How do you define a legend? It's a pretty tricky question, isn't it? Is it something which can be measured in success, notoriety or recognition? A combination of all three? Or perhaps something deeper? However icon status is cemented, I think it's fair to say that there only a handful of people who rightly warrant the title- and for me, Lee McQueen is more than deserving of the moniker. This weekend, the much anticipated retrospective of McQueen's work, Savage Beauty, opens at the V&A- a truly grandiose, wonderfully appropriate homecoming for one of London's most innovative, irreverent and iconic talents. I was only young when the Alexander McQueen brand took off in the mid 1990s, but as a teenager who was developing an interest in fashion, discovering his work when I was about fifteen was a real revelation. Quite simply, I'd never seen anything like it. Nothing like the beautifully crafted vision of each collection, and certainly nothing like the sheer theatrical spectacle of a McQueen presentation. To date, there is no other collection which has brought tears to my eyes in the same way that 2006's Widows of Culloden did, and I very much doubt whether I'll ever be touched by the poetry and poignancy of a fashion show in the same way again. Ahead of the start of Savage Beauty, I was lucky enough to be invited along to the V&A for a special preview of the exhibition:
Savage Beauty effortlessly traces McQueen’s design oeuvre, and, perhaps most significantly, offers a unique insight into how a distinct sense of London informed his career and continued to imbue his work season after season. From Savile Row to Central St. Martins and beyond, McQueen’s mastery of tailoring combined with an inherently British sense of character and history, from the break-the-mould aesthetic of 1995’s Highland Rape collection to the soaring drama and spectacle of his Widows of Culloden vision over a decade later. Experimentation with shape and silhouette rapidly became a trademark of McQueen’s work, and his avant-garde approach to exaggerated aesthetics and proportion continues to permeate the legacy of the label today.
Consolidating McQueen’s array of inspiration was never going to be an easy task, but is something which Savage Beauty manages to achieve in some style. For me, each Alexander McQueen collection was (and indeed still is) a masterclass in creating pieces which are woven together with a sense of poetry and a clearly delineated narrative, enveloping us into a clearly constructed world- with immaculately fabricated, utterly visionary pieces of design acting as the storytelling signposts inviting us to engage with Lee McQueen’s inspiration. Unlike so much contemporary, throwaway fashion, these are pieces which are both beautiful and interesting to look at, but which also take you far deeper than surface appearance- drawing you in to the creative process and the personal investment which McQueen had in each intricate detail of his work.
As well as taking a poignantly retrospective look through McQueen’s successive stunning catwalk presentations, the exhibition also traces his innately theatrical approach to fashion. Treating each show as an intimate introduction not only to the designs, but also the opportunity to emerge the spectator in the fully realised world which the pieces were informed and inspired by, McQueen’s unique treatment of the runway saw the fashion presentation propelled into a new realm of possibility and poetry- and his approach to putting on a show is one which I don’t think will ever be bettered.
The exhibition is vast, and beautifully put together. Taking over a series of rooms in the space which has previously played host to the V&A’s Hollywood Costume and Diaghilev retrospectives, it encompasses landmark pieces from McQueen’s career as well as previously unexhibited designs which have been acquired especially for this London homecoming. Plato’s Atlantis, the Cabinet of Curiosities and hologram at the end are all highlights, but the strength and breadth of the entire exhibition deserves enormous celebration. It’s by far and away one of the most comprehensive, detailed and emotive retrospectives I’ve ever seen, and a wonderfully fitting tribute to a true visionary- a true legend in every sense of the word.
Are you going to see Savage Beauty?
Are you going to see Savage Beauty?
(Image credit: Sarah Farrell, please do not reproduce without permission.)