A lot of people have done reviews of the Alexander McQueen; Savage Beauty exhibition since it has been opened so just to add to that I though I’d give my two cents.
Having already been earlier in the year after it first opened, I was keen to revisit and I was lucky enough to win tickets through from AnOther Magazine, but I would have definitely booked tickets again anyway.
For those people who haven’t been there are many walkthrough reviews of the exhibition and also Tinie Tempah’s visit is on BBC iPlayer which is great to see the layout of the rooms. However, I don’t rate this programme very highly. Mainly because Tinie Tempah doesn’t know much about McQueen’s personal life or his work and I feel that a fashion journalist would have been more suitable to give an in depth review.
The way the exhibition is designed visually and audibly you become immersed in the theme of each room. Starting from his Graduate and early collections, all which focus of beautiful tailoring influenced by his years on Savile row and onto arguably his most controversial collection Highland Rape. I felt this was the most disappointing of all the show rooms partly because I felt it did not represent the rawness of his early collections and the working class man behind it all. The stories about McQueen using his dole money to buy fabrics for his early collections is unheard of now, but it was his cheeky charm and normality that first drew me to his story and I feel that is lost in the opening of the exhibition.
However following on from that was one of the best rooms, which for me captures the spirit of McQueen and also that of Isabella Blow. The gothic romance in the room of mirrors creates a dark fantasy and the only thing I can compare it too is the horror film Mirrors starring Keifer Sutherland, the floor to ceiling mirrors, smeared and only partially reflective in places create a haunting effect which is a great companion to the Victoriana pieces from collections such and Dante and the Horn of Plenty.
McQueen’s fetish obsession can bee seen right through all collections through headpieces and bondage straps and even still present in belts the company produce, however it comes alive in this room and one of my all time favourite pieces is a lilac and black lace, high neck corset which Isabella was photographed wearing with amazing lace up back. The mirrors are also a great aid in seeing the back of the garments, something that was missed out in the first room.
Next, into tribal drum music and a circular room with catacomb bone walls, which shows the influence of the animal kingdom on McQueen’s work. The focus in here is on natural materials such as the suedes and leathers which are prominent throughout it’s a jungle out there and Eshu as well as unusual fabrics such as synthetic and horse hair that are used on pieces and the application of crocodile heads as shoulder pads and antelope antlers, something I don’t think you appreciate until you see up close.
The next room is a complete contrast to previous ones as we see two collections and you can see the development as a designer in a short space of time as the left side is tartan pieces experimenting with his Scottish heritage, starting from tailored suits and then experimenting with dresses and lace from the Widows of Culloden and the famous dress SJP wore to the Met gala with McQueen. Then to the right side of the room it is much softer and focuses of tulle and draping in the girl who lived in the tree, which has a more imperial theme. The top end of the room shows the magnificent red cape from the girl who lived in the tree and the extraordinary quality and detailing that McQueen pieces are known for.
The next room is the central room in the exhibition and the main event. The Cabinet of curiosities is everything you could wish for at a McQueen exhibition. Floor to ceiling the walls are packed with the best pieces from every collection you can think of. Right in the centre of the room is the white dress that was sprayed as the finale piece to No 13, rotating as it was in the show. You are surrounded in his work, you feel a part of the journey and if it doesn’t take your breath away then I don’t know what could. I could sit there all day because there is so much to look at from Philip Treacy hats made for shows and some of Isabella Blow’s personal collection to the macabre crown of thorns headpiece and skeletal spine. There are the infamous armadillo shoes and alien shoes and so much more. This room showcases the height of McQueen’s career and displayed on flat screens dotted between the pieces are highlights of the garments in the runway shows.
It’s hard to pull yourself away from the cabinet of curiosities but in the space between the cabinet and the next room there is the hologram of Kate Moss as seen in The widows of Culloden show. This breaks the powerful vibe from the cabinet room and creates a melancholy emotion as you watch the 3-minute clip explode into the beautiful figure and then implode into a ball of light again. It focuses of the fragility of life and I think gives insight into Lee’s emotions at the time as he succumbed to the intense pressure of the fashion industry.
The mellowed mood continues on into what I call the oriental influence room, which features rotating pieces on mirrored platforms in a music box style from its only a game and Voss collections. Both collections have strong Japanese influence and oriental embroidery and embellishment making the display method perfect as you get a 360 view of the garments. At the end of the room there was a mirror wall, which some unknowing people passed by, the wall is on a timer and recreates my favourite McQueen show Voss. The two-way glass displays an exact replica of the runway show and has pieces from the collection inside; the back wall also displayed video footage of the controversial show.
The last room is split in two with romantic naturalism being the first collection you see. The feeling is that of natural beauty, both in the sense of the ambient sounds and bird calls which surround you but also the garments which are shown there are displayed in glass cases, which I can only liken to butterfly cages. The collection displayed has some items from Voss but is mainly from Sarabande, a very feminine collection using cream colours and fresh flowers and accentuated the curves of a woman with padded hips and some padded shoulders, parts which women usually try to conceal which challenged the ideals of beauty. This softer side to the McQueen catalogue helps us see the human side behind the designer and how much he wanted to challenge every aspect of the industry he worked in.
Lastly is Plato’s Atlantis, which stands alone in the end room, as it was McQueen’s last complete collection before he died. The powerful finale of the Savage Beauty exhibition comes together with again tribal drumbeats and footage of strong Amazonian women on the runway at the final show. The collection was based upon the idea of the polar ice caps melting and life returning to the sea, the devolution of humankind by its own doing. Digital print is the main focus in this collection created from a mixture of animal prints and textures. The most well known is the mirror ball suit, which most would recognise from the Bad Romance video by Lady Gaga and matching Armadillo shoes. This room is bittersweet as is the story of Lee McQueen, the final quote on the wall is “there is no way back for me now, I’m going to take you on journeys you never thought were possible” which for me sums up the journey he has already taken the world on and he planned for so much more to come.
What I loved about savage beauty the second time round which I did not appreciate the first time was the mix of people who are visiting, old and young from all walks of life. The first time round I was so intently looking at the pieces and the atmosphere was so engaging that I was oblivious of anyone around me. Second time I really appreciated the affect that Lee McQueen had on the world, not just London.
As I passed through the display rooms I noticed the types of conversations other people were having and the different opinions they had about his work. Among the many people who were there (it seems I picked a busy day to go) there was an elderly Scottish lady and her young granddaughter who was maybe 6 years old, the grandmother kept referring to him as Alexander Mckeowen. Yes it’s a Scottish name but not quite; who was I to correct her.
There was a family; mum, dad and teenage daughter, who, by the sounds of it was just about to start a fashion course at college, although her dad was wayyyy more into it than her. There was a middle aged Rastafarian man, a bunch of Chinese tourists and a sprinkle of American tourists.
Everyone had his or her own stories about McQueen and it was nice to hear everyone talking all together about him keeping the name alive. There were plenty of people there who had either never heard of him (living under a rock much?) or had no interest in fashion but had come to see what all the hype was about, which made me smile that even now, 5 years after his death he is still introducing more people to fashion.