Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty is not just the latest V&A blockbuster exhibition - it’s immersive theatre from another planet. Upon arrival visitors stand face to face with a large photographic portrait of McQueen that slowly contorts and transforms into a gold skull - it’s a bold and unflinching tribute to the late designer that keeps its audience spellbound. Exploring the late McQueen’s groundbreaking and unfortunately short lived career, each room envelopes you with a thematic dream that can simultaneously fascinate and terrify just like the fearless creations on show. Dark, oppressive walls of skulls and bones form the small Romantic Primitivism room which leads to the grand opulence of gold and red in the Romantic Nationalism room. McQueen’s multifaceted world is one of uncompromising contradictions that command your attention and Savage Beauty thrusts you into a thrilling journey of a rare talent who gave fashion a much needed kick up the backside into the 21st Century.
Throughout his career, McQueen explored his background and ancestry. One of the first recordings you hear over the speakers at Savage Beauty is McQueen declaring that one doesn’t have to travel far for inspiration and he was surrounded by plenty of it growing up in London. McQueen’s MA graduate collection from 1992, Jack The Ripper Stalks His Victims, shows off his flawless Savile Row tailoring skills fashioned into exaggerated Victorian shapes. The beauty of the cut of a frock coat from this collection would is contrasted with the horror of the Jack the Ripper murders, which fascinated East End boy McQueen, with strands of human hair woven into the lining and brutal patterns of thorns on the outside.
McQueen proudly and fiercely explored his Scottish heritage throughout his career with unflinching collections inspired by Scotland’s unsettling historical relationship with England. The controversial Highland Rape (AW95), which launched MCQueen into the public eye, features sharp angular tailoring and delicate lace aggressively slashed and torn. The Widows of Culloden (AW06) collection, with McQueen tartan teamed up with embroidered frills and billowing fabrics, has a softer feel and is a beautifully haunting tribute to the wives who lost their husbands in the 1745 Battle of Culloden.
One of the awe-inspiring (and there are many) highlights of Savage Beauty is a hologram of Kate Moss in a Widows of Culloden dress. Adapting the Victorian Pepper’s Ghost technique, Moss appears in a clear pyramid in a pitch black room. Her ethereal image gently floats and rotates with the light fabrics of the dress flying overhead and gently caressing her body. This moment encapsulates McQueen’s romanticism combined with technology -nodding to the past while gliding towards the future.
Away from British history, McQueen’s other creative explorations dived headfirst into art, other parts of the world and his love of nature. McQueen’s last works transferred digital prints of northern renaissance art, such as Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, onto fitted garments and framed with a gold pattern that covered the sleeves and met at the waist to create an illusionary belt. Japan was a big ongoing source of inspiration for McQueen who carefully studied traditional kimono shapes and embroidery patterns and incorporate them into garments (such as in the It’s Only A Game collection) that moved far and away from the Western treatment of Japanese design as “costume”. Nature is a recurring theme in McQueen’s work from taxidermied baby crocodile heads jutting out on the shoulders of a leather and denim bodysuit for 1997’s It’s A Jungle Out There to a full length dress made entirely of razor clam shells for 2001’s Voss.
The biggest Alice in Wonderland moment you experience at Savage Beauty is the Cabinet of Curiosities. Storeys high walls bedecked from top to bottom with artistic pleasures ranging from fantastical headpiece collaborations with Philip Treacy, sadomasochistic neck braces and masks, Armadillo shoes (as worn by Lady Gaga in the music video for Bad Romance), one off garments such as leather bodices replicating a natural female figure and so much more.
The final collection on display is Plato’s Atlantis (SS10) which explores humankind devolution back into the sea where it began. Bubble skirted dresses are covered in digital prints and raised textured bumps in mysterious iridescent greens, blues and silvers. Armadillo and Alien shoes in complimentary colours and textures turn feet into gigantic molluscs. As with other McQueen collections that looked to different organisms, the wearer is transformed into another being - part creature, part human - the former being on the verge of taking over entirely. It’s the same signature fearlessness of McQueen but in Plato’s Atlantis new technology was even further embraced and not just with the textiles - this was the first collection to be livestreamed rather than shown to just an elite few and a handful of press. McQueen kept striving for innovative and enriching ways for his work to be accessed and experienced.
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty is a celebration of a true British rebel who respected and understood traditions before dragging them screaming into radical adaptations. Each garment and accessory on display in the magical labyrinth of gallery space tells a story that is wildly playful and perversely cruel yet close to the heart and unashamedly intelligent. McQueen is alive and well. Go see him at the V&A before he jets off to the other end of the world.