"Don't you find this all slightly..."
"Yes, that's the world. I mean it's fabulous, but...quite oppressive..."
I'm standing next to a complete stranger in front of a glass cabinet containing some of the designs from Alexander McQueen's final unfinished collection, showcased in March 2010, soon after his death. In the background a rather upsetting soundscape keeps on playing and I suspect that, if we weren't surrounded by hundreds of fellow visitors but we were alone and wandering around these same rooms and this event - the "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum - we would have already hugged each other in search of comfort.
On until the end of this week at the V&A, this event - curated by the museum's Senior Curator of Fashion Claire Wilcox and with the Met Museum's Andew Bolton as Consultant Curator - is the edited and remixed version of the exhibition that attracted more than half a million visitors in its only previous outing at the Met Museum in New York (2011), where it became the second most popular show in the history of that museum.
Bigger and better, this version of "Savage Beauty" is magnificently grand, though it remains steeped in darkness, sadness and - well - death. You can actually almost smell the latter from the entrance, once you have gone past the queue outside the building and the queue outside the exhibition space.
McQueen's holographic portrait morphs into a skull at the very entrance, introducing visitors to "London" and "Savage Mind", the first two sections of the exhibition.
The atmosphere here is minimalist, sombre and dark: designs from collections such as "The Birds" (S/S 1995), "Highland Rape" (A/W 1995) and "The Hunger" (S/S1996) are showcased on concrete blocks alongside footage of McQueen's earliest catwalk shows.
Technically speaking these are actually the best sections of the entire exhibition because they show McQueen's passion for demolishing all rules of the tailoring practice and creating new ones. His "bumsters" pants that sat so low on the hips revealing the buttocks are perfect examples of this practice, yet they turn into less compelling designs when compared to the pink satin coat printed in a thorn pattern and lined in white silk with encapsulated human hair from "Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims" (MA Graduation Collection, 1992), to a black cashmere jacket from the "Joan" collection (A/W 1998-99), the jumpsuit from "La Poupée" (S/S 1997) or a pair of kickback trousers matched with a jacket from McQueen's "Dante" collection (A/W 1996).
One of McQueen's statements in this section reads: "Everything I do is based on tailoring. Through cutting I try to draw attention to our unrelenting desire for perfection" and some early pieces actually show more minimalist perfection than others created in later stages of his career.
McQueen's time as apprentice at Anderson & Sheppard and then Gieves & Hawkes in Savile Row, his time as costumier at Berman's and Nathan's cutting clothes for major London theatre shows, and his passion for the collections at the V&A, allowed him to come up with pieces that combined military style with dramatic ideas and an arty twist as well.
So while the gold bullion cord on a black wool felt coat from his "Dante" (A/W 1996–97) collection may derive from uniforms, the slashed openings along the length of a sleeve on another piece come from Renaissance costumes and the disassembled and reassembled image on a silk and cotton twill jacket was borrowed from Robert Campin's "The Thief to the Left of Christ" ("It's a Jungle Out There", A/W 1996-97).
Some of the looks from McQueen's unfinished collection - featured in a glass cabinet (imagine a giant version of the crystal coffins preserving the body of saints in churches and you get the idea) and located in the "Romantic Gothic" section of the exhibition - also borrow from art.
A dress features details from Hieronymus Bosch's "The Temptation of St Anthony" and "Hell" (from the "Garden of Earthly Delights" triptych); another gown is inspired by Hugo van der Goes's "Portinari Triptych" while sections of Stefan Lochner's "Altarpiece of the Patron Saints of Cologne", are printed on a silk satin dress with a duck feathers underskirts and matching kid leather gloves.
The cabinet is surrounded by a series of mainly black dresses and ensembles accompanied by a quote stating "I think there has to be an underlying sexuality. There has to be a perverseness to the clothes. There is a hidden agenda in the fragility of romance. It's like the Story of O. I'm not big on women looking naïve."
Among the designs included in this section there is a dress with pearls and jet beads from the Givenchy Haute Couture "Eclect Dissect" collection (A/W 1997-98); a leather dress with fox fur sleeves and leather harness and a black ensemble entirely made of dyed duck feathers meant to turn the wearer into a sort of hybrid and threatening creature, half-animal and half-bird (both from "The Horn of Plenty" collection, A/W 2009); a black leather dress with collar of red pheasant feathers and resin vulture skulls by Simon Costin ("Eclect Dissect", A/W 1997–98); and the billowing black parachute silk cape from Alexander McQueen's "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" collection (A/W 2002–3) matched with a Philip Treacy hat that looks almost Venetian (the cape is displayed with an air ventilation system that allows visitors to admire the cape in all its voluminous glory).
