If you asked me what I knew about Alexander McQueen a few months ago, I would have said that he was famous for designing strange clothes that didn’t seem particularly practical. When Savage Beauty opened at the V&A the media hype was great so I was curious to find out what the fuss was about.
At the time Alexander McQueen was also on the shortlist to appear on the next £20 banknote. The public nominated visual artists who they believe helped to shape British thought, innovation, leadership, values and society so it appeared he was held in high regard as an artist.
Alexander McQueen was born in Lewisham, East London, the youngest of six children. He developed an interest in fashion early in his life and started making dresses for his sister at a young age. He wasn’t very academic and left school with hardly any qualifications and decided to apply for an apprenticeship at a Savile Row tailors. Savile Row is a name synonymous with masculine elegance, time-honoured tradition and discreet luxury and this is where Alexander McQueen learnt tailoring which would become the backbone of his designs. He was persuaded to attend Central St Martins, which is one of the leading centres for art and design courses and graduated with a Masters in Fashion Design.
McQueen earned a reputation for being controversial but he gained recognition for his lavish, unconventional runway shows. He became known as “the hooligan of English fashion”. As he famously said “Give me time and I’ll give you a revolution”.
The exhibition is spread over ten rooms, each exploring a particular theme from McQueen’s body of work. The themes were:
- London – The early history
- Savage Mind – The romantic tailor
- Gothic – Masquerade and the macabre
- Primitivism – The noble savage
- Nationalism – History and identity
- Cabinet of Curiosity
- Exoticism – The other and Japan
- Naturalism – The evolution and the organic
Each room provides a sensory overload. You will see feathers, dying roses, bones and skulls. Nothing was off limits for McQueen. The dress worn by Erin O’Connor for the spring/summer 2001 collection Voss was on display. Made completely out of clamshells, it is a good example of how McQueen could turn any material into a fashion statement.
The Cabinet of Curiosity is the centrepiece of the exhibition. Filled with accessories either designed by McQueen or contributed by other designers, it showcases the weird and the wonderful. In this room you will find the dress worn by Shalom Harlow in the spring/summer 1999 runway show No.13. In the show Shalom walked out in a plain white dress. She stood on a platform that rotated and two programmed robots sprayed black and yellow paint over the dress instantly creating a unique one of a kind Alexander McQueen creation.
In all his designs his skilful tailoring is apparent even to the untrained eye. His tailored jackets are beautiful and the attention to detail and quality is outstanding. Alexander McQueen said:
“You’ve got to know the rules to break them. That’s what I’m here for, to demolish them but keep the tradition”
“I want to empower women. I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.”
Although many of his creations are not designed to be worn to the pub on a Sunday afternoon, they push the boundaries of fashion, challenged and inspired many. I left the exhibition with a greater appreciation of Alexander McQueen’s talent.