Press previews – that is, the day or so before an exhibition opens to the public in which the powers that be generously let individuals calling themselves editors, freelancers and bloggers have a few hours to poke around and be the first to Instagram (read: spoil) the whole thing – traditionally aren’t one in one out affairs.
That sort of behavior is the reserve of nightclubs, not cultural spaces like the Victoria and Albert museum. Traditionally.
‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’ opened at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art on 4th May 2011, almost 15 months after the designer took his own life. When it was announced last April that the show would finally be coming home, as many commentators suggested it felt, the collective reaction, naturally, was one of overwhelming excitement.
Tickets sold out at a stupidly quick rate; the museum released an extra 50,000 just last month. It’s not difficult to understand then, why the V&A’s press team received over 700 rsvp’s for the preview alone. Heck, even Tinie Tempah showed up, film crew in tow.
Open proper as of tomorrow, the hype is accompanied by two smaller exhibitions, one at Proud Chelsea from the photographer Gary Wallis, ‘McQueen: Backstage – The Early Shows’, the other titled ‘Nick Waplington/Alexander McQueen: Working Process’ at the Tate Britain.
It is the Claire Wilcox curated piece though, that boasts the only major retrospective in Europe title. With over 240 ensembles and accessories, London has acquired an additional 66 pieces since its New York residency.
“I am thrilled that this magnificent show has come to London and feel passionately that the V&A is its natural home,” states Director of the V&A, Martin Roth. The relationship between the two, the gallery and the designer, was a constant: McQueen was the first designer to participate in the Fashion in Motion series, devised by Wilcox in 1999, while his work was part of exhibitions such as ‘Cutting Edge: 50 Years of British Fashion’ (1997) and ‘Radical Fashion’ (2001).
“The collections at the V&A never fail to intrigue and inspire me. The nation is privileged to have access to such a resource… it’s the sort of place I’d like to be shut in overnight,” reads a quote from the designer in the accompanying show notes.
‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’ is divided into ten rooms. The first, ‘London’, is dressed up in grey concrete, part tombstone part AllSaints showroom. Overhead Lee can be heard in conversation – “I survived on unemployment benefit and bought all my fabrics with the dole money” – while throughout similarly relevant, sometimes revealing quotes adorn the space.
On the bumster: “I wanted to elongate the body, not just show the bum. To me, that part of the body – not so much the buttocks, but the bottom of the spine – that’s the most erotic part of anyone’s body, man or woman.” Of the industry: “Fashion can be really racist, looking at the clothes of other cultures as costumes. That’s mundane and it’s old hat. Let’s break down some barriers.” And his role within it: “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 nucleus of the exhibition is ‘The Cabinet of Curiosities’, a double height gallery that showcases 120 plus garments and over a dozen screens displaying Alexander McQueen catwalk shows; it’s a magnificent sight of a J.K. Rowling authored ilk.
A central element to the Isabella Blow retrospective at Somerset House – in which her relationship with McQueen played a premier role – video was a valued medium for the designer in his own lifetime, several times used by way of introduction at catwalk presentations; ‘Plato’s Atlantis’, the critically acclaimed SS10 collection that would be his final fully realised offering, was the first ever fashion show to be live streamed on the internet, in collaboration with Nick Knight’s SHOWstudio.
This clothes-and-some mentality – also responsible for the ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ Kate Moss moment, recreated here and echoing that same grace unattainable for perfume ads the world over – was what provided Lee Alexander McQueen with his drive, and ultimately his success; he didn’t produce clothes so much as create stories, evident both in his collections and the performances he used to debut them.
“There is no way back for me now,” the concluding quote of the exhibition declares, “I’m going to take you on journeys you’ve never dreamed were possible.”
Words: Zoe Whitfield