Rather sadly the setting for the next section - "Romantic Primitivism" - detracts from the craftsmanship. The designs are indeed displayed in niches carved out of plastic recreating the macabre architectures covered in bones, skulls or entire skeletons that you may see in the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini (Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins) in Rome.
While this idea was borrowed from Alexander McQueen's Autumn/Winter 2010 menswear collection that, as you may remember, featured suits covered in prints of bones, rather than looking scary the final effect is quite risible.
If you go to Rome you can indeed see a crypt covered in the real bones of 4,000 capuchin friars, if you step into this section of the exhibition, you can instead see a series of disturbingly beautiful gowns in organic materials such as horn, leather and hair, surrounded by a plastic reproduction of piles of bones.
Tribal inspirations prevail in a bodysuit featuring taxidermy crocodile heads and a pony skin jacket with impala horns protruding from its shoulders (both "It's a Jungle Out There", A/W 1997–98), a yellow glass beads and brown horsehair dress and a dress of beige leather on crinoline of metal wire (both "Eshu", A/W 2000–2001), while the synthetic hair on a coat by Maurizio Anzeri for McQueen twist and coil like black snakes.
Emerging in the "Romantic Nationalism" section will be particularly appreciated by those visitors who felt oppressed and locked in a claustrophobic environment in the previous parts of the exhibition. Concrete and plastic bones morph indeed into wood panelling in this section, evoking a very different mood.
Quite often McQueen borrowed inspiration from history and his own Scottish heritage to come up with quite intricate narratives. The quote that characterises this part of the event - "The reason I'm patriotic about Scotland is because I think it's been dealt a really hard hand. It's marketed the world over as haggis and bagpipes. But no one ever puts anything back into it" (a shame he is not alive to provide us with his views about Scottish independence...) - is instrumental in understanding some of the themes behind his "Highland Rape" (A/W 1995–96) and "Widows of Culloden" (A/W 2006–7) collections.
His dresses incorporating cotton and torn lace or the MacQueen clan wool tartan, nude silk net appliquéd with black lace and an underskirt of cream silk tulle, were indeed
references to the eighteenth-century Jacobite Risings and the nineteenth-century Highland Clearances.
Other pieces in this section - mainly ensembles from "The Girl Who Lived in the Tree" collection (A/W 2008-9) that combined ballet, costumes, British empire uniforms and Indian elements - are inspired by a complex narrative of a feral creature living in a tree (in the garden of McQueen's country home near Fairlight Cove in East Sussex) who decided to descend to earth and was transformed into a princess.
A coat of red silk satin matched with a dress of ivory silk chiffon embroidered with crystal beads takes centre stage in this room, but there are further beautiful pieces here including a jacket of red silk velvet embroidered with gold bullion and trimmed with white shearling and a tulle dress with delicate blood red Swarovski crystals matched with a rose-shaped bolero jacket.
Uplifted by this space, visitors will plunge once again into a condition of desperation and awe as soon as they step into the "Cabinet of Curiosity" room. The original version of this gallery at the Met Museum looked a bit like a big wardrobe. Visitors at the V&A will instead be dwarfed by the huge scale of this section with accessories and dresses neatly displayed on shelves that reach the ceiling.
The sublime feeling of mixed beauty and horror is guaranteed, but this also means visitors will not be able to admire everything as they would like to or without feeling slightly dizzy.
This fetishistic Wunderkammer of horrors features designs - a lilac leather and horsehair dress ("It's Only a Game", S/S 2005); a corset of brown leather matched with a skirt of cream silk lace and prosthetic legs of carved elm wood modelled by world-class Paralympic athlete Aimee Mullins, and a fan-like birch plywood skirt (both from "No. 13", S/S 1999) and the sparkling bell jar dress with Swarovski crystals ("Natural Dis-tinction, Un-Natural Selection", S/S 2009) - but also a selection of accessories.
Among the latter there are rose, coiled and spine corsets, horned backpieces, butterfly and bird's nest headdresses, an orchid shoulder piece, mouth pieces and nose bars, and the infamous armadillo shoes (recently the company produced three new pairs of its Armadillo Boots to raise money for Unicef's Nepal Earthquake Appeal; Lady Gaga obviously snapped a pair of them...) - some of them created in collaboration with milliners Dai Rees and Philip Treacy and jewelers Shaun Leane, Erik Halley, and Sarah Harmarnee.
