Zing Tsjeng | Contributing Writer | Saturday, 14 March 2015

Why Everyone’s Gone Wild for Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty

Why Everyone’s Gone Wild for Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty

The Debrief: So what’s the fuss about?

In case you haven’t heard, a little show called Savage Beauty opens at the V&A in London this week. Scratch that, you probably definitely have heard – the Alexander McQueen retrospective has already been one of the museum’s most successful shows in its history. Over 70,000 advance tickets have already been bought. The show sold out in its first record-breaking run, and had to add 50,000 extra tickets to meet demand alone. 

So what’s the fuss about? If early reviews are anything to go by, it’s a showstopper. And they’re right: this isn’t your average museum exhibition with wordy academic descriptions and a nice gift shop at the end. You can’t go for a nice cup of tea and a cake after this. Instead, you are spat out the other end feeling solemn, shaken and awed. The Metropolitan Museum of Art may have been the first to show Savage Beauty, but as V&A director Martin Roth put it at the opening, ‘Lee McQueen is coming home’ with this exhibit. 

Alexander McQueen, Savage Beauty, V & A

A quintessential Londoner through and through, McQueen once said that he dreamed of being trapped in the V&A for a whole night. The V&A have repaid the compliment by staging his groundbreaking work with all the richness it deserves. Everywhere you look, there’s something to fascinate and repel, delight and disgust – from a 3D hologram of Kate Moss in a fluttering gown to fearsome leather bodices and the freakish armadillo heels beloved by Lady Gaga.

The whole show consists of four rooms, tracing McQueen’s evolution from his 1992 MA graduate collection all the way through his final collection, Plato’s Atlantis, which McQueen described as depicting a ‘future in which the ice cap would melt, the waters would rise and life on earth would have to evolve in order to live beneath the sea once more’. 

That alone gives you a sense of McQueen’s boundless imagination. In an industry now governed by numbers – how much you sell, how many Instagram followers you have, how many collections you can pump out in a year – this ‘big mouth, East End yob’ (as he described himself) appealed to something deeper and primal. His clothes were astounding in their technical perfection, but even the most high-tech fabric needs a beating heart to make it come alive. That’s exactly what McQueen provided. When you stand inches away from garments like this floor-length gown entirely covered with pheasant feathers, you almost feel like you’re in the presence of a living, breathing creature. 

Alexander McQueen, Savage Beauty, V & A

Those he worked with, including current McQueen designer Sarah Burton, speak of his total, fearless commitment to his vision. For a shoot with Dazed, he wanted to shoot three naked models half-buried in a mountain of decaying fruit and rotting pig’s heads. Photographer Norbert Schoerner remembers the designer was ‘running around smashing watermelons on set to add to the pile’. In Savage Beauty, you see that most in the Cabinet of Curiosities, its spectacular penultimate room. 

As Shalom Harlow’s iconic spraypainted white dress from his spring/summer 1999 show revolves in the centre of the space, you’re hit with the sight of no less than 120 pieces in the double-height room, each one stacked in a boxy frame on top of the other. If there’s anything in the show that brings home the dizzying scale and height of his imagination, it’s this. 

Karl Lagerfeld once said that fashion was far from art, and designers should stop pretending to be artists. ‘If you want to do art, then show it in a gallery,’ he sniffed. Savage Beauty shows that you can do both – but it’s a rare designer like Alexander McQueen who can pull it off. 

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Tags: Getting Ready, Artists