SAVAGE BEAUTY: MCQUEEN RETTROSPECTIVE AT THE V&A
Savage Beauty: The V&A has created a compelling tribute, full of intelligent insight that truly captures the soul of Lee McQueen.
First off, you have to secure a ticket to Savage Beauty and, judging by the swathes of blocked out slots on the V&A website, this means either waiting a few weeks, or risk heading there early on the day to get allocated one of those being released to the public on a daily basis. Or you could do what I did - buy a membership. For just £64 I am now a very proud member of the V&A for one year and in receipt of membership privileges including access to the Members’ Lounge, preview events and (this is the good bit) turn-up and walk-in access to the McQueen exhibition. No waiting, no extra cost (and the tickets are £17) just show your membership card at the door and glide on through…
Anyone and everyone I would argue, is a target audience for this exhibition because while McQueen’s work is primarily in the field of fashion merging with art on many an occasion, it’s the utter genius of the man that slaps you in the face from the get-go. Starting at the beginning of his story, Savage Beauty sets us firmly located in London town: East End boy made good through his apprenticeship on Savile Row. But while McQueen’s father did ‘The Knowledge’ to get his cab driver’s badge, his youngest son served two years learning to master the art of tailoring. And it’s this which forms the cornerstone of McQueen’s prolific and at times disturbing and overwhelming talent.
I admit I cried three times during my visit and I am fighting back tears now recalling how it made me feel to see so much of his work, his art, his life gathered together and displayed in one place. This is not an exhibition to be seen once: it begs to be revisited because it’s pretty much impossible to take it all in at once, especially if you’re surrounded by other visitors all vying for a closer look.
Even if you have never been interested in fashion, you will probably be moved by the guts, gusto, flair and flagrant disregard for ‘rules’ that characterised his short life. Take his take on the frock coat — there are a good few examples on show here and the way he wraps the fabric around the torso is akin to a musical score. Whatever tailoring is, McQueen got it. He understood the bespoke approach to creating a suit, the history of trousers and the art of dressing with fabric.
From the infamous bumster trousers where McQueen celebrated both the street style of hip hop culture and the pelvis as an erogenous zone, the tension just builds and builds throughout the rest of the exhibition. We’re taken on a dark and sinister journey through animal remains, bird references and literal and metaphoric games. The dress made of real flowers, designed to drop off and die on the catwalk, the belted dress which was painted live on the catwalk by two computerised robots, the dress made of razor clam shells, the dress made to look like a fan — on and on, the great pieces just keep coming.
Take a few moments to enjoy the Kate Moss hologram: it’s perfectly placed to give some quiet respite amongst the high drama of so much of what is on show here. Even after I’d seen the hologram sequence, I felt as if I wasn’t sure what I’d really seen and had to watch it again.
With support from his family and Sarah Burton (the designer who took over from Lee as chief designer of his own-name label), the curation here has got to be praised.
But it’s not all good, I feel. Leaving the McQueen story one has of course to exit through the gift shop, and what a gift shop the V&A has built! Seriously, there are vast amounts of merchandise available: postcards, posters, bags, badges, books — the choice is huge. I am not sure I like that so much has gone into the ‘add ons’ here, even though I think the official book probably represents good value at £25 and £1 for a wonderful postcard is not a bad price… The other thing disturbing my thoughts is the horrible facts of Lee McQueen’s death. Why was no one from our British Fashion Council (which couldn’t stop giving him accolades) able to intervene and help? Was it not obvious that his ridiculous workload left him no time or space to grieve for his friend Isabella Blow, and then his own dear mother Joyce? Who was there to comfort him? With the ‘benefit of hindsight’ an intervention should have been staged and Lee Alexander McQueen should have been taken away from his work commitments, surrounded by love and peacefulness and given some time to recover. But no, the fashion show, must go on… and that’s why there are tears in my eyes again.
I heard the news of McQueen’s death when I received a call from Sky News looking for a live on air reaction from me, a fashion journalist at the time. Subsequently, I took a long sabbatical from fashion and I am not sure I will ever return to that world. If lessons are to be learned from the tragic loss we suffer here, it’s surely that genius is a human quality, to be nurtured, protected and loved. Not exploited for all its worth. So, RIP Lee Alexander McQueen, ‘love looks not with the eyes’.