Alexander McQueen's Savage Beauty Exhibition at the V&A, London
“You’ve got to know the rules to break them. That’s what I’m here for, to demolish the rules but to keep the tradition.” Alexander McQueen.
- 2nd August 2015
In case you hadn't heard, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London is playing host to the late British fashion designer and couturier Alexander McQueen's designs. The Costume Institute have put on this show to honour the Londoner whose designs challenged contemporary politics, culture and art as he sought to "break down barriers". In his promotion of the freedom of thought McQueen defined himself as a hero to rebels and romantics alike. From Central St Martins to the runways, his philosophies and sense of integrity remained consistent as he gained the respect of the fashion world from the beginning.
The friend guiding me (a designer at McQueen) spoke of how he had stood amidst waves of grief, echoing throughout the Paris Fabric Fair back in 2009, when word spread of McQueen's suicide. He was adored by such a broad spectrum of people as illustrated by the photographs from the exhibition's opening night party. Images of London's glitterati dressed in some of his most provocative creations dominated our screens for days, but I am more interested in the man behind the collections, which challenged the foundations of fashion itself. From the Romantic Gothic to Romantic Primitivism and Romantic Exoticism, his vision was clear, but aesthetically his collections couldn't have been more diverse.
What I love about McQueen's collections is that they all began with a concept, a broad notion, which is developed through the use of storyboards as he took inspiration from film, photography, art and popular culture. My beloved Dress Sarabande, 2007 was made from nude silk organza and then adorned with both silk and freshly cut flowers, thus exemplifying the craftsmanship behind his label. With each collection, he presented a fresh look.
From futuristic alien pieces to tartan dreamscapes, androgynous tailoring and feathers, his imagination was boundless. It is so rare to come across a designer who was so observant of the world around him, who saw beauty in the most mundane aspects of everyday life. This exhibition captures his ability to do exactly that. Pieces like the Widows of Culloden, 2006 were labours of love, adorned with swarovski crystals and tartan patterns, which referenced his Scottish heritage. In his own way he saw his work as biographical, as representative of his own emotional highs and lows. Interestingly the exhibition is filled with so many mirrors and reflective surfaces, that the experience was equally introspective, with the intense music making it all seem oddly meditative.
McQueen was forever intrigued by nature, drawing from it like an Impressionist, because its spontaneity fascinated him. As he famously said, “I have always loved the mechanics of nature and to a greater or lesser extent my work is always informed by that.” Like so many visual artists he found the weather to be intensely powerful as a point of reference. Known for his own stormy moods, it proved to be one of the only things as dramatic as his own personality.
Like the masters of Romanticism in Great Britain, he communicated the sublime, using fashion as his medium to illustrate fear, lust and pain. He described his fascination with sublimity, saying, “People find my things sometimes aggressive. But I don’t see it as aggressive. I see it as romantic, dealing with a dark side of personality.” There's no doubt that he was caught up in that dark, 19th century Romanticism, which I also find to be somewhat bewitching. However, additions like Joel Peter Witkins's Sanitorium, 1983 pushed the limits of most audience members and illustrated the darkness within McQueen's mind.
He was adored by iconic muses like Kate Moss and Isabella Blow, who channelled his empowerment of women as they wore his creations with pride. Having suffered greatly in his childhood, he was known to have a fearsome manner and it's thought that he made his clothes like armour for women to protect them against the perils of modern life. He wanted people to feel afraid of the women he dressed, rather than simply augment their beauty.
He said, "fashion should be a form of escapism, not of imprisonment." In this way he naturally channelled the common perception of beauty as his clothes moved against the female form rather than complementing it. Quite simply, he found, "beauty in the grotesque," so naturally, his audience developed strong opinions of his work - in both directions. Once you've wandered through the exhibition, there's no denying that McQueen was a veritable luminary. I have no doubt that his legacy will live on in his brand, but also in the changes he made to both the perception of women in the fashion world and the inspiration he gives to young designers who will continue look to his provocative works.
Written by Flora Alexandra Ogilvy, founder of Arteviste.com