Savage Beauty

17.03.2015 | Fashion | BY:

Strangely moving and beautifully composed, Savage Beauty is the most fitting homecoming for fashion’s rare bird.

Just as complex as the man himself and just as deeply layered, the V&A’s retrospective of the late great Lee Alexander McQueen is as powerful as it is poignant. At the time of writing 70,000 advance tickets had already sold for Savage Beauty. So far, that’s 3,000 more than the V&A had sold during the same period for David Bowie Is… It says something when a fashion designer can outsell a rock icon.

This amplified version of the original exhibition staged at The Met in 2011 has been fittingly expanded to begin at the beginning, with McQueen’s hometown and the raw, scratchy, seedy energy of London. You can trace a line through McQueen’s growth as a designer from his Central St Martins MA collection, inspired by backstreet debauchery, through to the exquisite aristocratic and ornithological references that chime with his complex relationship with Isabella Blow. Brutally beautiful rather than conventionally so, McQueen effectively reprogrammed femininity.

Almost twenty years of transformative and transgressive design are here and the iconic garments come thick and fast, from the goose feather coat dipped in gold to the bumster trousers and the crocodile head epaulettes. Animalistic and erotic, the pieces feel real and three-dimensional in ways that many fashion garments fall short in this kind of setting. Layered thick with references, implied and explicit, they transcend ready to wear. There are over 240 garments showcased over the ten rooms, including 70 additional pieces that particularly resonate with the London homecoming. Exhibition designers Sam Gainsbury and Joseph Bennett have taken a thematic route through McQueen’s archive, creating theatrical spaces that are powerfully evocative of his most recognisable influences.

A Cabinet of Curiosities exposes many of McQueen’s most memorable garments, including some he created for Givenchy. At the heart is the rotating dress from his Spring/ Summer 1999 No. 13 collection, in which Shalom Harlow was famously sprayed by robots. Soaring up to the ceiling are 120 other pieces, but emphasis is placed on highlighting the sculptural jewellery and headwear accessories created by long-time collaborators Philip Treacy and Stephen Webster. The association with McQueen seems to even elevate these two master craftsmen, standing on the shoulders of a giant. The exhibition ends with McQueen’s final collection, Plato’s Atlantis (Spring/Summer 2010), which in retrospect feels like the pinnacle of his fascination with anthropomorphic metamorphosis. And those armadillo shoes will define him – and the label –  long, long after his death.

The poignancy of his brief genius resonates through a re-staging of the Kate Moss hologram that closed the Widows of Culloden Autumn/Winter 2006 show; an ethereal wisp of cheekbones and organza floating mid-air finally drifts off into the distance and disappears into the black solar system. It’s a fitting metaphor for a designer whose star shone brighter than most, but who was ultimately consumed by his own personal tragedy.

Savage Beauty is at the V & A Museum until 2nd August 2015.

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