Savage Beauty, a major exhibition, opens on March 14. It’s a reprise of the original event staged at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2011. At the same time, a photography exhibition by Nick Waplington with never-before-seen backstage images of McQueen’s last show Horn of Plenty opens in Tate Britain on March 10. There’s also a week dedicated to him on SHOWstudio.com with videos and films for project Unseen McQueen. SHOWstudio founder and director Nick Knight was a long-term collaborator with McQueen and a close friend and will be uncovering footage from 1997, when they first worked together for the Florence Biennale.
The Savage Beauty exhibition at the Met back in 2011 was open until midnight the last weekend of the exhibition in New York, already after being extended by a full week. More than 66,000 people visited from May to August. The original show featured all McQueen’s extraordinary contributions to fashion, from his Central Saint Martins postgraduate collection in 1992 to his final runway show, staged after his suicide in February 2010. It constitutes of over 200 ensembles and accessories from a 19-year career.
“London’s where I was brought up. It’s where my heart is and where I get my inspiration.”
– Alexander McQueen, January 2000
The narrative; the story, is what McQueen really cared about. He learnt to employ the narrative in his designs after completing the MA Fashion course at Central Saint Martins. His graduate collection in 1992, named Jack the Ripper, was bought in its entirety by stylist and Vogue editor, Isabella Blow. All of his collections and shows where focused around a theme, which was later built upon all the inspirations; from film, music, art and last came the designing of the clothes. He often said that he didn’t care whether you liked his collections or not, as long as you felt something. His clothes go far beyond being practical, they often became an armour for women, even though they have been criticised for being misogynistic. He challenged the boundaries in a way that very few designers have done before or since: that’s why his work is considered so important. His work was a fusion of tailoring and couture dressmaking, as well as his personal musings and personality. A fundamental experience for him early in his creative development, was working for Koji Tatsuno, best known for his experimental use of materials and vintage garments. Also very important in his career was his Saville Row education, where he started as an apprentice at the age of 16.
McQueen’s shows were always unique – a true spectacle. They were staged by production company Gainsbury & Whiting. He was one of the first designers to live stream his catwalk show, back in 2009. It was executed with the help of another important creative – imagemaker Nick Knight and filmmaker Ruth Hogben. Another highlight from his shows has to be the hologram of Kate Moss in his A/W 2006 show Widows of Culloden, which is also featured in the London exhibition in its own room.
McQueen had a deep love for women. Cliche as it might sound, he wanted to empower them and make them look sexy. Daphne Guinness, artist and old friend, commented in Alexander McQueen: Fashion Visionary (by Judith Watt): “He loved women, really adored them – and not just for their statuesque beauty, but for our fragility as well as our strength, our ghosts and demons alongside our accomplishments. I always felt that when Lee looked at you, he saw the vulnerabilities in an instant and nodded to them, drinking in a sense of who you were.”
He was innovative and inventive even in the 1990s, when he introduced the low rise “bumster” trousers, reintroduced tailoring for women with his frock coat, and experimented with the silhouette and proportions with padding and spiral-cutting. Everything he did was based on tailoring, his first point of creation, linked to his early work experience on Savile Row. His inspiration was often connected to his English/Scottish background and heritage, so it important for this retrospective to return to McQueen’s birthplace.
“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
McQueen often visited the V&A, as he was obsessed with historical costume and British history; he once said he would like to get locked in overnight. He drew inspiration from everything around him, which is also why he was such a visionary – Victorian London, Gothic films, nature, the Far East, as well as films. Everything he did was very personal — a personal narrative always prepared to court controversy.
The retrospective exhibition focuses and explores the ideas and concepts central to McQueen’s work including subversive tailoring, Gothic sensibility, and the play between light and dark. Adding to the Met exhibition will be a new gallery, named ‘London’, which situates McQueen in London in the 90s within the art movement and Cool Britannia. He was a London boy, but it wasn’t all glamour in those days. “It was still very exciting, as all the photographers and creatives came together and collaborated for the first time,” Louise Rytter, research assistant on Savage Beauty, tells me.
This gallery also explores how the creative scene was changing in London in the early 90s and how McQueen was critical about the lack of support that was given to young British designers. Today everybody wants to go to London, and with sponsorships, such as Fashion East and MAN by Topshop, young designers can find support to produce their own collections and catwalk shows. Back in the 90s, “it was all changing – it was all raw energy,” Rytter says.
