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The Story: Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty

One of the most anticipated exhibitions in recent history, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty lands at the V&A in London with a fashionably vibrant fanfare. To discover the fascinating story behind the exhibition and how it came about, we chatted to the museum’s Senior Curator Claire Wilcox and Senior Research Assistant Kate Bethune…

Why bring the exhibition to the V&A?
Claire: Lee Alexander McQueen was one of the most visionary designers of his generation and he has left an indelible imprint on the fashion world. He was born, raised and worked in London, and saw the city as both his home and the place from which he drew inspiration throughout his career. He also forged a special relationship with the V&A and was a regular visitor to our Textiles and Fashion archives. The museum first acquired his work in 1997; he was one of the first designers to participate in our Fashion in Motion live catwalk events; and he was one of 11 designers included in the exhibition Radical Fashion (2001). McQueen had a deep respect for design in all its forms, and we are delighted that the V&A is giving a new audience an opportunity to see Savage Beauty.

Can you share the story of how the exhibition came about?
Kate: Savage Beauty was originally curated by Andrew Bolton for the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in 2011, and the V&A has been working on the exhibition since September 2013. With over 60 additions to the curation, Savage Beauty is the largest retrospective on McQueen and the largest fashion exhibition the V&A has ever mounted. The V&A’s exhibition spaces are a third larger, and aside from some significant additions, such as the white feathered gown from The Horn of Plenty (Autumn/Winter 2009), some displays will be re-focused and re-designed. An entirely new section at the start of the exhibition focuses on McQueen’s early career in London. The exhibits are drawn primarily from the McQueen archive in London, and we have been fortunate to have been lent pieces by institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Fashion Museum, Bath as well as private collectors including Annabelle Neilson. Designers Philip Treacy and Shaun Leane have kindly remade key showpieces for the exhibition, including the jewelled yashmak from Eye, Spring/Summer 2000 and the Chinese Garden headpiece from It’s Only a Game, Spring/Summer 2005.

What are the stories running through the exhibition?
Kate: London was central to McQueen’s world, and one of the most significant changes to Savage Beauty at the V&A is the addition of a new display at the start of the exhibition which explores three of McQueen’s early London collections: The Birds (Spring/Summer 199), Highland Rape (Autumn/Winter 1995) and The Hunger (Spring/Summer 1996). Ten of McQueen’s earliest designs – some of which have never been on display before – are included in this section. These garments emphasise McQueen’s raw energy as a young designer who provoked with designs such as the iconic ‘Bumster’ trousers and also with his use of experimental materials, such as laminated laces that were torn to expose the models’ flesh.

Other displays explore McQueen’s gothic sensibility, his deep interest in his Scottish heritage and his fascination with other cultures and the natural world. McQueen loved nature. He was a bird watcher and a scuba diver and the natural world inspired him throughout his career. A personal favourite from The Widows of Culloden (Autumn/Winter 2006) is a full-length gown made entirely from pheasant feathers that have been individually stitched to lengths of ribbon which have then been sewn onto a net ground.

How is his work brought to life by the exhibition - what are the various forms of media within it?
Kate: A trusted circle of art director, production designer, show producer, stylist and music and lighting directors enabled McQueen to turn his visions into a reality on the catwalk. We are delighted to be working with Sam Gainsbury and Anna Whiting of Gainsbury and Whiting, who produced all of McQueen’s shows from 1996, as well as other of McQueen’s key collaborators, including production designer Joseph Bennett and director of scenography Simon Kenny. We are also thrilled that Katy England - McQueen’s close friend and longstanding stylist – is collaborating with us on our ‘London’ gallery, which forms an exciting new addition to the V&A exhibition. Working with McQueen’s trusted collaborators is fundamental in ensuring our exhibition meets the uncompromisingly high standards that McQueen set for himself and in bringing that sense of spectacle that was synonymous with his catwalk shows. Each gallery has a soundtrack that has been choreographed by John Gosling, who produced the soundtracks for most of McQueen’s catwalk shows. In addition we will be showing video footage of all of McQueen’s catwalk shows throughout the exhibition galleries. Most of these will be in the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’, which has been expanded at the V&A to fill our double height gallery space. One particular highlight that will make a lasting impression on visitors is the recreation of the finale to The Widows of Culloden (Autumn/Winter 2006) show. It was one of McQueen’s most memorable catwalk moments wherein a 3D holographic image - or Pepper’s Ghost - of Kate Moss floating in a gown of rippling organza appeared on a glass pyramid at the centre of the catwalk. At the V&A it will occupy an entire room. It’s incredibly poignant and absolutely breathtaking.

What are the key Alexander McQueen pieces that really stand out for you?
Kate: Plato’s Atlantis (Spring/Summer 2010), McQueen’s last fully realised collection, certainly stands out for me. McQueen was a masterful storyteller. Plato’s Atlantis predicted a future world where the ice cap had melted and man had been forced to adapt in order to survive under the seas. As the catwalk show progressed, the models’ features changed - cheeks were enhanced with prosthetics and hair was sculpted into fin-like peaks to connote biological adaption and their evolution into a semi-aquatic species.

This was the collection that launched the ‘Armadillo’ boot and it was filled with startling digital prints that were engineered to fit the specific contours of each pattern. No one had ever seen anything like this before. It was so fantastical and new. McQueen also broke new technological ground with this collection by being the first fashion designer to stream a catwalk show live over the internet via Nick Knight’s fashion website SHOWstudio. Plato’s Atlantis was widely acclaimed as McQueen’s greatest achievement.

In what ways was he so innovative for his time?
Kate: What makes McQueen so innovative to me is the astonishing range of materials he incorporated into his body of work. Right from his 1992 graduate collection he worked without restraint to create compelling designs, many of which had a strong, visceral quality. In Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims (1992) he embedded human hair into the silk linings of jackets. Although McQueen was often provocative, everything he did was purposeful and to make a point. In this case the hair drew on the tradition of memento mori, and it also referenced the 19th century trade in human hair. McQueen did not simply render his creations in fabric; he used shells, hand-painted glass microscope slides, raffia, feathers and balsa wood to create mesmerising designs that astonish for their intriguing material qualities and ingenuity of construction.

Obviously the exhibition is a homage to his work and creativity, but does it factor in the legacy of the brand and its future?
Kate: McQueen’s lasting influence was to cement London’s reputation as a global fashion city. His bold ideas and fierce visions changed the landscape of how people view vision and continue to astonish and inspire a new generation of creatives.

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, in partnership with Swarovski, supported by American Express, with thanks to MAC Cosmetics and made possible with the co-operation of Alexander McQueen, runs from 14 March – 2 August 2015. Find out more at vam.ac.uk/savagebeauty

Discover our Alexander McQueen Autumn Winter 2015 show notes

And to celebrate the archives of the designer, the brand has re-issued their iconic Novak bags and a selection of key prints on their scarves exclusively for Harrods. Snap up a slice of fashion history with our edit below...

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