Victoria & Albert Museum
Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL

From his couture collections to his personal life, Alexander McQueen loved to break boundaries. Known for his outlandish runway shows and darkly surreal creations, the late designer transformed British fashion during a time when it desperately needed reviving. Therefore, it is no surprise that an exhibition dedicated to his work would also awe and astound. An expansion on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2011 exhibition of the same name, “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” at the V&A pushes the boundaries of what a fashion showcase should be.


The exhibition is divided by the designer’s core influences rather than by individual collection, displaying not only how his ideas evolved over the years, but also how intricately they link. His love of Romanticism and recurring interest in the power of nature, as well as his obsession with obscure beauty are at the heart of this exhibition, in everything from his earliest assemblages to his later works. These interests are represented in more than just the designs, they are also reflected in the epic John Gosling (who did all of McQueen’s runway shows) produced soundtrack and all-encompassing exhibition design. Despite consistently revisiting the same themes throughout his 15-year career, each design development never feels overdone or uninspired. Fashion is recycled, and no one recycled concepts better than McQueen.


The collection is displayed via a series of purpose-built rooms linking to a different notion of the Romanticism movement, which prevents it from resembling a series of fashion house showrooms. From the wall-to-ceiling gilded mirrors of the Romantic Gothic section, to the complexly constructed chamber of bones housing Romantic Primitivism, each area acts as a theatrical setting, mirroring his love of performance art and the dramatic catwalk shows that set him apart during his lifetime. Even the mannequins’ act as part of the scenery. Whether embracing gimp masks or faces completely wrapped in bandages, they complement the garments and the exhibition space to the utmost detail. Some of the mannequins rotate mechanically, and video footage of McQueen’s various runway shows are interspersed throughout the exhibition, so the works never feel static and can be appreciated for their movement and dexterity as well as their aesthetic qualities.

McQueen was renowned for his attention to detail, and The Cabinet of Curiosities – a double height room dedicated to his wonderful use of innovative materials – holds some of his best known accessories. From collaborations with milliner Philip Treacy, to the decorative facial horn from A/W 2009’s the “Horn of Plenty”, McQueen’s accessories were not just accompaniments to his clothing, but works of art in their own right.


Another element that is consistently referenced throughout Savage Beauty is McQueen’s fascination with his personal heritage, both as a British citizen and someone of Scottish ancestry. Romantic Nationalism is dedicated to collections such as “The Girl Who Lived in a Tree” (A/W 2008), a playful fairy tale inspired narrative influenced by the Queens of England and the British Empire, and “The Widow’s of Culloden” (A/W 2006), which is based on the subjugation of the Scottish by the English in the late 1700s. A former Savile Row apprentice, his most loved British tradition was tailoring, and the stunning craftsmanship is easier to appreciate in person than film or photograph.

The highlight of the exhibition is the recreation of the “The Widow’s of Culloden’s” famous finale. Considered a landmark moment in the designer’s career, McQueen art directed the production of a 19th century stage technique known as Pepper’s ghost. The result was an ethereal spectre of Kate Moss that gracefully danced in a flowing organza dress to the sound of John William’s epic score from Schindler’s List (1993). Although this hologram is known as one of McQueen’s finest catwalk moments, witnessing the magic of the apparition in reality is a unique experience, as breath-taking as any romanticism painting.


Although there is no mention of his suicide at the age of 40, the whole show is an obituary to the troubled designer. Upon entering the viewer is greeted by a large-scale print of the famous McQueen skull, as recordings of the designer’s voice echo through an entry way dedicated to his early work and first catwalk show. This atmosphere of foreboding is only enhanced by Senior Curator Claire Wilcox’s choice to finish on his final, grandest work “Plato’s Atlantis”, which suggests that McQueen was a genius taken before his time. Overall, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty is a powerful homage to a truly inventive designer.

Where Art, Fashion & Culture Collide

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