The upstanding feathers, the dying roses, the vivid plaid, the skulls and bones… Can there have ever been such a sensory and stimulating fashion exhibition? “Savage Beauty”, the homage to the late Alexander McQueen at the Victoria & Albert museum (until August 2) is a visual treat even more potent than the original version at New York’s Metropolitan Museum in 2011. Bigger, bolder and braver about showing the raw sexuality and discomfiting focus on death, the London version pays scant attention to the word “romantic” that ran through the American show and accompanying book. The “cabinet of curiosities” — at least one third bigger than in New York – is the bleeding heart of the exhibition. The fierce feathers, tottering “armadillo” shoes and the reproduction of model Shalom Harlow being sprayed with paint by robots all tell the story of McQueen’s creativity. The inserts of videos of the unforgettable shows themselves makes the double-height room the epicentre of what this exhibition, and McQueen’s legacy, stand for. Generous sponsorship for this exhibition from Swarovski, supported by American Express, M∙A∙C Cosmetics and technology partner Samsung, has created a powerful theatrical experience. Yet, in spite of enjoying every moment, from the Kate Moss hologram – turning Britain’s best-known model from vapour to reality and back again — to the digitally realised backdrop of McQueen’s final Atlantis show in 2010, before his suicide — there are questions to be asked. Many are proposed by the V&A in its accompanying book, “Alexander McQueen”, edited by Claire Wilcox, the show’s curator. Already, when I was in conversation with Claire, she raised with me issues that are nowhere in the exhibition itself: specifically the cultural context in which the designer worked.
Wilcox described the influence on McQueen of Generation Sensation, referring to the YBAs or Young British Artists. They were all those creative figures picked out by art dealer Charles Saatchi in the 1990s. McQueen was close friends with Jake and Dinos Chapman, known as the Chapman Brothers. The designer also seemed to have a similar attitude to the presence of death in life as seen in Damien Hirst’s infamous dead shark of 1991.
Since. 2001, McQueen has been part of the luxury group now called Kering. But this show does not even answer a question that might well be posed by visitors: how did they turn any of these weird clothes into a buck?
The tone is set by a striking frock coat, inspired by the story of Victorian serial killer Jack the Ripper, from the first collection the designer created for his graduation in 1992 from Central Saint Martins. A low-slung pair of trousers, known as the ‘bumster’, is a reminder of the look that McQueen unleashed into the world of hip-hop and street culture.
If you already know the trajectory, the information is there in these opening rooms that Wilcox presents. But there is little more to explain the early part of McQueen’s life — unless something is hidden in the cream-on-stone, rather unreadable captions at floor-level.
In these rooms, you hear the voice of McQueen (if the crowd of an already-sold-out show does not obscure them). Nowhere are there visual images of the designer talking — but that is perhaps because the museum is eager to move things along at a reasonable speed.
Was McQueen a romantic in fashion terms? Maybe, if you look at the dead roses clinging to an evening gown. No, if you compare his work to that arch romantic Christian Dior.
I see all those McQueen flowers, shells, horns and bones as props for storytelling. As expressed in one essay, Show And Tell, in the book, McQueen’s urge was “to elevate a fashion show from the mere mechanical act of showing fashion into a narrative medium”. In that, he was the soul brother to John Galliano, who also gets no mention in the exhibition.
Context is so important in fashion. Clothes do not come to life by themselves, but from roots which are watered by the culture of their time.
Go and see the “Savage Beauty” exhibition. It is a must. But if you are a dedicated follower of fashion, invest in the Alexander McQueen book, too.