The far too short life and career of Alexander McQueen, the brilliant but troubled designer who ended his own life at the age of 40 just over five years ago, has already been examined in several books and a blockbuster Costume Institute exhibition in 2011 that became one of the most popular shows at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in recent history. It was seen by 661,509 people during a run that lasted only three months. And since it was announced that the exhibition, called “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,” would be reprised in an expanded format at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum this year, the museum has booked 70,000 advance tickets prior to its official opening this Saturday, making it one of the most widely anticipated exhibitions of the year.
The question this raises is how much more can there be to learn about the designer (pictured below), who was one of the most innovative of his generation and whose legacy can easily be felt in the renewed interest in fashion creativity coming from London in recent years?
The answer is quite a lot. A press preview on Thursday morning was overwhelmed by international journalists coming off the end of the European collections this week, and they encountered a dizzying array of designs that were far more dramatic and electrifying than almost anything seen on the runways.
“It’s wonderful, and also very emotional,” said Nadja Swarovski, who is a member of the executive board of the crystal company, a partnering sponsor on the V&A show. Swarovski spent 10 years working with McQueen to collaborate on designs, which inspired a significant commitment by the crystal company over the years to support young talent with products and awards, including with the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is a room called the “Cabinet of Curiosities,” (pictured, top) which is filled with stunning examples of McQueen’s daring and sometimes shocking creations, like a 2008 headpiece made of fluttering butterflies (pictured, below), a crystal encrusted bird’s nest hat from 2006 (both collaborations with the milliner Philip Treacy), and a dress that was spray-painted by mechanical arms during a 1999 runway show while worn by Shalom Harlow, now rotating on a mannequin. The room is nearly twice the height of the original exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, with additional outfits (66 more pieces throughout the show) and video monitors that display nearly every runway show of McQueen.
“His radical and fearless vision changed the way we look at fashion,” said Claire Wilcox, the senior curator of fashion at V&A, who based the exhibition on curator Andrew Bolton’s earlier work at the Costume Institute.
“We only have to look to look at the bumster trousers, or the astonishing dresses made of hand-painted glass or razor clam shells,” Wilcox said. “He shocked with his powerful and spectacular runway shows, characterized by elaborate storytelling, compelling theater and raw emotion.”
One reason for the enormous success of the “Savage Beauty” exhibition in its earlier version was its ability to communicate the astonishing craftsmanship of McQueen to the broad public, including many visitors who had never before heard of the designer, despite his fame within the fashion industry. His work on display is incredibly fantastical, including dresses crafted almost entirely of bird feathers, or the bumster pants Wilcox mentioned, which left a good amount rear-end on display when they were introduced in the early 1990s. That style has widely been credited for sparking the widespread trend of low-cut jeans that followed, though McQueen had often said it was he who was inspired by looking at what kids were wearing on the streets.
The V&A exhibition also delves deeper into McQueen’s relationship with London, including examples from his earliest collections, which were shown in his hometown before the designer moved his collections to Paris (when he began designing for Givenchy, from 1996 to 2001). A larger version of the famous hologram of Kate Moss wearing a McQueen dress, set inside a glass pyramid, is seen here as well, in roughly the same size as it was at a McQueen show in 2006.
While the New York exhibition was a phenomenon, and inspired museums around the world to give greater due to fashion as an art form in their programming, the V&A show has many advantages, especially far more exhibition space that makes it possible for guests to truly examine the work. It feels more substantial, too, with more than 240 pieces on display through a seemingly endless parade of galleries.
At the entrance, guests first encounter a large image of McQueen himself, projected in a black-and-white video portrait that fades over several moments into a crystal skull, one of the designer’s favorite motifs. McQueen began his career as an apprentice on Savile Row, learning precise techniques at Anderson & Sheppard and Gieves & Hawkes, before moving on to the theatrical costume house Angels and Bermans, a combination that largely informed his aesthetic later on, in which shock value was often seen in equal measure to exquisitely tailored suits and dresses.
“Although he was often subversive in his ideas, I feel that everything McQueen did was rooted in craftsmanship of the highest level,” Wilcox said.
His graduating collection from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design was inspired by Victorian London, called “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims,” and included human hair stitched into the linings. He later showed a clear corset in which live worms were sandwiched between layers of plastic.
“London’s where I was brought up,” McQueen said in a quotation printed in one of the galleries. “It’s where my heart is and where I got my inspiration.”
Further on, the galleries, similar to those seen in New York, are decorated in marvelous styles to reflect the mood of the collections. A gold feathered suit jacket over a billowing white skirt from his final collection is encased in a gilded glass vitrine in a room called “Romantic Gothic” (pictured, above). A black coat from 2000 that appears to be made of knots of hair is seen in a cavernous room called “Romantic Primitivism,” with walls covered in representations of bones and skulls (pictured, below).
While many of the pieces have been seen before, bringing them together again in such a large space – in McQueen’s hometown, no less, tells another story. The exhibition ends with another quote from McQueen:
“There is no way back for me now. I’m going to take you on journeys you’ve never dreamed were possible.”
We take you inside the exhibit in the video below.