For months I waited impatiently to go and see Alexander McQueen’s ‘Savage Beauty’ exhibition at the V&A. By the time we finally got around to booking tickets, I’d heard great things from many people so expectations were very high. Nothing could have prepared me for just how stunning it actually was. Everything from the clothing to the layout to the digital visuals and the music was perfect. A compelling, dark and inspiring experience.
Stepping into a dimly lit space, the set up included quotations and descriptions of McQueen’s story alongside the highly experimental designs that make up his earliest work. You get a sense that his inspirations have a gruesome and troubling undertone – if the collection title, ‘Highland Rape,’ didn’t make it clear enough…
From here, the room opened out to the next area revealing McQueen’s transition into tailoring. Unlike his previous collection, this work showcases highly technical skills, gained from his training at Saville Row. His fascination with Victoriana is evident in the cut of the clothing and extends further with garment labels including locks of hair – a Victorian tailor tradition. This detail was a recurring theme hidden inside many of McQueen’s designs.
Moving on from his graduate work, the next room exhibits outfits from several collections displaying the merging of his experimental and technical skills into beautifully made, extravagant designs. Of course, the underlying theme is still morbid and the colour palette mostly black. The silhouettes are dramatic and powerful, the materials gothic and the details meticulous.
The atmosphere and extravagance continues to build with every new room you step into, each one meant to create a full experience. In the next room, the most notable development is the addition of colour and an ethereal atmosphere. An opulent glass cabinet holds five stunning outfits from McQueen’s last season collection. It’s amazing to think that these pieces were only 80% complete at the time of his death, courageously taken over by his right-hand designer Sarah Burton, who took on the challenge of realising McQueen’s final vision.
After tearing myself away from staring at the lavish gold feather gown and crystal embellished shoes, I found myself travelling back into moodier depths in the form of a dark cave made from skulls and bones. Here there was a primitive theme exploring predator and prey using natural fabrics such as fur and leather. These designs display expert textile manipulation in the form of weathered beading, distressed fabrics and raw hems. A beautiful pink fur, animal-skin dress had been cut away and worked into with floral embroidery and embellishment and was one of my favourite pieces within the exhibition.
Another theme that makes a return is England’s ruining of Scotland. More refined than, ‘Highland Rape,’ the collection, ‘Widows of Culloden,’ continues to explore McQueen’s Scottish patriotism in the form of the Mac Queen Tartan. The overall aesthetic is far more romantic with compliments of elegant lace.
Opposite this is a glamorous array of Indian inspired designs from, ‘The Girl Who Lived in the Tree.’ Experimenting with ideas of monarchy, this collection portrays how Britain’s identity has been shaped by other countries. The Indian references come through in the Sari draping and lavish head pieces.
At this point, I didn’t think that anything could surprise me more than it already had. And then I entered The Cabinet of Curiosities…
This huge, futuristic-looking, black space was made up of numerous alcoves filled with accessories, jewellery and one-off pieces made for the catwalk shows. I didn’t know where to look first! Luckily, a central seating area had been created so you could spend some time taking it all in.
Large screens played footage from the shows that the pieces had been used in and the famous spray paint dress from Spring/Summer 1999 twirled in the centre of the room. Amongst all this I also spied the butterfly headdress made by Philip Treacy for 2008’s ‘La Dame Bleu.’
A few awe inspired minutes later, I moved on to another darkened room where everyone had gathered around what seemed like nothing. A few seconds later, specks of light started to appear in the centre of the space, slowly growing until they formed a holographic image of an ethereal Kate Moss floating in a white, ruffled organza gown.
After Kate vanished into thin air, we moved on to a room devoted to McQueen’s interest in Eastern cultures. Exquisite embroidery using Japanese motifs and fabrics is juxtaposed against American styles such as the football helmut and shoulder pads. These designs were a lot more playful and lighthearted in pastel colours.
Next to this was the famous glass box from ‘Voss,’ featuring a recreation of the trapped models from the show whilst footage played in the background.
Nearing the end of the exhibition, romanticism was at its height. The lighthearted feel continued into dreamlike creations in the form of roses, tulle and organza. I especially loved the floral gown, originally made from real roses and recreated in silk for the exhibition as well as the clam shell dress. The whole room conveyed McQueen’s appreciation for the beauty and fragility of nature.
The final show space was colourful, futuristic and full of energy. The collection entitled, ‘Platos Atlantis,’ explores the notion that humans will have to mutate in order to survive in the sea during the deterioration of the planet. Sleek silver mannequins wore digitally printed outfits with signature McQueen Armadillo heels. I particularly liked the reptilian scales that were recreated through acrylic embellishments.
Looking back at the journey that McQueen took, you can clearly see how much he developed as a designer. His daringly creative ideas and raw energy saw him become a world renowned talent. It doesn’t come as a surprise that this last collection is regarded by many as McQueen’s greatest achievement.
The exhibition is open until 2nd August 2015. If you haven’t already been, I strongly recommend it! Pictures cannot fully illustrate how impressive his work is.