Following its record-breaking success at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Alexander McQueen exhibition makes its ‘homecoming’ at the V&A, but this exhibition goes well beyond fashion; it takes you down the rabbit hole of McQueen’s dark imagination.
Savage Beauty is an exhibition that eases you into things. It starts where McQueen did, in London, where his father was a taxi driver and McQueen learned the tools of his trade at Central St Martins and on Savile Row.
His talent for the nuts and bolts of fashion design, his technical skill, is on full display from the outset, as beautifully tailored jackets and items made from feathers and slashed leather are shown in the simplest room of the exhibition. The only hint of what’s to come is McQueen’s unmistakably cockney-accented voice, disembodied and echoing around the room.
It is testament to the curator Claire Wilcox’s ambition and talent that the exhibition goes beyond the clothes and into the mind of this beguiling artistic genius. Each room mirrors (and there are plenty of mirrors) a theme from McQueen’s work. You are soon plunged headfirst into the darker aspects of his psyche: a cave of bones and skulls feels like being taken underwater, where clothes inspired by African tribes are displayed to the sound of beating drums.
From here you enter a wood panelled room lifted straight from a Stanley Kubrick movie. The clothes should be dancing around a Victorian masquerade ball, seen through the prism of McQueen’s imagination. Here are the magnificent tartans and Victorian ball gowns that draw upon McQueen’s fascination with British and Scottish heritage. The controversy of his Highland Rape A/W show of 1995 on display, but with the edges firmly sanded off for the V&A audience.
Things then go up in scale, as you enter the central Cabinet of Curiosities, where pieces are piled so high up on four walls that it is impossible to take them all in. Here you get to see many of the famous accessories, including headgear made by Philip Treacy into a mesh of Swarovski crystals, a crown of butterflies and a hand-carved wooden Japanese garden. Your attention is drawn from all angles, particularly by screens showing clips from McQueen’s theatrical catwalk shows. Models walk on water, dance like puppets and are engulfed in flames to the thump of dance music.
A middle room gives a sudden changes of pace, as Kate Moss is conjured from nothing into a twisting, angelic figure, clad in flowing white silk, before contracting back into an exploding star. It’s a neat piece of hologram work, but it doesn’t quite fit within the greater context of the exhibition.
It’s good then that you are thrust back into McQueen’s world, with his Japanese-influenced works set upon twirling mannequins, set deep in mirrored alcoves. The twinkling music and twisting figures gives the impression of walking into a Japanese music box.
Finally, McQueen’s natural designs are given a clean space, with singing birds in the background and hand-stenciled walls of flowers, birds, babies and skulls (nature and death are McQueen’s most enduring, interconnected themes) giving the backdrop to an astounding dress made from silk and dried flowers and a gown made of lacquered razor clam shells.
As can be expected, the final room is an all-out aural assault. It is a tribute to McQueen’s last show, Plato’s Atlantis, and is the coalescence of his creative genius. Fashion, music and video installation combine for a fitting finale to a show that leaves your eyes delighted, your ears ringing and your head spinning.
Until 2 Aug