Tired visitors can have a rest on a circular sofa and admire the white cotton muslin dress spray painted black and yellow by robotic arms while Shalom Harlow modelled it in the finale of the "No. 13" catwalk show (S/S 1999). Those in desperate need for some rest and quietness should instead direct their steps to the next room where the dreamy image of a spirit-like Kate Moss as conjured up at the end of McQueen's Autumn-Winter 2006-07 catwalk show has been recreated with a Victorian technique that employs projectors and mirrors. This is a sort of palate (and eye) cleanser zone before visitors embark in the final journey of the event.
"Romantic Exoticism" chronicles the global influences and inspirations that McQueen combined in his pieces. There is a lot of magic and exquisite craftsmanship in quite a few of these designs: the rugby player-meets-geisha ensemble from "It's Only a Game" (S/S 2005), consisting in a bodysuit and obi-style sash of lilac silk satin and chiffon embroidered with silk thread and fiberglass shoulder pads and helmet painted with Japanese koi fish, blue-and-white waves and snow-capped mountains, may look a bit costumy, but there are a few designs from the "Voss" (S/S 2001) collection such as an overdress of panels from a nineteenth-century Japanese silk screen and underdress of oyster shells matched with a neckpiece of silver and Tahiti pearls, and a jacket of pink and gray wool bird's-eye embroidered with silk thread matched with an imposing headdress embroidered with silk thread and decorated with amaranthus, that genuinely convey the romantic madness of exoticism.
Further designs from the same collection, including the dress with roundels in the shape of chrysanthemums embroidered with red, gold, and black silk thread with black ostrich feathers, are locked in a glass cabinet that reminds of the two-way mirrored box included in the "Voss" fashion show that closed with a strange apparition of the fetish writer Michelle Olley recreating a photograph of Joel-Peter Witkin entitled "Sanitarium" (1983), and portraying an obese woman connected via a breathing tube to a stuffed monkey.
McQueen was always fascinated by unconventional ideals of beauty in his collections and the next section, "Romantic Naturalism" explores these ideas through crafts, patterns and materials.
In these designs nature is a beautiful mother, but also a terrible and cruel lover, so the gowns (from "Voss", S/S 2001, and "Sarabande", S/S 2007) in this part of the exhibition tell darkly beautiful stories: there is a razor clam dress, rotting flowers are trapped in tulle, delicate decorations are made of tiny and soft feathers, while a bodice is moulded with breasts but looks like a man's torso.
Though the exhibition opened with death, it closes with life and with "Plato's Atlantis" (S/S 2010): hybrid monsters in digitally printed silk satin mini-dresses replicating images of coral reef or donning the snake dress made with the fil coupé technique matched with armadillo shoes embroidered with iridescent enamel sequins or footwear with 3D-printed monster-like elements and metallic parts that may have been stolen from a rusty submarine, stand in front of a screen on which a film by Nick Knight's SHOWstudio is projected (further films included in the shows are by Ruth Hogben).
"And then we emerged to see the stars again", the final words from Dante's Inferno will come to the mind of many visitors as they find the exit doors that lead out of this sublimely frightening experience.
Catharsis is not achieved, though, as, rather than emerging into the light, visitors will step into the exhibition shop that sells exclusive silk scarves covered in skulls, tote bags and shirts, expensive clutches and an interior design object shaped like an armadillo boot. Affordable yet risible souvenirs include overpriced needles, tailor's chalk and thimbles.
And this is when, as a visitor, you open your eyes and realise that, beyond the beauty and the tragedy, beyond the opulence and the depression, there is one upsetting truth - the exhibition is more or less cashing in on a myth, a legend and an icon, knowing it will be probably impossible to produce another one in the next decade or so.
The event will indeed go down in history as the fashion exhibit that broke all the records in Europe: over 350,000 people have visited the exhibition so far and, for the first time in its 163-year-long history, the V&A left its doors open for 24 hours a day to cope with demand for tickets last weekend (the experiment will be replicated this weekend from today until the closing day, Sunday, when doors will shut at 11.00 p.m.).
This shouldn't surprise you as "Savage Beauty" is mesmerising and visitors are under a spell from the beginning to the end, thanks to its mix of garments that sculpt and mould the female body or that cruelly and dramatically torture it.
There is one piece of criticism that should be moved to the event, though, and that's the fact that (apart from cashing in on death) it lacks historical and cultural context: while everything is beautifully arranged, we are not provided with the historical background in which McQueen rose to fame, but, funnily enough, the V&A has created an informative site on which some interesting and intriguing connections (that do not appear in the exhibition) between its own collections and McQueen's works are made.
