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BLACK LEATHER & GOLDEN FEATHERS: ALEXANDER MCQUEEN

Studio

Seeing that time is running out to see the highly anticipated show Savage Beauty – exploring the life’s work of the extraordinary British fashion designer, Lee Alexander McQueen - I made my way to the V&A last weekend to see one of fashion’s most iconic artists.

And how brilliantly we are pulled into McQueen’s world. The entrance’s huge, darkly iconic skull image gives way to the first room, where grainy black and white footage flickers and the sounds of a deep base, punctuated by McQueen’s voice, echo round the dim concrete walls. The effect is mildly menacing and arresting, ­the perfect opening to an intense and intriguing brand of creativity. 

McQueen’s work is dealt with, not through rigid chronology but thematically. We learn the narrative to each of his collections and the recurring threads, a primal beauty, macabre and sometimes sinister, but captivating and powerfully feminine. He once said: “I want to empower women. I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.” A vivid remark that stands boldly true for us to see.

The rawness is also manifested through his animalistic influences. There are bird skulls, entire outfits made of midnight black feathers, skins, horns and prints inspired by Hitchcock’s The Birds, all contrasted with more conventional fabrics such as lace and silk. It’s fashion’s unraveling of the natural world and it’s as beguiling as much as it is alien.

The central point of the exhibition is the Room of Curiosities – a double height space filled from top to bottom with accessories; including Phillip Treacy hats and those impossible 12 inch hoof-like shoes along with thrilling projections from McQueen’s much talked about catwalk shows. There’s also a notable graphic element to his work in the materials, patterns and prints used. Illustrations, digital prints and historical art paintings form a contrast point to the bone, skins and fur, and make the collections more rounded. The graphic element is particularly strong in his last collection - Plato's Atlantis, 2010 - which somehow manages to create a reptilian, Avatar-like otherworldliness to superb effect.

Those looking for an insight into McQueen’s life, and untimely death, will be left wanting by the exhibition, however. The London boy from a family of taxi drivers and teachers who trained as a tailor on Saville Row at just 16 years of age, worked with theatrical costume designers and studied fashion design at Central St. Martins has a deeply intriguing history, which no doubt had a huge influence on his imaginative works. But there are no contextual references in the exhibition to place him in time, no reminders that he designed in the days when the likes of Hirst and the Chapman brothers (friends of McQueen) unleashed their own warped and provocative art on the world. His muse Isabella Blow is mentioned but only as the owner of some of the items displayed.

The exhibition is about McQueen alone; an exploration of the sheer force of an intensely creative mind that promoted feminine empowerment through the unconventional. A true visionary and a reminder that beautiful thinking can also challenge the norms of beauty. With only 2 weekends left to witness this extraordinary show, catch it while you can!

Further reading:

Open Eye 25 : This Time It's Personal

Deceptively Effortless : Barbara Hepworth