Jane Audas looks forward to a bittersweet blockbuster at the V&A
The posthumous return of Alexander McQueen to his hometown of London (he was born in Lewisham in 1969) in the form of the Savage Beauty exhibition at the V&A has been long awaited. The exhibition originally opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2011, barely a year after his death. It closed amid cries of ‘Why isn’t it coming to London?’ Conversations ensued. The Tate Modern Turbine Hall was touted as a possible venue but whatever the museum politics were, the V&A won.
McQueen spent a lot of time at the V&A visiting its archives and exhibitions and taking part in two live Fashion in Motion events. He was known to have bought so many books on one visit that they needed a cab of their own, back to his studio. So it feels right that the V&A should re-present this exhibition now.
The V&A version of Savage Beauty has the same exhibition designers the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York used Gainsbury and Whiting, who also produced catwalk shows for McQueen. The original exhibition wasn’t built to tour so it has been a mammoth re-creation project for the museum. Claire Wilcox, senior curator of fashion at the V&A has been in charge of re-setting the exhibition into its new home. To mark the return of ‘the McQ’, she introduced a new section to the show, about McQueen and his beloved London. As Wilcox says: ‘Lee Alexander McQueen was born, trained and worked in London. The capital was central to McQueen’s world, and we felt it was important to reflect this with the addition of a new display at the start of the exhibition which explores McQueen’s raw, early London collections such as Nihilism, (s/s 1994), The Birds (s/s 1995), Highland Rape (a/w 1995) and The Hunger (s/s 1996).’
McQueen’s gang, most of whom he worked with for years, was a London gang. Collaborators from Katy England to Shaun Leane, Nick Knight, Philip Treacy, Kate Moss and of course Sarah Burton stayed with McQueen throughout. He was apparently – from the beginning – very hard to say no to. The V&A has added in some of its own McQueen pieces, collected over the years, to Savage Beauty. But it also brought in loans from this London gang, wrapping the exhibition in a friendly homecoming wave.
McQueen originally learnt his craft in the heart of London’s tailoring area Savile Row. At 16 he became a tailor’s apprentice with Anderson & Sheppard, then Gieves & Hawkes. Four years learning the craft of tailoring were followed by a stint at a theatrical costumiers and placements with established designers such as Romeo Gigli. McQueen wrapped up his formal education in 1990 with a fashion design MA at Central Saint Martins. On graduation in 1992 he set up his own label. By 1996 he was offered the top job at Givenchy. The rest, as they say, is fashion history.
It is bittersweet that McQueen didn’t live to see his pieces taking over the V&A. If ever a designer’s work had the weight to fill those big exhibition rooms and to compete with those overblown collections and surroundings, it’s his. It will undoubtedly be the V&A’s blockbuster exhibition this year, poignant for his absence. But Savage Beauty is a triumphant return for the work of McQueen to the city that he always identified with, and took some credit for, just as it is for McQueen’s particular combination of dress, craft, beauty, creativity and chaos.
Alexander McQueen – Savage Beauty is at the V&A, London from 14 March to 2 August.