From the moment you enter the grand wooden double doors leading into the exhibition you become distinctly aware that you are about to behold a one of a kind experience. The darkly lit room welcomes you at a distance. You are invited to explore the wonders within the exhibition, but the whole time spent journeying through the different rooms there is a slight voyeuristic feeling- a sense that you are witnessing things you shouldn’t be witnessing.
McQueen was a designer highly renowned for his melancholic and, at times, subversive creations. Perhaps most subversive was his 2006 ‘Highland Rape’ collection which featured an amass of ripped tartan, leather, mesh, and studs. The ready-to-wear show shocked audiences as the models walked down the runway with their breasts exposed. McQueen knew how to cause a stir, but always created a narrative while doing so.
Throughout the exhibition each room contains a collection of pieces which fall under a ‘Romantic’ heading from the Romantic Gothic with 19th century Victorian influences right the way through to Romantic Naturalism which sees a focus on natural raw materials such as flowers, feathers and an entire dress created out of razor clams. In between we see themes such as Romantic Privitism, Romantic Nationalism, and Romantic Exoticism, which all showcase individual narratives. Moving from one room to the next you are transported through both time and space from ancient African tribalism in the Romantic Privitism room decorated as a cave with skulls and bones engraved into the walls, to a mirrored display of beautiful oriental-inspired pieces seen in the delicate detailing and ornate headpieces exhibited in the Romantic Exoticism room. McQueen’s urge was always “to elevate a fashion show from the mere mechanical act of showing fashion into a narrative medium.” This is realised through the careful curation of each room as they showcase some of the designer’s most magnificent creations with a narrative backdrop to re-emphasise the true meaning behind his marvellous designs.
There is a highly emotive element to the whole experience perhaps due to the young designer’s untimely death in 2010. There is a large portrait of McQueen projected as you first walk in which morphs into a Swarovski embedded skull (one of his trademark pieces) on a continuous loop. After that there is no other visual of the late designer although there are some recordings of him speaking throughout the exhibition. The audio surrounding the exhibition is played in a disjointed way causing a sense of disorder to the audience. Nature sounds of birds chirping or waves splashing are interrupted by futuristic sound effects and then soothed again by lullaby’s or classical piano music. The exhibition awakens all of your senses and causes you to interact with the exhibition in more than just a visual experience. It is an all-round sensory and extremely emotive exhibition.
The curator of the show, Claire Wilcox, describes how “he shocked with his powerful and spectacular runway shows, characterized by elaborate storytelling, compelling theatre and raw emotion.” I think the most stand-out part of the exhibition for me was an amazing glass prism containing a hologram 3D image of Kate Moss wearing a specially designed white gown for the finale of the 2006 ‘Widows of Culloden’ collection. This visual simply cannot be put into words. The only way to understand it fully is to see it and this fantastical image is reason enough to visit the exhibition.
If you still need further persuasion to go and see Savage Beauty, the Cabinet of Curiosities, remarked by some as the heart of the exhibition, is another sublime experience which reiterates the overarching themes of the exhibition. It is a collection of atavistic and fetishistic paraphernalia produced in collaboration with a number of accessory designers such as milliner Phillip Treacy and jeweller Shaun Lean. The result is a floor to ceiling cabinet surrounding all four walls of the room filled with a selection of accessories and clothes, as well as TV screens mounted into the cabinets with some of McQueen’s most memorable shows being played on repeat. The room itself is a true curiosity and I noticed many spectators sitting down and just looking up at the walls trying to take in everything they could. As if under a spell, people sat enchanted admiring the wonders that the room contains.
There are some things that I felt the exhibition lacked such as some of the cultural context that is so relevant to McQueen’s designs and an insight to, or at least mention of, his personal relationships that were so influential to his work. Definitely worth mentioning would have been his Muse and Mastermind relationship with Isabella Blow which is, in my opinion, notably missed in the exhibition. McQueen was such a contemporary designer influenced by everything around him. His designs moved with the times and this is something that is not fully explored in the exhibition. I understand there has to be some constraints on how much information can be displayed, but I do feel that visitors could gain more from the experience if there was more of a cultural context explained. Although, for those interested in learning more about McQueen the V&A have produced a special edition book that, along with copious illustrations, photographs, and sketches, contains essays from “expert fashion commentators and cultural scholars which examine the richness and complexity of McQueen’s visionary fashion.”
The final quote on leaving the exhibition reads: “There is no way back for me now. I’m going to take you on journeys you’ve never dreamed were possible.” This is exactly what McQueen achieved with his designs, and what Claire Wilcox and her team achieved with this retrospective of one massively influential designers’ work in the fashion industry. The exhibition evokes dreams, possibilities, and wonders which all come to life in this awe-inspiring accumulation of masterpieces.
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty is on in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London until 2 August.
Words: Síomha Connolly.