQueen died: his experimental theatricality, which took new forms each season.
For an insight into how the exhibition was put together, the Cut spoke to Kate Bethune, senior research assistant at the V&A.
Many visitors to "Savage Beauty" will have seen the original show in New York. What can they expect from this new exhibition?
We’re really lucky to be inheriting such a wonderful curation from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. What we've done at the V&A is an ambitious restaging, and we’ve enhanced the object list by about 60 additional objects. The Cabinet of Curiosities, which is the heart of the exhibition, is in our double-height gallery space — it’s enormous, with over 100 objects on display. These include McQueen objects, but also pieces from his collaborations with milliner Philip Treacy, jeweler Shaun Leane, Sarah Harmarnee — creators who worked with him to help realize his vision.
I think the main change for us, though, is to add the London gallery at the beginning. London was crucial to McQueen’s story. This gallery includes ten of his earliest designs, some of which have never been on display before, and it's styled by Katy England, who was a close friend and long-standing collaborator. It really focuses on the rawness and energy of those early years, when he wasn’t an established name, and it sets a nice contrast to the refinement that follows in the later galleries.
Why weren’t those objects in the original exhibition?
Some of them were — but we felt there was a bit more of a story to tell about those early years. It’s difficult to track down a lot of the very early McQueen pieces, because back then he often paid his staff with garments, so it’s been a process of careful detective work. Having the support of Katy England has been really great — a lot of the pieces in that gallery belong to her.
It’s three or four years now since the Met exhibition, and I think McQueen's friends and family have had a bit more time to think about it. Some people were very close to him and weren’t ready to be involved with the exhibition at the time that it happened at the Met, because it was quite soon after his death — but now they feel that enough time has passed, and they’ve been able to be involved with this show.
There’s also a major new book accompanying the V&A exhibition — what can we expect from that?
Yes — it's an entirely new publication. It’s called Alexander McQueen, and it’s 27 essays by specialists in the areas that McQueen was interested in. Some are feature-length essays about a particular collection, such as Plato’s Atlantis, or about tailoring, or McQueen’s love of nature. Then those are interspersed with 500-word feature spreads that hone in on specific details, such as his collaborations, how he drew inspiration from religious iconography, his time as a student at Central Saint Martins, and so on. The end of the book has an encyclopedia of all of his catwalk shows, talking about all the themes and inspirations, and each one includes an image from the catwalk and a photograph of the invitation. Many of the invitations are artworks in their own right, and they’ve never been published before, so it’s really lovely to bring that together in one resource.
What, for you, is the highlight of this show?
For me, the reason McQueen was so important and groundbreaking was his dazzling and extraordinary use of materials. He didn’t just render his designs in fabric — he used balsa wood, shells, glass, raffia, and birds’ feathers, and I think that’s something people will find very striking. McQueen loved nature and he was fascinated by birds. As a young boy, he was a member of the U.K.’s Young Ornithologists’ Club, and he tried falconry with Isabella Blow, for example. Right from the earliest collections, birds were a motif that he consistently used. So for me, one of my absolute favorite pieces is a dress from the Widows of Culloden that’s made entirely from pheasant feathers. It’s a floor-length gown, and each of the feathers has been individually hand-stitched onto a length of ribbon, and then these lengths of ribbon have been stitched onto a net ground. It’s ingenious for its construction, and for me it's the standout piece.
"Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" is at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum from March 14 to August 2.