The V&A is the United Kingdom’s home of fashion, so it seems fitting the exhibition comes here. Savage Beauty has stood the test of time, it is a powerful work. It is like a homecoming for McQueen.
The heart of the exhibition is the cabinet of curiosities, connecting his work with his collaborators and the trust he had in them to create those pieces. The double-height gallery showcases more than 100 garments and accessories, designs produced by McQueen in a collaboration with fellow creatives such as jeweller Shaun Leane and milliner Philip Treacy.
“V&A is the sort of place I’d like to be shut in overnight.” – Alexander McQueen
Each section captures the essence of the provocative, dramatic and extravagant catwalk presentations that McQueen became renowned for. The spectacular moment when Kate Moss appeared in a gown of rippling organza as a holographic 3D image is being shown near life-size as it was for the finale of the Widows of Culloden (A/W 06) catwalk show. Another memorable piece, also featured in the exhibition, are the prosthetic legs made out of elm wood. Prosthetics were actually first found in mummies in Egypt, and were often referenced in the work of Charles Dickens. They were created out of one block of wood each, so it is a really long and intricate process. On top of that they had to be made in a way that Aimee Mullins, double amputee and Paralympics champion could wear them. She modelled on the catwalk wearing them for No 13 (S/S 99). This shows how McQueen was challenging conventional perceptions of beauty.
The Horn of Plenty (A/W 09) show, so theatrical and extravagant, is also featured in the exhibition. It was presented on a scrapheap-style runway featuring props from McQueen’s previous collections in what was seen as a comment on the excesses of the fashion industry. Backstage imagery of this collection is also featured in photographer Nick Waplington’s exhibition at Tate Britain, titled Nick Waplington/Alexander McQueen: Working Process.
The accompanying book — the definitive guide to McQueen’s life and work — includes essays by 27 creatives, each of them exploring themes of his work and his technique, his theatrical shows, as well as interviews with models Naomi Campbell, Erin O’Connor and others, who talked about how it was walking for him – that they were transformed on the catwalk. Wilcox interviewed Nick Knight, filmmaker Ruth Hogben and Sam Gainsbury, who staged all of McQueen’s shows, on the anatomy of the Plato’s Atlantis collection. They had to create mini-paper dolls with sample garments for this collection; it was really complicated, but McQueen wouldn’t compromise and there were no limits. This collection follows the apocalyptic, futuristic narrative of a world where the ice caps have melted and the seas were rising and those designs were created to show how humanity would survive. And his famous Armadillo shoes were made for the first time – only 21 pairs.
There is also a spread on his life at Central Saint Martins during his Masters, where they discovered a large amount of material, Rytter explains. Excerpts of his MA portfolio have been found and are included in the book, together with several unseen portraits and pictures of him. An important part of the book is photography; McQueen said on several occasions that if he hadn’t been a designer he would have loved to be a photographer. “We look at the inspirations, La Poupée and how he drew direct inspiration from photography and used it on prints… We have been lucky enough to have found his favourite photography book, and you can see how it all matches up,” Rytter says. The book that Rytter mentions is “A New History of Photography” by Michel Frizot, which features photography from international specialists. McQueen’s favourite magazine was National Geographic and he watched all kinds of nature programmes on TV, especially BBC’s “The Blue Planet”, which explains why nature and the natural elements have been so referenced in his work; birds, leaves, animals all came together.
“The fashion industry needs to be careful about how it cultivates, nurtures and sustains creative talent; stretching an individual’s creativity beyond what is humanly possible risks killing the goose that lays the golden egg.”– Frances Corner, Why Fashion Matters, 2014
Collaborations have been really important in the career and work of McQueen. One of his most common collaborators was jeweller Shaun Leane, who created the silver tusk earring for Hunger (S/S 96) and the ‘Spine’ corset for Untitled (S/S 98). “I think that [spine corset] was my first challenging piece ever. At first I said ‘Lee that’s impossible, I wouldn’t know how to do that’ and he said ‘sure, nothing’s impossible’. And that’s something I’ve carried with me ever since,” Leane said in an interview with Lou Stoppard.
Savage Beauty has stood the test of time. It’s likely to once again make a huge impact on the fashion industry as well as the general public. So many people connect to the personal story – of a working class boy who had the passion and the drive to achieve his dreams. As Rytter puts it: “He created all this with so many incredible people, and it is the V&A’s job to cherish and celebrate that.”
Words by Fani Mari
Photography by Jorinde Croese for 1 Granary