British fashion designer Alexander McQueen was hailed as one of the most innovative designers of recent times, but a new highly anticipated V&A exhibition in celebration of his lifework, Savage Beauty, sadly doesn’t always succeed in showing or explaining why McQueen’s work mattered. The exhibition, which was first seen in New York four years ago, starts with a London section (an added addition not included in the New York exhibition), which features garments from some of McQueen’s first shows such as The Birds (1995) and The Hunger (1996). A large quote from McQueen inscribed on the wall states: “London’s where I was brought up. It’s where my heart is and where I get my inspiration.”
The thinking behind this section, one presumes, was to show how the city was rooted in McQueen’s work. But it doesn’t quite work. Apart from the quote and a voiceover from McQueen, who committed suicide aged 40 five years ago, proclaiming his love for London, and his ideas on beauty, there is very little in the way of explanation about how the capital and McQueen’s early years influenced his work. McQueen was born into a working class family; his dad was a taxi driver and he grew up in London’s East End. Such humble beginnings are a complete rarity in a fashion industry that is increasingly dominated by the types of people you read about in Tatler. But there is little to no detail about what drove or inspired McQueen to overcome his modest start in life to successfully climb and dominate the upper echelons of haute couture. Perhaps the thinking behind this was to let his designs do the talking, but the omission of biographical information feels galling.
Things do get a lot better in the next sections of exhibition, where pieces are sorted thematically by McQueen’s influences such as his Scottish roots, which were a big influence for his infamous 1995 Highland Rape collection, and the use of tribal imagery in his work. The craftsmanship on display is mesmerising – how on earth did McQueen, for example, craft a dress out of clams as seen in his 2001 Voss collection? The designs are exceptionally beautifully – an exquisite blood red feathered dress from The Girl Who Lived in a Tree (2008) and the regal golden layered embroidery detailed dress from McQueen’s final collection – stand out in particular. But still many questions are left unanswered; who did McQueen have in mind when he designed his pieces? How were they crafted? Who bought them? And ultimately what did McQueen’s legacy, stand for?
McQueen is largely cited as an instigator and core member of the 1990s Cool Britannia set of artists and creatives who led a renaissance in Britain’s cultural influence but this isn’t touched on, and nor is much else in the way of wider social and cultural context, or how McQueen might have been influenced by his contemporise such as the disgraced former Christian Dior designer John Galliano. The centrepiece of the exhibition is an entire 6.5 metre high gallery, the Cabinet of Curiosities, which features avant-garde McQueen accessories, jewellery, and collaborations with the British milliner Philip Treacy, including the butterfly headdress from the La Dame Bleue show in 2008, which is all interspersed with footage of his designs modelled on the catwalk.
On the whole the exhibition largely exhales in showcasing Alexander’s brilliance. Yes, the clothes look great but the story behind the man who designed them is sadly absent.
Savage Beauty is showing at the V&A until 2 August 2015