Review of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, V&A, London

The “enfant terrible” of British fashion, Alexander McQueen, rose from obscurity to become one of the world’s top fashion designers until his untimely death in 2010. His pieces were deliberately provocative and yet also sensual. In the first room of Savage Beauty at the V&A, London, his 2006 collection, Widows of Culloden, features a range of silk black lace dresses and suits that McQueen referred to as reflecting “the dark side of my personality.” These clothes clearly demonstrate how he utilised gothic themes to make the women wearing them feel powerful.

Like Jean Paul Gaultier before him, McQueen also used the clothes of African tribes as a source of inspiration. The 2000 collection, presented in a darkened inner room, shows the deisgner’s re-working of items worn by the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria. The sheer versatility of McQueen is what strikes the viewer, as one season reflects his Scottish roots, illustrating a range of tartan dresses, while another shows a regal collection with velvet jackets and cocktail dresses. The combination of drama and experimentation, which is the hallmark of the designer’s work, is evident in each collection selected for the exhibition.

The highlight of Savage Beauty is an inner chamber with a high ceiling, which displays artefacts from the designer’s entire career, including photographs of models, catwalks, outlandish platform shoes and handbags. This array of designs from each phase of the his work is a catalogue of how far McQueen progressed from his early days as a Saville row tailor. The final rooms of the exhibiton highlight his “romantic naturalism” phase when he used raw materials in his designs. This was a move which may have shocked fashion critics at the time but it remains a trademark of his designs. One of the most dramatic examples of this phase can be seen in the razor clam shell dress, which is strikingly placed on its own in a glass case. The radical design of the razor clam seashell dress contrasts with the more conventional collections on show. This designer clearly paved the way for artists such as Lady Gaga and her infamous “meat dress”.

It is interesting to note that at the height of his career the McQueen provided couture pieces for the influential, including royalty. The exhibition clearly demonstrates how he used this creativity to design some of the most memorable catwalk shows in fashion. McQueen’s love of romance and his vivid imagination comes to life in his designs and even the platform shoes on display are wildly colourful. It would have been interesting to learn more of how his early collaborations with designers like Isabella Blow helped his career. The exhibition does provide a good overview of all his work and is designed in an eye catching way, which keeps the viewer’s attention. Savage Beauty is like a McQueen catwalk show itself, both fascinating and alluring. McQueen was known for his lavish, unconventional designs and this exhibition certainly opens the door to those who want to find out more about him, or simply to those who love fashion.

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, until 2 August, Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington, London, SW7 2RL.

Bryony Lanham

1. Installation view of Romantic Exoticism gallery, 2015, Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty at the V&A.
2. Installation view of Cabinet of Curiosities gallery 2015, Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty at the V&A.
3. Installation view of London gallery, 2015, Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty at the V&A.