Antler headdresses, armadillo shoes, bumster trousers. Dresses made from feathers, mussels, razor clams, horse hair and pony skin. These are the creations of the late fashion designer, Alexander McQueen, and they are surprising, charismatic, feminine and intimidating.
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty closed on 2 August, becoming the V&A’s most visited exhibition, with 493,043 visitors during its 21-week run. To cope with demand, the exhibition was open through the night during its final two weekends.
According to Martin Roth, director of the V&A, Savage Beauty was “one of the most unpredictable, dramatic and spectacular exhibitions we’ve ever staged. The response has been phenomenal and has exceeded our expectations,” he says.
JOURNEY INTO THE MIND
When creating Savage Beauty, the curatorial team chose to go beyond producing an exhibition of fancy frocks, and take visitors on a journey into his mind, as well as giving the sense of visiting one of his fashion shows.
Having collaborated with McQueen’s former team of catwalk show producers, lighting designer, DJ and hairdresser, the result was intoxicating.
“We wanted visitors to feel drawn into his creative mind. We wanted to create a sensory, theatrical, dramatic and immersive experience,” says Kate Bethune, senior research assistant for the V&A’s retrospective. “Each gallery was a contrast to the preceding one and each had a complementary soundtrack to work with it. Switches in tone and tempo drew out the spectacle and drama. It was light on text, so as not to break the sense of immersion.”
SUCCESS IN NEW YORK
Savage Beauty was first staged at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2011. Attracting almost 700,000 visitors in its four-month run, it was the most visited special exhibition organised by the Costume Institute since it became part of the museum in 1946 and one of the museum’s top 10 most visited exhibitions.
Andrew Bolton was the curator of the Metropolitan exhibition. It featured 100 ensembles and 70 accessories from McQueen’s 19-year career, drawn primarily from the Alexander McQueen Archive in London, with pieces from the Givenchy Archive in Paris and private collections.
Bolton says he wanted the exhibition to show McQueen’s artistry as well as illustrate how his fashion designs reflected his imagination: “McQueen was best known for his astonishing and extravagant runway presentations, which were given dramatic scenarios and narrative structures that suggested avant-garde installation and performance art,” he says. “His fashions were an outlet for his emotions, an expression of the deepest, often darkest, aspects of his imagination.”
Bethune says the V&A inherited a brilliant curation, but wanted to reflect McQueen’s London roots: he was born in Stratford, trained at Central St Martins, cut his teeth on Savile Row and launched his first collection in London. The London gallery, an addition to the beginning of the show, was one of the big changes from New York.
“We wanted to include designs from the early collections to tell the story before he was famous, when he didn’t have any money to invest in shows and materials,” she says. “We emphasised the edginess, rawness and grittiness of the early years.”
In order to showcase work from his early career, the curatorial team had to track down some of McQueen’s early collaborators. “In the early days he couldn’t pay his staff salaries, so instead he paid them in garments,” explains Bethune.
“Those pieces were quite widely dispersed and lots of work went into tracking down his PRs and stylists from that time. We were lucky that his close friend and stylist Katy England let us borrow from her private collection,” she continues.
Another development was the expansion of the highlight of the show, the Cabinet of Curiosities.
“We had one-third more space, so we increased the curation by 25 per cent, which equated to 66 more exhibits and almost all of them went into that gallery,” says Bethune.
“McQueen’s limitless imagination really came through in that space. I love the Cabinet because of its intensity and impact. We’d never achieved that in an exhibition before. Not only was this the largest retrospective of McQueen, but the largest and most ambitious fashion exhibition that the V&A has ever staged.”