Everything in "Savage Beauty" is there to visually and dramatically struck visitors but not to teach them much about him (two captions in the "Romantic Nationalism" room are even inverted but no visitors seem to notice it...). To prove it, while I visited I bumped into an elderly lady who told her husband in a surprised tone "...and this was all done in 40 years!", without realising that McQueen died at 41, so it was all done in less than 20 years actually.
Who's to blame, though? Well, you can definitely feel the pressure of some of the sponsors (the exhibition has been made possible with the cooperation of Alexander McQueen and is in partnership with Swarovski; supported by American Express; with thanks to M·A·C Cosmetics; and technology partner Samsung) and you wonder if the Gucci group, owners of Alexander McQueen, was instrumental in deciding to locate a dress or an accessory so high up in the ceiling that it is humanly impossible to admire, almost to remind us all that fashion is elitist and, even if we pay to see an exhibition, we're still not worthy to see everything on display.
As for McQueen, death has made him immortal and erased the most controversial aspects of his life, but hasn't necessarily made people more knowledgeable about his work (you can still do so by reading books about him). As veneration was created out of desperation, though, many people have forgotten that maybe the fashion industry is partially responsible for McQueen's death. Quite tragicomically, organisers never realised that in life he couldn't reconcile the beauty of what he created with the low quality of what was on sale in the shops in his name, a dichotomy perfectly recreated in the exhibition and the shop outside it selling souvenirs.
You wonder what will be the next step of McQueen's mania, letting the exhibition travel to other countries or maybe coming up with a McQueen amusement park, a sort of immense haunted house where his vision will live on in a Disneyland-like style? Difficult to say, but what we can tell is that "Savage Beauty" doesn't show us the future of fashion, but the future of museums and exhibitions.
From now on big names, leviathan-like events (supported with clever PR skills and plenty of advanced publicity) where craft, beauty and kitsch mix with awe-inspiring sets and massive sponsors will be the rule and insightful and informative small shows, eye-openers about other designers, artists and creative minds will probably have to be forgotten in the name of calculated marketing strategies.
For the time being go to "Savage Beauty" and enjoy it for one last weekend and in dark nocturnal times. But, remember: just look at the beauty and the horror, and avoid buying tailor's needles or chalk for £4.00.
"Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" is at London's V&A until 2nd August 2015. Night tickets are available from today to the close of the exhibit at 11.00 p.m.
Image credits for this post
Images 1 - 26 Courtesy V&A London
1. Duck feather dress, "The Horn of Plenty", A/W 2009-10. Model Magdalena Frackowiak, represented by DNA Model Management, New York. Image firstVIEW.
2 - 3. Victoria & Albert Museum, London, by Anna Battista.
4. Installation view of "London" gallery, "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" at the V&A.
5. Installation view of '"Savage Mind" gallery, "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" at the V&A.
6. Jacket, "It's a Jungle Out There", A/W 1997-8. Image firstVIEW.
7. Installation view of "Romantic Gothic" gallery, "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" at the V&A.
8. Installation view of "Romantic Primitivism" gallery, "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" at the V&A.
9. Installation view of "Romantic Nationalism" gallery, "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" at the V&A.
10, 11, 12. Installation view of "Cabinet of Curiosities" gallery, "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" at the V&A.
13. Butterfly headdress of handpainted turkey feathers Philip Treacy for Alexander McQueen, "La Dame Bleu", S/S 2008. Copyright Anthea Sims.
14. Shalom Harlow, "No. 13" catwalk show (S/S 1999).
15. Installation view of "Romantic Exoticism" gallery, "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" at the V&A.
16. Installation view of "Voss", "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" at the V&A.
17. Tahitian pearl neckpiece, Shaun Leane for Alexander McQueen, "Voss", S/S 2001. Copyright Anthea Sims.
18. "It's Only a Game", S/S 2005. Image firstVIEW.
19. Installation view of "Romantic Naturalism" gallery, "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" at the V&A.
20. Razor clam shells dress, "Voss", S/S 2001. Model Erin O'Connor. Image firstVIEW.
21. Installation view of "Plato's Atlantis" gallery. "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" at the V&A.
22. Jellyfish ensemble and Armadillo shoes, "Plato's Atlantis", S/S 2010. Model Polina Kasina. Lauren Greenfield Institute.
23. Portrait of Alexander McQueen 1997.
24, 25, 26. Skull Pashmina Scarf and Skull Black Tote, Created exclusively for the V&A Shop; Reptilla Print "De Manta" Clutch.
27. "Unfallen Angels II", 2009 © Ann Ray / Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
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