This week saw the opening of the V&A’s much-lauded exhibition of Alexander McQueen’s life’s work, Savage Beauty, a show which attempts to paint McQueen in all of the forms he appeared throughout his career. The experience is almost overwhelming in its presentation of the designer as a visionary, and I left the press view with lists of adjectives covering every available inch of paper I could reach: perverse, sexual, primitive, distorted, gothic, mourning, melancholy. None of them quite seemed to cover it.
Senior research assistant Kate Bethune worked on the exhibition for around 18 months in the lead up to its opening. “It’s been an absolutely privilege to work on,” she explained to us in a busy corner at the press view yesterday, as the show exhibited in a similar form at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art several years back, there’s a sense that Savage Beauty has now come home. “London was the heart of McQueen’s world,” Kate continued. “He was born here, he was raised in the East End, he attended Central Saint Martins, trained at Savile Row as a tailor and established his fashion label here. It really meant everything to him.”
The first room in the show, entitled the London Gallery, really hammers this point home; it displays McQueen’s very first collection at CSM, the one Isabella Blow would later buy in its entirety and pay off in weekly instalments, to the music of haunting soundbites of his trademark incendiary statements. “Fashion’s so much about kissing arse, and I don’t kiss nobody’s arse,” he says in one followed by a dirty cackle, and “you’ve got to know the rules to break them. That’s what I’m here for, to demolish the rules but keep the tradition.”
If there’s one place the exhibition really succeeds, it’s in letting Lee himself do the talking. His approach was so direct and unafraid of controversy that he strikes straight to the heart of his ideas where other voices might faff about around them. In the wall caption to his Widows of Culloden collection, for example, a quotation explains the reason behind his pride in his Scottish heritage. “It’s been marketed the world over as haggis and bagpipes,” he says, “but no-one ever puts anything back into it. What the British did there was nothing short of genocide.” In this respect, his voice narrates the exhibition, and the museum recognises that he does it better than anybody could.
The show contains more than 240 ensembles and accessories, and eludes photographic content entirely in favour of film and music. The V&A worked closely with Gainsbury & Whiting, the production company who were responsible for collaborating with McQueen on staging his catwalk shows, resulting in a truly immersive experience that leaves the visitor astounded by the wealth of objects on display.
For Kate, the most exciting room is the Cabinet of Curiosities, in which over half of these are displayed from floor to ceiling. The now-legendary dress which was sprayed with paint by two robots in his SS 1999 show rotates in the centre of the room while crowds bustle around it gazing hypnotised at the walls, creating the illusion that you’ve stepped into the centre of a giant music box. “The reason that I like it so much is that it really celebrates the breadth of McQueen’s creative collaboration,” she explains. “Although he was remarkably talented himself, he also recognised talent in others. His collaborations were fundamental in allowing him to realise the entirety of his creative vision.
“The range of materials on display in that room is incredible. We’ve got raffia, balsa wood, glass, metal – he worked with prostheticians, he worked with glass technicians, he worked with welders. That’s what makes McQueen so fascinating to me, the diversity of his collaborations, but also the materials that he rendered his designs in. It wasn’t just fabric.”
But in spite of the number of outfits on display and the highly-finished concepts which support the transition from one room to the next, perhaps the most impactful item on display in the exhibition is Pepper’s Ghost, the hologram which was displayed in the finale to the AW 2006 collection The Widows of Culloden. Placed in a pyramid-like structure in the centre of a large blacked-out room – the only one in which filming and photography are strictly forbidden – the film sees Kate Moss appear in an ethereal construction made entirely of silk organza, turning ghost-like in the air for several minutes, and then disappearing in a cloud of smoke as quickly as she arrives.
In the midst of the busy show, it’s a quiet and reflective reminder of the intensely elusive power McQueen exerted throughout his career. Savage Beauty does a fantastic job of exhibiting every aspect of the work he made, and to the sound of his own voice, too, but it’s also a direct reminder that at the heart of McQueen’s world was an inscrutably enigmatic core. It was the reason for his tragic and premature death five years ago, but it was also the reason for his profoundly prolific life, and there’s no way we could even begin to understand that.