Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty - Curator's Talk
With four days to go before the V&A’s eagerly anticipated Alexander McQueen retrospective, perhaps the most anticipated exhibition in the museum’s 163 year history, opens to advance ticket sales numbering upwards of 35,000, bringing home the record-breaking exhibition that debuted in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, curator Sonnet Stanfill’s insight behind the scenes of Savage Beauty packed out an event hall at London Fashion Weekend in equally record time. Seating room was filled 45 minutes before the talk, with standing space as tight as you’d expect on an evening commute – or perhaps as packed as we should expect Savage Beauty to be when it opens this Saturday.
Sonnet, a curator of 20th century and contemporary fashion at the V&A, began with the admission that Savage Beauty is set to surpass all the exhibitions she has worked on during her employment at the museum, with the exception of the recent Glamour of Italian Fashion showcase. For Sonnet, the untold story of Italy’s longstanding couture tradition cannot compete with the well-worn McQueen saga, know by all in varying degrees of admiration, sympathy and curiosity. What with McQueen’s vivid career through Saville Row to Givenchy and ending up at McQueen, an internationally acclaimed design house with this wondrous man at its helm, Sonnet would have needed five years to rake through the piles of clothes and layers of myth to get to the core of McQueen’s aesthetic and personality.
In reality, she had 18-24 months, chasing the right pieces to tell the right story. McQueen sold many of his early collections in order to cover the production costs, so reclaiming these long-lost items proved tricky – but it was important to bring all of McQueen home, back to the grit and grime of London that so inspired him. Unsurprisingly, Sonnet cites the Isabella Blow Foundation as being very helpful in this retrieval process, thanks to McQueen and Issy’s tempestuous but life-changing friendship. In fact, as Sonnet points out, this exhibition hammers home the importance of friendship and creative networks in McQueen’s life and works, with the likes of Philip Treacy, Daphne Guinness, Katy England and Sam Gainsbury key components of McQueen’s career. His ability to recognise talent in others was one of Alexander’s defining characteristics, sometimes forgotten in the tales of his fiery personality.
Those who were lucky enough to visit the Met exhibition are promised 60 additional garments and plenty of new material to build on the story the Met began to tell. The exhibition will open to the first gallery, London, which tells the story of McQueen’s roots in the capital and his continued relationship with the V&A in particular. McQueen was in fact the second designer to show at the museum’s acclaimed Fashion in Motion series, and was included in the Radical Fashion exhibition of 2002. He also dug deep into the V&A archives to understand 19C garment construction, the influence of which can be clearly seen in his subverted works. His understanding of the human anatomy allowed him to elongate form and alter the human figure in an illusionary way.
The exhibition then moves through McQueen’s preoccupation with mortality and gothic designs in Romantic Gothic, wind machines bringing clothes to life in Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, unexpected materials in Romantic Primitivism, the influence of his Scottish heritage in Romantic Nationalism and ideas from further afield in Romantic Exoticism. The Cabinet of Curiosities, which is being supersized in terms of both quantity and physical scale for the V&A’s branch of Savage Beauty, will showcase over 100 items and accessories designed by, for and with McQueen, including integrated movement and video. The display of the Voss collection also called for a crack conservation team to recreate the floral outfits.
McQueen once said, “I have to force people to look at things”, and pause for thought you will at Savage Beauty. Just as all of McQueen’s fashion shows were true productions, with concepts and actresses rather than models stalking those runways, Savage Beauty connects the pieces of the puzzle to bring you, the exhibition goer, the bigger narrative at play. “He never wanted to water it down”, Sam Gainsbury, curator of the New York exhibition, asserts. Sonnet and the V&A truly give visitors the experience of actually being at a McQueen show, and so have included and scaled up the infamous Kate Moss hologram.
The finale to the exhibition is, quite rightly, Plato’s Atlantis, the last collection McQueen worked on before his suicide. It’s easy to forget in these fast-paced fashion times how much of a visionary and pioneer Alexander was; in fact the first to live stream a fashion show and use digital printing as he did. The futuristic aquatic collection, showcased on specially commissioned mannequins, presents a vision of the future that McQueen saw before us all, but sadly never saw come to life off the runway. A poignant thought to end Savage Beauty.
The passion and hard work Sonnet has given to Savage Beauty is clear, as she talks of the physical aspect of the job. Building mannequins, fixing hems and dusting skirts is all that is left before Savage Beauty is unleashed to London – are you ready?
Brighton Fashion Week Online Editor
Images: Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Tahitian pearl and silver neckpiece, Shaun Leane for Alexander McQueen. Voss, S/S 2001. © Anthea Simms
Spray painted dress, Alexander McQueen. No 13, S/S 1999. Catwalking
Portrait of Alexander McQueen, photographed by Marc Hom. 1997. © Marc Hom / Trunk Archive
Tulle and lace dress with veil and antlers, Alexander McQueen. Widows of Culloden, A/W 2006–07. firstVIEW
Dress of dyed ostrich feathers and hand-painted microscopic slides, Alexander McQueen. Voss, S/S 2001. REX
Jellyfish ensemble and Armadillo shoes, Alexander McQueen. Plato’s Atlantis, S/S 2010. © Lauren Greenfield/INSTITUTE