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V&A Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty

20 March 2015 | Nicky Charlish

"There is no way back for me now. I'm going to take you on journeys you've never dreamed were possible." Alexander McQueen

Beauty and savagery are – in the arts – old friends.  Think, for instance, of the way Francis Bacon used gory pictures from medical textbooks as an inspiration for his work.  The designer who is the subject of this exhibition – Lee Alexander McQueen – certainly knew how to put those two concepts together to achieve maximum effect.  But their combination to create a name for this exhibition has a second meaning, gives the title a sting in its tail.  Let’s hold back on this for the moment, though, and look at the creativity first.

McQueen’s fashion output started to germinate in the Nineties of the last century, coming to full fruition in the early years of this one.  It still has power now, which is probably why advance ticket sales for this exhibition have rocketed even before it’s opened. But who was he?  Born in 1969, he came from a modest East End background.  A sensitive boy, it was unlikely that he would follow in his father’s footsteps as a taxi driver.  Becoming a tailor’s apprentice in Savile Row – the heartland of traditional London tailoring  – he would go on to cut clothes for major London theatre shows (Les Misérables, Miss Saigon) before working in Milan for the designer Romeo Gigli, then going on to complete a master’s degree in Fashion Design from Central St Martin’s.  In 1992 his graduate show was entitled Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims which – with its combination of precise workmanship and a title almost deliberately calculated to inspire outrage – would set the pattern for the course of his career.  Style and shock became almost synonymous with his name, a notoriety which, arguably, had its most famous example with his 1995 show Highland Rape. This title was a double reference to McQueen’s Scottish ancestry and – with its recalling of the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries when small farmers were evicted to make way for sheep farming – a deliberate kick in the sporran to romanticised images of Scotland’s past.  The title, needless to say, caused accusations of sexism to be labelled against him.  (Mathew Arnold’s line from his poem Dover Beach about a world ‘Where ignorant armies clash by night’ could have been written with this sort of furore – where stridency in equalled only by stupidity – in mind, and which has now become almost a daily occurrence with the advent of social media.) 

But McQueen’s design skills saved his career from shipwreck.  He would go on to become Head Designer at Givenchy for luxury brand LVMH, with Gucci later purchasing a controlling interest in the McQueen Line.  Gothic fantasy, fetishism and thermal images of models would all appear in his work, as would a combined performance by model Kate Moss and dancer and choreographer Michael Clark.  In 2003 he would be made a CBE for his services to the fashion industry, and in 2009 his Plato’s Atlantis would be the first fashion show to be streamed on the internet. But this seemingly-endless trajectory of success would come to an end with his death in 2010.

The creativity of McQueen had lit up the catwalks when, after the excesses of the New Romantics, fashion seemed headed for the doldrums and the promise of Blair-era Cool Britannia had started to fade.  Arguably, like Vivienne Westwood, his work fused shock with tradition.  So it’s unsurprising that Martin Roth, director of the V&A says of the exhibition:  ‘I am thrilled that this magnificent show is coming to London and feel passionately that the V&A is its natural home.  Lee Alexander McQueen presented his work here during his lifetime and studied the Museum’s wide-ranging public collections of tailoring, painting, art, photography and books as inspiration for his visionary designs, yet remained vigorously anti-establishment and a true provocateur.’  And Sarah Burton, creative director of Alexander McQueen, explains that: ‘Savage Beauty is a celebration of the most imaginative and talented designer of our time.  Lee was a genius and a true visionary who pushed boundaries, challenged and inspired.  He believed in creativity and innovation and his talent was limitless.’

McQueen’s talent – his gift – is where the exhibition’s title takes on a deeper meaning.  ‘Tortured genius’ is a well-known phrase within the lexicon of lazy commentators on the arts but, in McQueen’s case, it has a degree of accuracy.  Allegations have risen recently about his being a victim of childhood sexual abuse, and of witnessing domestic violence, with his later life seemingly awash with sex and drugs.  Alongside this is the issue of the continued use of his name.  Today, his brand continues without his creative input – a sort of ghostly McQueen machine – a phenomenon which raises questions about the value of the status given to designer clothes, perfumes and jewellery. Has the designer had any creative input or is his or her name simply being used as a marketing tool?  Yet all this does not detract from the value of the exhibition.  Because its importance lies, not only in its aesthetic content, but also in the issues it raises.  And they are not simply questions about authenticity.  There is the use by McQueen of his design creativity within the medium of fashion as a way of overcoming life’s vicissitudes – in his case, the combination of alleged abuse and humdrum adult expectations which characterised his early years.  And paradoxically, the resulting commercial and critical success which he achieved leading to a situation where the fashion industry’s pressures may –arguably – have helped to fuel a lifestyle that helped contribute to his death.  In this exhibition, as in McQueen’s work, beauty and savagery combine in multiple ways to excite us with visual pleasure – and make us pause for thought.
 
The exhibition runs from 14 March to 2 August 2015
For further information, including about booking tickets, see www.vam.ac.uk/savagebeauty

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