The V&A Museum in London iscurrently hosting an exhibition of fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s work. It has been open since March but there is still a constant queue outside the dedicated gallery space. I went there already a month or two ago, but as the show is still on until August I thought I’d share my thoughts on it.
As soon as you enter the first room of the exhibition you’ll know it’s not going to be just another clothing exhibit. Then again, this is Alexander McQueen so you probably guessed that already. The visitor is immediately confronted with mortality as the artist’s suicide is addressed. A wall-sized video piece of his face slowly blending into an image of a skull in a completely dark room accompanied by an eerie soundtrack sets the mood for what’s to come – dark, romantic, thought-provoking.
Fashion is not really my forte, nor am I remarkably familiar with McQueen’s story as much as his reputation and a few key catwalk looks. So on that point of view the exhibition offered a lot of information about the designer and his path to success and fame. I read a few snippets here and there but the real strength of the show is in the visceral experience that the fantastical garments in cohesion with meticulously constructed gallery spaces including backdrops, lights, sounds and even air currents create. Having previously seen another fashion exhibition occupying the same space really emphasised how incredibly versatile white cubes are: how passive or active the environment can be in relation to the display. But back to Alexander. Can I call him Alexander? Are that close? Al, my pal. Maybe not.
The first room after the entrance video is an overview to the beginning of the artist’s take on the craft of dressmaking. We know Alexander McQueen’s collections as filled with romanticism and fantasy, over-the-top, sculptural, shocking works of art. He did begin with the basics though, and thought alike many other masters of their craft that in order for one to break the rules one first must know them like the back of their hand. That he did. I used to dabble in dressmaking so I know something about patterns and cuts, and how damn hard it is to make it all work out like it does in your head. Judging by the sculptural, asymmetrical shapes of the jackets and trousers on display, and the accompanying technical drawings, Alexander knew somewhat more than I. This first room is all about the form, and its dismantlement. It’s simple, all black and white and business throughout. It immediately guides the viewer’s gaze toward a principal element of McQueen’s work – the deconstruction and reconstruction of the form, whose primal beauty gets sometimes swallowed by the spectacle. It shows the integrity of the work, the craftsmanship, and the singularity of the man behind it.
Everything after the first room, the intro, is a rock concert. There is leather and lace, deep colours, bright colours, feathers, bones and fur, leaves, flowers and butterflies, regal gowns and latex hoods. The mood changes completely as you enter another room, and another. I can’t but marvel at how skilfully each room has been decorated to compliment the garments, worn by mannequins but seeming strangely alive. The clothes and accessories are absolutely stunning in their total disregard of such mundane things as gravity, and the imagination in the choice and combination of materials and colours can be added to the list of ‘things that blew my mind’. However it is always the form that my eyes fall back to. Most of the pieces can be viewed from all angles, granting rightfully earned attention to the three-dimensionality of their design. It’s almost infuriating how perfectly thought out these garments are; whichever point you choose to view them from, you’ll find something you couldn’t see before. They are essentially sculptures that look like something a human body could wear, and the overall curation of the exhibition does a wonderful job at obscuring the line between art and fashion in Alexander McQueen’s legacy.
If I hadn’t seen this show and was reading what I just wrote I’d probably deem the writer a tiny bit mad for getting so emotional over some dresses on mannequins. Having seen it, I have no trouble understanding why Savage Beauty has been all the rage in London since its opening. It really is worth the hype. And just to add a few more degrees of choked-up-ness to this mess, I would say that the show is a worthy memorial to a brilliant artist who evidently was in a lot of pain. (I have a soft spot for brilliant suffering artists, don’t judge.) The gloomy beginning is cleverly mirrored by another video installation at the end of the show. In the enchanting hologram projection in the middle of a dark room a white dress worn by Kate Moss, floats and flutters in the wind making her look ethereal, like a fairy or an angel. Symbolic or not, Savage Beauty is one of the most memorable exhibitions I have visited in a long, long time.