This March sees the start of a stunning new retrospective at the V&A on the work of one of Britain’s most innovative, talented fashion designers of all time, Alexander McQueen. As an exclusive to After Nyne Magazine’s Issue 6, Kate Bethune, Senior Research Assistant within Savage Beauty’s Curatorial Team took the time to talk about the show, what we can expect, and about McQueen’s impact on the fashion world ahead of the opening.
Alexander McQueen’s body of work encompasses some of the most monumental deigns of our time, can you tell us about the dominant themes and concepts included in the pieces exhibited in “Savage Beauty”?
Savage Beauty pays tribute to McQueen’s exceptional talent as a visionary designer who consistently pushed the boundaries of fashion. Dresses made from microscope slides and razor clam shells, skirts made of balsa wood, and bodices made of glass reveal that not only was McQueen bold and daring with his ideas and his dazzling use of materials, but that he always had an important point of view which he expressed through fashion. This, however, was always rooted in craftsmanship of the highest level. Savile Row-trained, part of McQueen’s genius lay in his profound grasp of tailoring and his skill in blending the latest technology with traditional craftsmanship.
London was central to McQueen’s world, and one of the most significant changes to Savage Beauty at the V&A is the addition of a new display at the start of the exhibition which explores McQueen’s early London collections, including Nihilism, (Spring/Summer 1994), The Birds (Spring/Summer 1995) and The Hunger (Spring/Summer 1996). Ten of McQueen’s earliest designs – some of which have never been on display before – are included in this section. These garments emphasise McQueen’s raw energy as a young designer who provoked with designs such as the iconic ‘bumster’ trousers and also with his use of experimental materials, such as laminated laces that were torn to expose the models’ flesh.
Other displays explore McQueen’s gothic sensibility, his fascination for other cultures and his deep interest in his Scottish heritage. Above all, McQueen loved nature. He was a bird watcher and a scuba diver and the natural world inspired him throughout his career. A personal favourite from The Widows of Culloden (Autumn/Winter 2006) is a full-length gown made entirely from pheasant feathers that have been individually stitched to lengths of ribbon which have then been sewn onto a net ground.
Spray painted dress, Alexander McQueen, No 13, S/S 1999 Model: Shalom Harlow. Image: Catwalking
As a curator, I imagine working with such a diverse roster of concepts is more of a thrill than a challenge. Can you give us an insight to what elements are necessary in achieving the “McQueen aesthetic” and how you plan to set the perfect mood?
A trusted circle of art director, production designer, show producer, stylist and music and lighting directors enabled McQueen to turn his visions into a reality on the catwalk. We are delighted to be working with Sam Gainsbury and Anna Whiting of Gainsbury and Whiting, who produced all of McQueen’s shows from 1996, as well as other of McQueen’s key collaborators, including production designer Joseph Bennett and director of scenography Simon Kenny. We are also thrilled that Katy England- McQueen’s close friend and longstanding stylist – is collaborating with us on our ‘London’ gallery, which forms an exciting new addition to the V&A exhibition. Working with McQueen’s trusted collaborators is fundamental in ensuring our exhibition meets the uncompromisingly high standards that McQueen set for himself and in bringing that sense of spectacle that was synonymous with his catwalk shows.
Each gallery has a soundtrack that has been choreographed by John Gosling, who produced the soundtracks for most of McQueen’s catwalk shows. In addition we will be showing video footage of all of McQueen’s catwalk shows throughout the exhibition galleries. Most of these will be in the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’, which has been expanded at the V&A to fill our double height gallery space.
Working first-hand with his works, you must have a direct insight to his development as a designer since the genesis of his ten-piece graduate collection. Is this development something you could expand on?
Consistent in McQueen’s collections is his profound grasp of tailoring, which he mastered during his apprenticeships on Savile-Row, first with Anderson and Sheppard and then with Gieves and Hawkes. McQueen also spent time working for the theatrical costumiers Bermans and Nathans, where he worked on productions such as Cameron Mackintosh’s musical Les Miserables. Here, McQueen was introduced to historical dress. Both of these experiences inspired his innovative and revolutionary approach to tailoring in which he skilfully injected modernity into historic silhouettes. He was particularly inspired by the frock coat and Victorian jackets, some of which he studied at the V&A. Whilst he altered these with features such as dagger-shaped lapels, and in his MA graduate collection, Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims (1992), he also developed new silhouettes, such as the ‘bumster’ trousers, with the waistband that sat 5cm below that of hipsters to elongate the torso and expose the lower spine, and the S-Bend trousers that he introduced in No13 (Spring/Summer 1999). When laid on the floor, these formed a perfect half-circle, but on the body they created a draped effect at the front, and a kick back at the ankle.
1) Tulle and lace dress with veil and antlers, Alexander McQueen, Widows of Culloden, A/W 2006–07 Model: Raquel Zimmermann, Viva London Image: firstVIEW. 2) Dress of dyed ostrich feathers and hand-painted microscopic slides, Alexander McQueen, Voss, S/S 2001. Model: Erin O’Connor. Image: REX
Where do you stand personally on the debate surrounding the intersection of fashion and art?
McQueen is widely held to be an artist whose medium was fashion, although it is something that he himself refuted. Nevertheless McQueen’s designs went beyond fashion and he always had a strong point of view. With every show McQueen’s purpose was to provoke a strong reaction from the audience. His shows often incorporated avant-garde installations that were akin to performance art.
For example, the finale to Voss (Spring/Summer 2001) –one of McQueen’s most celebrated shows- closed with the walls of an opaque class cube at the centre of the catwalk smashing to reveal the naked fetish writer Michelle Olley, lounging on a chaise-longue, masked and surrounded by moths. It was a recreation of McQueen’s favourite photographic artist Joel-Peter Witkin’s Sanitarium (1983).
How do you think the opening of “Savage Beauty” at the V&A in London will distinguish itself from its exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY?/ McQueen was renowned for his runway presentations, and every McQueen showcase gave audiences the impression that it was destined for the fashion history books. Do you feel any pressure to up-hold these expectations with this particular retrospective showcase?
The largest ever retrospective on McQueen, Savage Beauty at the V&A is an ambitious re-staging of the original curation that was presented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2011. Aside from the addition of the new ‘London’ gallery, we have been able to include more than forty additional garments and accessories. Many of these will be displayed in the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’, which focuses on McQueen’s rich and diverse collaborations with creatives such as the milliner Philip Treacy and the jeweller Shaun Leane. McQueen presented his vision to the world through spectacular and provocative catwalk shows, which often involved imaginative storytelling and breath-taking installations.
Just one of the many highlights in Savage Beauty is a life-size hologram of Kate Moss, which recaptures the magical finale to The Widows of Culloden (Autumn/Winter 2006) and embodies one of McQueen’s most memorable catwalk moments. McQueen set himself uncompromisingly high standards, and Savage Beauty lives up to them because we have had the privilege of working with many of McQueen’s trusted collaborators who all care deeply about presenting his genius to a new public.
Jellyfish ensemble and Armadillo shoes, Alexander McQueen, Plato’s Atlantis, S/S 2010 Model: Polina Kasina. © Lauren Greenfield/INSTITUTE
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, in partnership with Swarovski, supported by American Express, with thanks to M∙A∙C Cosmetics and made possible with the co-operation of Alexander McQueen, runs from 14 March – 2 August 2015.
Kate Bethune was speaking exclusively with After Nyne’s Arts Editor Luciana Garbarni