July 31, 2015

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty Returns to Reign

Photo courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum
             Awestruck is the only word suitable enough to describe how I felt as I toured the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Having booked almost a year in advance, I had no idea that its scale would be quite so massive and a ticket so coveted. After its widely successful run at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the retrospective has finally come back home to reign and rightfully so. Born into a working class family in London, Lee Alexander McQueen worked his way up in the fashion world, which he managed to take by storm without taking it too seriously.

The Savage Mind gallery, photo courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum
             The exhibition begins with McQueen’s MA graduate collection, Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims (1992), and closes with his final collection, Plato’s Atlantis (2010). Five years after McQueen’s tragic suicide, the exhibition is a haunting reminder of his genius lasting legacy. It is easy to invest in a brand, but it is more important to invest in the man behind the brand, which the V&A has pulled off exceptionally. A quote from McQueen foreshadowed his fate: “I want to be the purveyor of a certain silhouette or a way of cutting, so that when I’m dead and gone people will know that the twenty-first century was started by Alexander McQueen.”

The Romantic Naturalism gallery, photo courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum
             Indeed, there will never be another like him. With my McQueen handbag in tow and my black and white McQueen skull scarf draped around my neck, I was professing, probably a bit too loudly and excitedly, my knowledge about the designer to anyone who happened to be within earshot. I had a very important introduction to make after all. Like a pilgrimage to Mecca, my fashion items were returning to holy ground, to be reunited with their creator. I had all of the necessary makings of a fan girl. I’m sure McQueen would think that was very uncool of me, but I remained on the verge of tears (happy ones of course), covered in goose bumps for the entire exhibition.

Alexander McQueen is a girl's best friend
             I cannot begin to explain how it felt to see McQueen’s creations, which I had only previously seen in photos or videos, in the fabric flesh. The exhibition remained true to McQueen’s vision and propensity towards performance on the catwalk, even down to the music and the ambience. The mirrored box from the Spring/Summer 2001 Voss show was there fully equipped with lights to turn it from clear to opaque glass.

The Voss gallery, photo courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum
             Lingering in the Cabinet of Curiosities room, I examined the intricacies of metal mouthpieces, butterfly-adorned headwear, and the spray-painted dress from the No. 13 Spring/Summer 1999 collection. Televisions broadcasted the clothes in motion from previous catwalk shows: from the derrière flaunting “bumsters” and too-cool-for-school models wearing them in Nihilism (Spring/Summer 1994), to the lace-encased horns and crucifixes in Dante (Autumn/Winter 1996), to the abundant houndstooth and seeping lips in The Horn of Plenty (Autumn/Winter 2009). Even McQueen’s model choices were deliberate – the way they sauntered out, flicked off members of the audience, and appeared all-around irreverent and indifferent to their surroundings.

The Cabinet of Curiosities gallery, photo courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum
             McQueen viewed his clothes as just that – clothes. His humble and somewhat unfounded assumption implied his stance on whether fashion equates to art. For someone who could cut clothes without a pattern and managed to cram a pentagram, a carousel, a game of chess, fire, water, red contact lenses, and much more into his catwalk repertoire, surely we must argue that what McQueen achieved was an art form. Naysayers slammed him for being misogynistic when he was anything but. McQueen lashed out with the perfect response: “I know what misogyny is! I hate this thing about fragility and making women feel naïve…I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.” That kind of confidently executed intimidation on the part of the wearer, that kind of empowerment, is what McQueen’s clothes represent.  

"When you see a woman wearing McQueen, there's a certain hardness to the clothes that makes her look powerful. It kind of fends people off." - Alexander McQueen; the Romantic Nationalism gallery, photo courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum
             McQueen’s version of beauty is savage because of the gritty, dark side of it that he chose to expose and become known for. He drew inspiration from sadomasochism, primitivism, romanticism, and nationalism, making it hard to believe that each room represented the amalgamation of one creative mind. Sarah Burton is the current creative director of Alexander McQueen. By her own admission, she does not share the same fascination with the darker side of life as the brand’s founder did. No one would wish a tortured past upon another, but McQueen’s demons were precisely what spurred on his theatrical and inventive visions. I cannot bring myself to watch the catwalk shows under Burton in recent years for fear of being underwhelmed due to my high standards. Without Alexander McQueen the individual, I fail to rationalize Alexander McQueen the brand.  

McQueen's last collection, Plato's Atlantis (Spring/Summer 2010), before his premature departure from the fashion world, photo courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum
             Just like the ever-changing hologram that distorts McQueen’s face into a skull and back again on the cover of my Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty book, he will eternally remain the man, the myth. Due to his untimely death, he will also be preserved at the height of his youth and his success for all of time, leaving a giant fashion-shaped hole in our lives. McQueen, at least for me, will forever be the King of fashion, presiding from his celestial throne. I think he’d quite like that, don’t you?

The cover of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty