It won’t be florals. It’s about what’s happening in my mind, and I just can’t think in florals”
— Alexander McQueen —
I’m admiring the ripped, distressed and mud-stained, torn, nude synthetic fabric of a dress adorned with wooden beads and painted ivory. This impressive and slightly sinister creation is part of Alexander McQueen’s Eshu collection (autumn/winter 2000–2001), which is currently on exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, in London.
“It’s like he was tormented”… squeaks a fellow visitor with an underdeveloped nasal voice behind me.
I’m thinking: “No shit, mate… The exhibition is called ‘Savage Beauty’. That should be your first clue… among other things.”
Other things like when, as an apprentice in the Savile Row workshop of Gieves & Hawkes, Alexander McQueen, bored one afternoon, wrote “I am a c*nt” in the lining of a jacket destined for the Prince of Wales.
Fair enough, at the time (1985) he was only 16 years old… but still, the signs were always there… like his famous quasi avant-garde catwalk shows.
From the moment McQueen launched his career the fashion industry watched his catwalk presentations with wide-eyed, titillated horror, peering from between their fingers at locks of human hair sewn into jacket linings… metal body corsets, Latex-fused skirts that look as though they’ve emerged from some embryonic swamp and a ravishing ball-gown constructed from layers of silk and real roses… or, on one memorable occasion an obnoxious post-show moonie from the designer himself.
Alexander McQueen loved to menace and taunt. He did it with a brutal poetic charm… a primitive honesty. He was child-like and terrifying.
His vision of beauty was never orthodox. He worked with fat models and amputees. In one show his models were caged and spray-painted live on stage until their dresses resembled a Jackson Pollock… in another they were trapped in glass boxes with thousands of butterflies, forced to walk in dangerously high shoes that made their feet look like the claws of an alien species of shellfish, encircled in rings of fire. He winched open their mouths with silver jewellery that looked like tiny spears, their eyeballs veiled behind white contact lenses that made them look like androids… he took his audiences deep into dark worlds teeming with haunted creatures.
McQueen’s creations expressed an exquisite emotional narrative — a conversation about inner conflict without words, a primal spiritual transaction between creator, participant and spectator. Undoubtedly part of his enigma was the fact that these intricately conceived spectacles were only ever witnessed by a select few people — journalists, friends and retailers (pedestrians chosen to briefly walk on the sidewalk of McQueen’s wonderland).
Now, five years after his death in 2010, for the first time ever the extraordinary work of Alexander McQueen is accessible to everyone, thanks to the Savage Beauty exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. It is the largest retrospective of the late designer’s visionary body of work, spanning his 1992 MA graduate collection to his final Spring/Summer 2010 Plato’s Atlantis collection.
From the moment you enter the exhibition, you are pulled into the inner world and mind of a creative genius, as Alexander McQueen’s Cockney twang echoes through the venue in a recording of his voice saying: “I am going to take you on journeys you never knew were possible.”
You get a true sense of the depth of his depression and anxiety as you journey through his collections on display. It’s present in his use of colours, textures, masks and spiky, pointy jewellery and horny, thorny headpieces … his obsession and perfectionism is clearly visible in iconic creations like the grotesque Duck Feather dress — made of hundreds of thousands of perfect shiny, pitch black duck feathers.
He was an archetypal Romantic. His affinity with the Flemish masters, Gospel singing, Elizabethan theatre and its cross-dressing heroines, contemporary performance art, punk, Surrealism, Japan, the ancient Yoruba, and fin-de-siècle aestheticism are bouncing off the walls. A visual orgy.
McQueen once said: “There’s something… kind of Edgar Allan Poe, kind of deep and kind of melancholic about my collections.” This is most noticeable in The Cabinets of Curiosities — the centrepiece of the exhibition. It brings together curiosities — curious in the darkest, sadomasochistic, most wonderful and fetishist sense — produced for McQueen, including horse bit mouth guards and gimp masks drafted in sumptuous leather and embellished with black pearls.
The Cabinets of Curiosities is also a further testament of McQueen’s delicate and tortured soul. His collections often reflected opposites such as life and death, lightness and darkness. It’s this polarity that created the emotional intensity of his runway presentations — the interplay between victim and aggressor. The accompanying soundtrack to The Cabinets of Curiosities is grainy, low-resolution footage from McQueen’s most spectacular shows, making the entire experience an almost overwhelming sensory feast… (I think he would’ve secretly enjoy its impact.)
I never thought that fashion would succeed in moving me to tears. However, Savage Beauty, is not just about dresses and ‘pretty’ things — it’s about life, creation, history, pain, hope, frustration, anguish and above all, Alexander McQueen’s death — his suicide at the age of 40, is etched deeply into every immaculate creation on display… and so is our loss.
Yes, he was tormented.
It’s savage. It’s beautiful… and probably the closest anyone will come to experiencing the essence and creative genius of Alexander McQueen.
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty is showing at the Victoria & Albert Museum, in London until 2 August 2015. Even though exhibition times have been extended, due to popular demand, limited tickets are available.