Exhibition Review // Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty

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The only conversation I could come up with regarding Alexander McQueen before going to the V&A retrospective exhibition was: “Hey, is he the guy who designed Lady Gaga’s crazy shoes in the Bad Romance video clip?”

That is to say, a ridiculously tiny part of his monstrous and extraordinary work. The Alexander McQueen exhibition has got itself talked about recently in the news and it was impossible to find tickets a month ago; I now understand why. As depicted, McQueen was not only a talented fashion designer, but he was also a phenomenon in himself. His dresses were not merely pieces of clothing, but rather authentic pieces of art, halfway between craftwork and sewing. The retrospective gathers his various sources of inspiration in an enchanting and astonishing way: I guess as surprising as what you would witness when going to McQueen’s shows.

Born in London in 1970 and son of a taxi driver, Alexander McQueen first learned about fashion as an apprentice in tailor shops before entering the prestigious Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design for a master’s degree. Having remained a solo designer for ten years after working for Givenchy for five years, he was brought into the Gucci Group when it bought half of the stake in his company 2002. In 2008, his company was opening new stores across the world and he was awarded the Designer of the Year Award at the British Fashion Awards four times. In 2010, McQueen committed suicide and died at the age of forty.

“I want to empower women. I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.” – McQueen

The McQueen woman is a combination of monstrosity and elegance, both characteristics remarkably intertwined in mixtures of feathers, laces, veils, horsehair or even sea shells. The models could wear feminine dresses with sophisticated styling while their face was covered with a metallic mask or other almost masochist accessory. They could be decked out with a swarm of butterflies as a hat or with medieval helmets, depending on McQueen’s imagination. He particularly favoured armours, be them made of steel, leather or mussel shells. Of course many of his pieces not actually wearable, and Alexander McQueen’s creations are exuberantly impractical, but they express courage and fear in a magnificent and terrifying way. It is this interweaving between violence and fragility, between traditional clothing and strange fetishism that stroke me in particular, McQueen wanted to break the codes of 20th century fashion, and he did so bravely without compromising his will to create thought-provoking beauty.

“Fashion should be a form of escapism, and not a form of imprisonment.” – McQueen

The rooms are organized thematically such that you discover McQueen’s eclectic sources of inspiration as you go through the exhibition. From piracy and primitive era, to Gothic style and Scottish legacy, the talented designer plunged back into his history and literature books to feed his imagination. This resulted in origin dresses with caiman’s heads on the shoulders or headdresses with deer’s antlers. If McQueen found inspiration in far-reaching historical references, he also took elements from different geographical regions as highlighted by the room about Japanese influence. A very interesting note is that McQueen emphasized his desire to pick some precise features of women from a particular country and translate it into his old hat. Let’s break down some barriers. At the end of the exhibition, kimonos make room for feathers and floral prints as nature was also an important source of ideas for McQueen. For example, McQueen conceived a dress made exclusively of razor shells (in perfect simplicity!). The last room which is probably the most impressive one, displays his ultimate collection. Futuristic women-alien wear dresses with psychedelic prints supposed to come from the Atlantis Island in Plato’s poetry. This collection was lauded as his best by the fashion press because of its association between modern trends inspired from digital world and futuristic, almost grotesque features. All in all, McQueen’s work can be seen as “a strange and wonderful gift to human culture”, as titled by the Guardian.

Concerning the exhibition itself, I understood why there was so much hype around it as soon as I stepped into the first room. The rooms look quite wonderful, as each one is dressed to match a theme: the gallery showing tartan dresses is wood-panelled and tribal-inspired designs are set against walls that are covered in bones. The clothes are well lit and interestingly displayed. Apart from visual artefacts, the exhibition succeeds in immersing the visitor in McQueen’s universe thanks to back ground sounds: birds are chirping in the room about nature inspiration and Barry Lindon soundtrack gives your pace its tempo in the tartan dresses gallery. The Cabinet of curiosities is by far the most impressive room. It displays beautifully lit accessories in compartments on the walls as well as videos from his most well-known shows. However, as it was quite crowded, I had trouble seeing some of the details of the accessories and I must say that it was difficult to read the explanatory panels, I would have liked to have more biographical information about this great designer. But beyond any criticism, the staging was overall breath-taking

This exhibition is definitely worth going to -preferably during week days to avoid massive visit groups- as it is emotionally stimulating and marvellous for the eyes.

Until the 2nd August – Book ahead on the V&A website or directly at the ticket office. Generally, they still have place even if the website says that tickets are sold out. I went to the V&A at 1pm and got tickets for a visit only two hours later. £9 for students.



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