The kingdom of McQueen
An upsized version of The Met’s sellout Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty retrospective moves to London
IT’S been five years since Lee McQueen took his own life. Five years since the fashion designer, who adopted the name Alexander for his label, hung himself in his £640,000 apartment in London’s Mayfair. Undertakers bundled his body out in a blanket the colour of the blood-red woollens in his 2006 Widows of Culloden collection; a former colleague later revealed the designer had originally planned to shoot himself on the catwalk in a Perspex box, so that “all his brains would drip down the glass”.
Macabre, yes, but that was McQueen’s simultaneously frightening and fascinating style. This was a man who had, as a Central Saint Martins student, produced a graduate show called Jack The Ripper Stalks His Victims, featuring pieces with stitched-in strands of his own pubic hair. In his tumultuous, coked-up years after, the enfant terrible won the British Designer of the Year award four times, struggled with depression and his self-image (fixing his teeth and going for gastric band surgery), headed the house of Givenchy and stunned the fashion world with work that was in equal parts captivating, crazed and controversial. The author Martin Filler perhaps summed up McQueen’s brand of design best, calling it “peculiar and pathological art”. A brown pony skin jacket artistically sprouting impala horns, another decorated with tiny taxidermy crocodile heads—all represented the things that McQueen was obsessed with: dark and light, primitivism and sophistication.
Those clothes and others from the designer form the guts of the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition that opens March 14 at London’s Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum. First shown at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011, where it became the Met’s most popular fashion exhibit in history, the theatrical retrospective features all of McQueen’s best-known works from his early days in the 1990s to his final collection. Now the British edition—overseen by Claire Wilcox, the V&A’s senior fashion curator—will assemble an even bigger showcase than the original presentation’s 100 garments and 70 accessories pulled from archives and private collections. It will also boast specially designed sets by Sam Gainsbury, a frequent McQueen collaborator.
“Savage Beauty is a story-telling of the most imaginative and talented designer of our time,” Jonathan Akeroyd, chief executive officer of Alexander McQueen, told UK’s Vogue. “We are incredibly proud as a house to be able to showcase Lee’s visionary body of work in London as a celebration of his legacy and an inspiration to a future generation.”
The gathered works throw some light onto the psyche of a man who, along with being called a creative genius, has oft been labelled a sadomasochist for the way he treated some of his partners and his benefactress, the late fashion stylist Isabella Blow. Others have criticised him for his misogynistic portrayal of women in fashion, despite his claims that his work empowered them. His Fall 1995 Highland Rape collection, for instance, caused public outrage because the models at that show were made to look like they had been abused—their clothes ripped and their bodies bloodied, against a smashed wooden backdrop. Then there’s the robotic armour-like Givenchy shell that could electrocute the wearer. The all-black ensemble with a leather halter that resembles Victorian funerary attire. And the grotesque, fetishist 10-inch heels from the 2010 Plato’s Atlantis collection that contort the feet of those sporting them, forcing wearers to hobble perilously for the sake of fashion. “I’m not big on women looking naïve,” McQueen once said. “There is a hidden agenda in the fragility of romance.”
Still, for all its viciousness, grisly components and dark inferences, a softer side is apparent in the designer’s work. Among the pieces in Savage Beauty: a light, bright, gold feather jacket from which gushes a lush silk skirt (from his last Angels & Demons collection referencing medieval Madonnas and Byzantine empresses, which fashion editors have called one of his most awe-inspiring). An elegant gown dusted with real flowers and a robe printed with angels’ faces at the shoulders also point to a McQueen that his long-time collaborator, the milliner Philip Treacy, has described as “very sweet and gentle”.
So who was McQueen, and why did he pull the plug on himself just as he was producing some of his greatest work? Savage Beauty is a chronicle of clues, but any answers lie behind the veil of interpretation. To strip it away, one must perhaps abide by the advice tattooed on the late designer’s forearm. It read: “Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.”
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty runs till Aug 2, 2015 at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.