First things first: right the wrong. New York may have held the first major posthumous Alexander McQueen exhibition, but London was the city whose rhythms and edges gave life to the designer’s clothing. Savage Beauty opens with a room entitled “London”, which reaffirms the UK capital as the “epicentre” of the designer’s creative world. The room features dresses from some of his industry-shattering first collections – The Birds, Highland Rape and The Hunger – which showcased his technical mastery and taste for the avant garde. It’s tempting to view his life’s work through the prism of his death. But even at his most “savage” there’s a playfulness, and the overall picture isn’t of a troubled soul swamped in darkness, but an exuberantly creative genius open to the pleasures of mischief.
It takes a lot for a dress worn by a mannequin to take the breath away, but McQueen’s do. Duck Feather Dress from 2009’s Horn of Plenty (the last autumn/winter show before McQueen’s death) looks darkly imposing from afar, and impossibly delicate up close – fantasy power-dressing for the leaders of a mythical world.
Even at his most out-there, McQueen’s collections were grounded in intricate skill and tailoring. His prowess elevated him above his peers – that, and the theatricality of his runway shows. The exhibition evokes the pounding excitement of a McQueen collection with pounding music and projections on the walls. One of his best loved catwalk set pieces – the spray-painting of a dress using industrial robots – is recreated in one of the rooms with a mannequin on a slowly revolving platform.
It’s been said that the New York exhibition was so close to McQueen’s death that it actually became part of the grieving process. Leaving this show, awe gives way to a more measured sadness: that he wasn’t able to witness such a triumphant celebration of his life’s work.