At the end of May, my friend and I visited the Alexander McQueen exhibition ‘Savage Beauty’ at the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington. In Europe, this is the first and largest retrospective display of his work. Before attending the exhibition, my knowledge of him and his designs was fairly limited although I knew of his infamous signature skull scarves. Sadly I couldn’t afford a genuine scarf and even if I could, I’m not sure it is really my style but I managed to find a cheap version in Torza boutique in Petts Wood so wore this to the exhibition as my tribute to his work and influence on the fashion world.
Alexander McQueen was born in Lewisham in 1969 and was the youngest of six children. His father was a taxi driver and his mother, a teacher. He began his career as an apprentice at a tailor’s on Saville Row and once said ‘I spent a long time learning how to construct clothes, which is important to do before you can deconstruct them’. His tailoring skills were exceptional and he went on to study an MA in Fashion at London’s Central St Martin’s. He used revolutionary cuts which led to his famous ‘bumster’ trousers in 1996 which were cut provocatively low. At the exhibition I was quite taken by a simple smart pair of smart black trousers which had large turn ups secured with buttons – I’m thinking I might try to copy these if my sewing skills are up to it, or should I say if Mum’s are! Isabella Blow, an influential fashion designer bought his entire graduate collection. He went on to be chief designer at Givenchy and established his own label. He gained a CBE and won numerous fashion awards. He hung himself 9 days after his mother’s death, having taken an overdose. He was a huge loss to the fashion world and tributes flooded in. A memorial service was held at St Paul’s some 7 months after his death and more than 2500 stars including actresses and models were invited, including my idol, Sarah Jessica Parker.
Many of his designs I find too outrageous – not that I could afford them anyhow, but I would love to own a pair of his shoes from his fashion house’s newest collection which are pictured below. No one can deny that his ambition to be remembered as starting the fashion of the 21st century, was realised.
His designs were extremely influential and often challenged societal views. As he himself commented ‘you’ve got to know the rules to break them.’ His work was more art than fashion and he frequently chose to juxtaposition things to show there was beauty in the ugly, hence the exhibition title ‘Savage Beauty’. His work would paradoxically place death and life, happiness and sadness etc. His fashion tended to be expressive of his own fluctuating mood and sometimes a little on the risqué side in its provocative nature. He was strongly influenced by Victorian gothic, Japan and Scotland. There was a whole range of Tartan at the exhibition, some of which had Victoriana lace embellishments.
The exhibition was a mix of his clothes, shoes and accessories as well as recreating some of the theatrics that had been seen at his fashion shows in the past. There was one room with bones adorning the walls and it contained outfits made of leather, pony skin and even a top with crocodile heads on the shoulders.
Another room contained shelving with clothes, shoes and accessories interspersed with TV screens showing the catwalk shows and in the centre of the room were seats to sit and soak up the atmosphere as well as the strapless white dress which was famously jetted with black and green paint by robots as the model twirled on the stage at his spring/summer 1999 show; the audience had seen fashion being created before their eyes.
Another room has a smaller version of the prism with a floating ghostly hologram of Kate Moss that was the finale at the Paris 2006 show which is accompanied by some very moving music from the film Schindler’s List. One of his other dramatic displays, the glass box which was part of his VOSS collection in spring/summer 2001 was recreated at this exhibition. There was a two way mirrored box which at the start the audience can see the reflection of themselves in. The show then begins and reflections can no longer be seen but the models we can see can’t see out of the box. The display finishes with an obese woman apparently hooked up to life support and there is the errie bleeping of a hospital machine. McQueen was again challenging our ideas of what is beautiful and suggesting that beauty is within us all.
He was greatly influenced by nature and this was probably his most enduring theme. Perhaps he saw Mother Nature as the greatest of designers. He used prints based on sea creatures in his Plato’s Atlantis spring/summer 2010. Another very intricate piece was a coat made of duck feathers which were painted gold. My favourite piece in the entire exhibition was a butterfly headdress made of hand painted turkey feathers for spring/summer 2008 which was a result of his collaboration with Philip Treacy. In the shop at the museum I bought a hairclip which is a replica of one of the butterflies.
Exactly what was going on in McQueen’s head will never be known but this exhibition gives a pretty good insight into some of his thoughts and influences. There is no doubt that he was an exceptionally talented man with a troubled mind who wanted to push the boundaries of what society deemed acceptable. As he said himself ‘everyone has a dark side they sometimes try to hide…I guess that makes it more attractive.’ The show runs until 2nd August and has to be seen to be fully appreciated especially as photographs are banned (I managed a couple of cheeky shots though!)
My friend and I finished our day with a visit to the 5th floor of Harvey Nichols where we enjoyed a cocktail and then headed to Burger and Lobster. I have never been to this restaurant before and as the name suggests, the only choices on the menu are burger and lobster. Whichever of these you chose, the price is £20. This does seem rather steep for a burger but I have to admit it was one of the best burgers ever. The waiter indulged us with a free glass of Prosecco each to celebrate my friend purchasing a new home. It was a true day of luxury.