To the V&A yesterday for the preview of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. The press is already speaking of the embellished retrospective of the late designer’s work that first showed at New York’s Met Museum as a record breaker. I had been fortunate to be shown a collection of very early garments a month previously in the V&A conservation department hunted down by the V&A’s senior fashion curator Claire Wilcox. I’d been asked to write a piece about Savile Row’s influence on McQueen for the V&A Magazine hence the early bird preview.
Examining McQueen’s tailoring from his Central Saint Martins graduation collection Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims at the V&A was illuminating because it followed his relatively brief apprenticeship on Savile Row with Anderson & Sheppard and Gieves & Hawkes. I won’t bang on now but my conclusion was that McQueen took from the Row precisely what he needed to in the shortest time before moving on. It was only after his exposure to a Paris haute couture atelier at Givenchy that his work truly soared.
It was rather wonderful at the V&A to see the most iconoclastic of McQueen’s interrogations into tailoring – the frock coat and the bumster cut trouser – shown with such humility on tailor’s dummies. We can see that he had absorbed the Savile Row cutting systems. We can also see McQueen’s fascination with historic cutting techniques learned working at theatrical costumer Bermans & Nathans. Speaking of which, the lack of theatre in the first two galleries of the display might surprise but the starkness is still and powerful.
When we arrive in the charnel house gallery Romantic Primitivism the savagery, ingenuity and unsettling materials such as horn, hair and simulated human skin show the designer’s creativity were beginning to emerge unrestrained.
What always struck me about McQueen was that however dark the influences, he still found the beauty. His work was a form of transubstantiation. McQueen could watch Pasolini’s frankly revolting adaptation of de Sade’s Salo or 120 Days of Sodom and create lyrical pieces in which only he could see the references of despoiled youth and sadism.
Though the showpieces are spectacular, I felt some of McQueen’s finest work was on display in the Romantic Nationalism room showcasing Scottish tartan pieces made for his Highland Rape and Widows of Culloden collections. Isn’t it interesting that McQueen was so inspired by feathers? I wonder if Max Ernst’s surreal nude with avian head The Robing of the Bride wasn’t a favourite painting? Anyway, do look out for feathers. You’ll see McQueen’s technique as a couturier in every one of those pieces.
Perhaps it is McQueen’s strength as a designer rather than his savage beauty that shines through in the display. For all the controversy in his lifetime about his depiction and restriction of women, it is evident even in ‘empty’ clothing on display in a museum that these garments are armour for battle ready Amazonian women. There is also a prettiness in Savage Beauty that the designer seems to be more afraid of than his most controversial work. McQueen is much more at home in more aggressive mood and the pretty pieces are thus the outstanding ones.
I didn’t know what to make of the Cabinet of Curiosities room stacked to the ceiling with showpieces such as Shaun’s tubular steel bodice and many of Philip’s marvellous hats as well as screens showing those unforgettable, Grand Guignol catwalk presentations. I don’t want to spoil the show for you by describing any more of it it room-by-room but will say the finale, McQueen’s last completed collection Plato’s Atlantis for S/S 2010, causes pause to consider whether the best was yet to come.
‘What if?’ is such a pointless game to play in fashion as in life. But what if McQueen had conquered his demons? Would the spell have been broken and his creativity merely evaporated like a Grimm fairytale? Of course we’ll never know. Maybe the life Alexander McQueen led was the price for a talent that can fill the V&A. A museum retrospective of this stature wouldn’t have attracted the masses without its subject being relevant beyond the fashion industry.
It is to the House of McQueen’s credit that ‘Lee’ Alexander McQueen be allowed the whole show with no post script of pieces designed by present creative director Sarah Burton. I must say having been to one or two press previews at the V&A that this one set the barre at its highest level for attendance and hysteria. It seemed the world’s print, digital and TV fashion press made a pact to pack themselves as tight as tadpoles.
Having spent no more than thirty minutes in the exhibit I have to conclude that the plague of digital cameras and smartphones has now reached epidemic proportion and must be stopped. It’s bad enough on the streets but as well know fashion people are early adopters of trends and ostentatious in their use of tech. As well as all the rogue bloggers who only saw the exhibition through the prism of a smartphone screen, each gallery was blocked by a million camera crews, tripods and vapid over-made-up anchors from former Baltic states.
When will this lunatic desire to photograph so obsessively end? I must say I now keep my camera phone tucked into my garter like a loaded pistol to be deployed only in emergencies. The reliance on mobile telephones is, of course, nurtured by the telecoms giants who presumably employ a warehouse of PR and marketing wonks to make sure the onanistic urge to put hand around phone and squeeze is irresistible. Do try to resist Rowley!