Alexander McQueen was a seminal designer of his generation, but first and foremost, he was a boy from the East End of London who used the V&A as his inspirational playground. So what could be more appropriate than giving his body of work pride of place there? Simply spellbinding—make sure you see it.
Looking at this month’s cover image of the late Alexander McQueen focusing intently on a spectacular crystal-encrusted dress, we reflect that five years have already passed since the fashion world lost this singularly gifted designer. So it’s fitting that a retrospective that originally opened at The Met in New York four years ago has now arrived in London. Hosted by the V&A museum and supported by Swarovski, the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition is a once-in-a lifetime experience that’s on until August 2.
Alexander McQueen’s wild, high-Gothic approach to design belied a deeply romantic soul. He once defended himself against critics by describing his approach thus: “…I don’t see it as aggressive. I see it as romantic, dealing with a dark side of personality…I find beauty in the grotesque, like most artists. I have to force people to look at things.”
And so he did, presenting a succession of visually searing shows, each an intellectual fantasy prompted by paradoxes such as life and death, lightness and darkness, melancholy and beauty. But his narratives weren’t exclusively restricted to the macabre and the bizarre—McQueen was a consummate student of history, which was evident in the likes of his aggressive Highland Rape collection for Fall/Winter 1995/6 and the rather gentler The Widows of Culloden for Fall/Winter 2006/7. Indeed, the names he gave his collections spoke volumes—take these, for instance: McQueen’s Theater of Cruelty; The Birds (echoes of Hitchcock’s famous film); Plato’s Atlantis (the devolution, rather than evolution, of mankind); It’s Only a Game; It’s a Jungle Out There; and Natural Dis-tinction, Un-natural Selection (set amid a menagerie of stuffed animals). His catwalk shows always involved drama: who will forget Spring/Summer 1999, which saw Shalom Harlow in a strapless white dress being rotated slowly on a section of the catwalk while being sprayed with paint by two robotic guns? Or one of his muses, the exquisite athlete, model, actor and double amputee Aimee Mullins, who he sent striding down the catwalk on intricately carved wooden legs?
For all McQueen’s dark humor and shock tactics, he was a meticulous craftsman, having honed his considerable tailoring skills during his late teens as an apprentice on London’s Savile Row. His collaborations with Swarovski also created an additional legacy, inspiring Nadja Swarovski to establish the Swarovski Collective. Members of the collective, which recently celebrated its 15th anniversary, receive sponsorship from Swarovski and are encouraged to use crystals innovatively in their designs, free from financial restrictions. Some of the industry’s brightest stars have participated, including Alexander Wang and Erdem, as well as current members Rodarte, Mary Katrantzou and Peter Pilotto.