God save McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition celebrating Alexander McQueen comes home

Duck feather dress from McQueen's 2009 Horn of Plenty show

A world beholden to mercantile concerns, where in follows out with bewildering arbitrariness and where genius gets distorted, compressed and subsumed into the commercial vortex that is the retail industry – fashion is no place for an artist. But an artist is what Alexander McQueen was. A rebel and a thinker, he went straight for the jugular, weaving his manifold obsessions – history, sex, nature, psychology – into consistently groundbreaking designs that marked him out as both a sartorial seditionist and a darling of the establishment.

Scavenging in the shadowy recesses of the human psyche, McQueen sought out the exhilarating precipice where the hideous juts out into the beautiful. His runway shows were legendary. But he always nurtured a healthy disdain for the elitism of the fashion world and the pompousness of its custodians. If someone who makes ballgowns out of antlers and blood for a living can ever be described as a man of the people, then he was: a ferociously talented south London boy, uninterested in the accoutrements of fame.
And the people, it turns out, love Alexander McQueen. Over 600,000 people visited Savage Beauty, the exhibition that opened the year after his death at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, a number that overwhelmed museum resources, forcing it to extend its opening hours. It was the Met’s most popular fashion exhibition of all time, and the eighth most popular overall. All very impressive, but many on this side of the Atlantic couldn’t help asking why McQueen’s first major posthumous exhibition took place in New York and not London, the city whose rhythms and edges gave life to McQueen’s clothing. A petition was started, and now, almost four years later, those who signed have their wish. Savage Beauty is coming home – to the Victoria and Albert Museum, the cathedral of clothes that Lee Alexander McQueen the student would visit every week, leafing through the history books to which one day his name would be added.

A McQueen butterfly dress and butterfly headdress by Philip Treacy

“It’s an amplified version of the show in New York,” says Claire Wilcox, curator of the London show. “We’ve got a third more space here at the V&A. It won’t be a third bigger in terms of objects, but it’s going to be physically bigger. So for example the apparition of Kate Moss, which was the finale to the Met show, will be nearly life size. And in the cabinet of curiosities we have a very high ceilinged gallery, so we’re able to go higher and add another level of objects.”
We know a bit more about McQueen than we did four years ago. Not a great deal more, but a bit. He was HIV positive. As a child he was abused by an uncle. It was also recently revealed that at the time of his death he had just been offered a place on the fine art MA course at the Slade, a place he was giddily excited about taking up. There have been the salacious after-whispers that tend to follow the suicide of a genius, rumours of drug binges and a foul temper. Broadly, though, his life and death remain mysterious to all but a close band of trusted acolytes.

Spray-painted dress, No. 13, Spring/Summer 1999

Whatever the reason for his suicide, it’s hard to resist a more macabre reading of his work in light of it. All that morbidity – perhaps it was pain. But those close to him emphasise the light that accompanied the dark. His designs embodied an ambiguous mix of victimhood and survival, fragility and strength. He’s been called a misogynist, but women have likened the experience of wearing his dresses to that of wearing armour. His biographer, Andrew Wilson, says these contradictions are partly explained by his relationship with his eldest sister Janet, who he witnessed being beaten by his uncle. This instilled in him both a strong sense of the vulnerability of women, and a desire to protect them. Wearing his clothes, he wanted his women to look beautiful, but he also wanted to them to look scary. Hence the savagery.
McQueen was born in Lewisham in 1969 to a taxi driver father and teacher mother. He left school with just one O-level, art, before embarking on an apprenticeship at Savile Row tailor Anderson and Sheppard. There he cut suits for the likes of Prince Charles and Mikhail Gorbachev (he claimed to have scribbled profanities into jacket linings of the former). After the Row he worked for costumier Berman’s and Nathan’s before moving to Milan for a stint at Gigli, and then back to London to work for avant garde designer Koji Tatsuno. Only then, with all that practical and professional experience under his belt, did McQueen go to art school.

A model wears a pair of McQueen armadillo heels

At every pitstop on his journey from apprentice suitmaker to fashion designer, McQueen picked up tricks and touches that he would later mix into his own distinctive designs. “It was the course at Central St Martins that really turned him from a tailor into a fashion designer,” says Wilcox, “although he brought his knowledge as a tailor with him; there’s not a McQueen collection that doesn’t include sharp tailoring.”
For all the exuberance of his shows, fashion was something he took extremely seriously. He was academic about it, reverent. “Generationally, British fashion goes Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano and then Alexander McQueen,” says Wilcox. “Lee learned from them both. Sometimes I think I can see a touch of Galliano and sometimes I see Westwood, but most of the time he’s utterly his own. All great designers know their fashion history and McQueen was no exception – his knowledge went as far back as the 17th and 18th century. Designers may nod to that history but it’s always their own vision.”

Portrait of Alexander McQueen, 1997

Respect for fashion’s past and irreverence for its present – fostered during an unhappy five years as creative director at Givenchy – elevated him above his peers. His final autumn/winter collection, Horn of Plenty (debuted in Paris in 2009) took place when the fashion world was retreating in on itself, reeling from a global financial crisis that shrunk the market for both magazine advertising and luxury retail. Almost all designers resorted to conservative failsafes. Not McQueen. McQueen dared to comment on the state of the industry, satirising its reliance on a queasy consumerism underpinned by unstable economic forces. Next to a massive, spray-painted garbage heap, models took to the runway with discarded cans in their hair, upturned umbrellas on their heads. It was described by one critic as a “slap in the face to his industry.”
Now he’s dead, the guts and controversy have made way for something a little safer. It’s no surprise the darkest chapters of the McQueen story have been shielded from public view – Alexander McQueen, the Gucci-owned brand, has a reputation to maintain. Two years after he hanged himself amid rumours of cocaine addiction and depression, Kate Middleton wed Prince William wearing a flowing white gown of exquisite satin and lace. It was designed by Sarah Burton the one-time second in command and new head of the McQueen empire. The all-conquering dress was the brand at its beautiful best. But savagery? That died with the man himself.
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the V&A runs from 14 March to 2 August 2015.

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