Written by Bertie Bowen


Review: Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty

The V&A is celebrating one of the most innovative designers of recent times: Alexander McQueen. Bertie Bowen was rapt and totally ruined as she got to know the man behind the clothes.

Alexander McQueen's Jellyfish ensemble and Armadillo shoes

Jellyfish ensemble and Armadillo shoes. Model: Polina Kasina, © Lauren Greenfield/INSTITUTE

In true McQueen style, just getting into the exhibition is intense and dramatic. On the day I visited, the tickets were sold out on the door (you are advised to book your day and time slot in advance) and the entry was busy with queues of excited tourists. But as I was ushered through the heavy doors into the pitch black entrance the jostling and chatting fell away. A huge portrait of Lee Alexander McQueen is projected onto the wall, slowly transforming into a looming skull, inviting you to enter if you dare.

Duck feather dress by Alexander McQueen

Duck feather dress. Model: Magdalena Frackowiak represented by dna model management New York, Image: firstVIEW

Within a series of rooms, some wide and expansive, some richly decadent and some tomb-like and macabre, Savage Beauty showcases McQueen’s substantial body of work chronologically, from his 1992 MA graduate collection through to his unfinished AW 2010 collection.

Starting in a grey bricked, industrial room, a row of sinister mannequins face the onlookers, their faces covered with metal caged masks, behind them slow motion footage of a catwalk show. Audio of McQueen’s distinct cockney voice booms out, lively and aggressive. Almost instantly I was able to grasp a feel for this man’s command, presence and absolute passion. A bit of background is given to where McQueen grew up (East London) and studied (Savile Row) but it was hearing his voice that really sparked my attention. I wish I’d listened more carefully as it is the only time his voice is heard throughout the exhibition and I would have liked to have heard more of his strong views and charismatic attitude. But this exhibition is about McQueen’s aesthetic creativity: the exquisite clothes.

This glorious retrospective takes you on a journey through the twisting, cavernous chambers of McQueen’s mind. His work was astonishingly autobiographical; he reached deep within himself and found inspiration from where he grew up, his roots and his own warped subconscious, so much so, that sometimes I felt like I was seeing into his soul.

I particularly liked a crypt-like room with walls of bones that display a collection exploring themes of tribalism and primitivism. Horned mannequins wearing clothes of horse hair, latex and mud, delicately embroidered and embellished with crocodile heads are grotesque and yet startlingly pretty. This collection feels like walking through the darkest corners of a person’s psyche. It is the stuff of nightmares.

Upon walking into the theatrical ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ collection, I actually let out an involuntary “wow”. The intense atmosphere inside is palpable, even with a mass of people surging around you. In a vast, black room, the walls made up of cubes of varying sizes, you are completely surrounded by a seemingly never-ending collection. Every space is filled with pieces of art: rotating mannequins, masks, headwear, accessories and shoes and multiple screens of video footage playing clips of McQueen’s collections in action on the runway. Overlapping sounds of typewriters, howling wind, birds and eerie music creates an uncomfortable crushing atmosphere, yet I felt as if I could’ve stayed there for hours. It was overwhelming; at once claustrophobic yet also calming, hypnotic and devastatingly magnificent. If you have the time and see a free seat in the centre, sit down, look up, and take it all in.

Tahitian pearl necklace

Tahitian pearl and silver neckpiece. Model: Karen Elson, © Anthea Simms

I realised then that everything McQueen made was original, interesting and modern – like nothing I’ve seen and unlike any other designer I know. He was attracted to decadence and elegance, debauchery and excess and his collections reflected his every urge and impulse. The clothes he designed were disciplined yet unconstrained, built on his knowledge of traditional tailoring yet wildly avant-garde. McQueen wanted to make an impact and he wanted to be remembered and he certainly achieved that. This exhibition is a visual memoir of McQueen’s creative life and when I left I literally felt exhausted, my head spinning. It is an attack on the senses. But perhaps this is exactly what he would’ve wanted too: he shocked and moved me. McQueen is described as an artist of dialectical oppositions and this exhibition had this conflicting effect on me: I felt frayed, utterly wowed and totally ruined. Brilliant.

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty runs at the V&A, London, until 2 August.


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Written by Bertie Bowen

Stylist, writer and mother living in East London. A clompy shoed, curly haired, Radio 4 enthusiast. www.mothershoppers.com