Savage Beauty, the largest ever retrospective on Alexander McQueen opens at the V&A on 14 March. Olivia Palamountain finds out what to expect at the exhibition by talking to its Senior Research Assistant Kate Bethune
Through the darkness, Kate Moss flickers and flits into view. She is dressed in a gown of rippling organza, and her ghostly beauty silences the room. It’s 2006 and Kate is closing Alexander McQueen’s A/W show The Widows of Culloden, in a magical finale that would prove to be one of his most memorable catwalk moments. As powerful as the image appears, Kate is simply a hologram and her image is a sensational installation in the V&A’s ground-breaking homage to the legendary fashion designer, Lee Alexander McQueen.
As the largest ever retrospective on McQueen, Savage Beauty is an ambitious restaging of the original curation, which was presented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2011. The London issue of the show will offer additional insight into the world of this homegrown design wonder, five years after his death.
‘London was central to McQueen’s world, and one of the most significant changes to Savage Beauty at the V&A is the addition of a new display that explores his early London collections, including Nihilism, (S/S 1994), The Birds (S/S 1995) and The Hunger (S/S 1996)’, explains Kate Bethune, Senior Research Assistant for Savage Beauty. ‘Other displays explore McQueen’s gothic sensibility, his fascination for foreign cultures and his deep interest in his Scottish heritage.’
At the heart of the exhibition is the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’, which will be displayed in the V&A’s double height gallery space. This gallery includes many of the new additions to V&A exhibition, as well as video footage of nearly all of McQueen’s catwalk shows. Particularly significant, this gallery focuses on his diverse collaborations with creatives such as the milliner Philip Treacy and the jeweller Shaun Leane (who could forget his ribcage corset, cast from a human skeleton).
McQueen was more than a fashion designer. He combined a profound grasp of tailoring (learned as an apprentice on Savile Row) with a range of influences and was tempered by a relentless pursuit to challenge the boundaries of art and fashion, blending the latest technology with traditional craftsmanship.
‘Designs from McQueen’s final, fully-realised collection, Plato’s Atlantis (S/S 2010), which was widely acclaimed as his greatest, are a stunning example of this talent’, comments Kate Bethune. ‘Here McQueen mastered the application of digital printing techniques, creating patterns derived from nature that were engineered to fit the specific contours of each garment.’
With his catwalk shows, McQueen presented his vision to the world through spectacular and provocative events, which often involved imaginative storytelling and breath-taking installations. One such moment took place during his S/S 1998 show, which was originally billed ‘The Golden Shower’, but the innuendo-laden name was later erased at his sponsor’s behest. The ‘Untitled’ event saw a runway filled with pools of black ink and torrents of fake rain that poured over the stage, soaking the models and rendering their white garments transparent.
A trusted circle of art directors, production designers, show producers, stylists, music and lighting directors enabled McQueen to turn his visions into a reality on the catwalk. The V&A has associated with Gainsbury and Whiting, who produced all of McQueen’s shows from 1996 to present an authentic portrayal of his show style.
After such in-depth study of Alexander McQueen’s life and work, I wonder how Kate now views this extraordinary talent – both as an artist and as a man. ‘McQueen was a visionary designer who consistently pushed the boundaries of fashion’, she says. ‘Dresses made from microscope slides and razor clam shells, skirts made of balsa wood, and bodices made of glass reveal that not only was McQueen bold and daring with his ideas and his dazzling use of materials, but that he always had an important point of view which he expressed through fashion. This, however, was always rooted in craftsmanship of the highest level.’
The natural world inspired McQueen throughout his career. Especially entranced by birds, an interest in the avian consistently found expression in his designs, often using feathers, which never failed to add drama.
Kate’s favourite item in the collection? ‘A full-length gown made entirely from pheasant feathers that have been individually stitched to lengths of ribbon, which have then been sewn onto a net ground.’
With such a magnificent body of work behind him, after McQueen’s tragic suicide in 2010 thoughts turned to who would lead the fashion house into the future. Sarah Burton, one of his first employees who then became his most trusted personal assistant, was appointed his successor. Her vision for the McQueen brand has been widely praised.
A grand and powerful tribute to McQueen, Savage Beauty seeks to explain this man in the splendid style of which he lived and worked. But the real essence of McQueen’s aesthetic power can be distilled through his own words: ‘I think there is beauty in everything,’ he once said in an interview with SHOWstudio, ‘What ‘normal’ people would perceive as ugly, I can usually see something of beauty in it.’
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, in partnership with Swarovski, supported by American Express, with thanks to M∙A∙C Cosmetics and made possible with the co-operation of Alexander McQueen, runs from 14 March – 19 July 2015.