The V&A Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty exhibition was the most popular in its history. We attended the event to pay tribute to a brilliant fashion designer.
V&A Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty Review
British fashion designer, Alexander McQueen is of Scottish descent, the son of a taxi driver and raised in East London. Sadly, he committed suicide on the eve of his mother’s funeral in February 2010.
He left a legacy of a progressive, challenging and thriving eponymous fashion house. Alongside his reputation for creating fashion akin to works of art.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York originally showed Savage Beauty in 2011 following his death. It quickly became one of the top ten they’ve ever housed.
Now, five years on from his passing, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London revived the exhibition to celebrate his life’s work. Its 21-week run ended this month as the most popular in its history.
The event held from 14 March - 2 August 2015 saw 493,043 people in attendance. It was also the first V&A exhibition in their 163 years to open through the night.
We were some of those people and like many have admired and been inspired by the work of Alexander McQueen. As Savage Beauty has ended we look back at the career of a wonderful man and his work.
Alexander McQueen Biography
Famed fashion designer, Alexander McQueen, left school at the age of 15 to become a tailor's apprentice. His early training took place in Savile Row at Anderson and Sheppard from 1984 to 1988. There he learnt to cut jackets before moving on to Gieves & Hawkes where he perfected cutting trousers.
These expertise were reflected in his work as he said, “Everything I do is based on tailoring.” This aspect of his design has been marvelled at for his innate skill and precision.
In 1991 Alexander McQueen joined the Fashion Design MA at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. It’s an institution of the industry in London. Notable former fashion students of the university also include John Galliano, Jimmy Choo and Stella McCartney.
Then in 1992 Alexander McQueen showed his graduate collection Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims. It’s clear in retrospect how strong McQueen’s vision was as many of the themes were perpetuated throughout his work. The title alone proves confrontational, gothic and rooted in the past.
This fashion line gained Alexander McQueen immediate attention. Fashion stylist and eccentric Isabella Blow bought the entire collection. Thus began their working relationship up until her suicide in 2007.
Alexander McQueen’s theatrical staging of fashion shows and unconventional designs also fuelled his reputation. Whilst, garments like the revealing “bumster” trousers led to the mainstream fashion trend of low-rise jeans.
Then in 1996 he was appointed the Creative Director of Givenchy, following on from John Galliano. He had a tenuous start with the brand and toned down his rebelliousness before leaving in 2001.
During his tenure, however, he still managed to make some waves. He notoriously featured double-amputee, Aimee Mullins. Then for SS99 he had a singular model, Shalom Harlow, sprayed with paint by robots.
Alexander McQueen VOSS
It was then that he launched his eponymous fashion line to immense celebration with VOSS for spring/summer 2001. The dramatic scene began with a mirrored box.
The audience at the Alexander McQueen show sat for an hour looking at their own reflections before the walls began to fall away. They let loose moths before dramatically smashing on the ground.
In the centre of the box was a naked model on a chaise lounge wearing a gas mask. The striking imagery was based on Joel Peter Witkin’s Sanitarium.
Its aim was to reflect the fashion industry back on itself and subvert its depictions of beauty. The model he chose was curvaceous British writer, Michelle Olley, and it went down in history.
He made fashion shows into a work of art in themselves. They were cinematic with a depth of intertextuality. He would later be one of the first designers to stream their fashion shows online. This combination changed the landscape and its effects can still be felt today.
Alexander McQueen Designs
Alexander McQueen's designs were known for being challenging and part of that was the paradoxes and politics. There was his evident Scottish nationalism and contrasting love of London.
He said, “London’s where I was brought up. It’s where my heart is and where I get my inspiration.” Yet, he tackled horrific points in Scottish history like his Widows of Culloden (autumn/winter 2006–7).
Alexander McQueen could exhibit the spirit of the primitive whilst focusing on the modern. This particular mix produced his ability to capture and define a moment in the industry.
Alexander McQueen said, “You’ve got to know the rules to break them. That’s what I’m here for, to demolish the rules but to keep the tradition.” A theme that is clearly still with the fashion house today.
Then there was his continuous references to sadomasochism which in itself contrasts the dominant and the submissive. The latter willingly giving power to the former and the former relishing it.
This mix of concepts and the political often called into question whether Alexander McQueen put too much of himself in his designs. Too much to leave room for the woman. Yet, there's a military aspect to his style, an armour, of strong women being protected.
Finally, Alexander McQueen’s arguably strongest theme was Romanticism and within that, the power of nature. Its abilities and threat were portrayed with wonder and fear particularly in his fashion shows.
Alexander McQueen didn’t just create clothes, he tackled big concepts on a large scale and pushed boundaries. The V&A Savage Beauty exhibition focused less on his life and more on his life’s work. Their curation let the clothes speak for themselves.
It continued to illustrate the sublime and spectacle and tried to harness the fashion designer’s imagination. Ultimately what shone through was craftsmanship, creativity and the macabre.
If you missed the wonderful V&A Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty exhibition here are some of our favourite images.
(Main image from WSJ)