Savage Beauty, the first major exhibition of Alexander McQueen’s work, broke all records for a fashion exhibition when it appeared at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2011. McQueen’s volcanic talent, tragically extinguished with his suicide in 2010, is now back in the spotlight with the publication of two controversial books, one of which – Gods and Kings by Dana Thomas – makes parallels with the career of the other flawed design genius of the era, John Galliano, while the other – Alexander McQueen: Blood Beneath the Skin by Andrew Wilson – raises possibly actionable issues over his personal life. The upshot is unprecedented British interest in a larger version of the same exhibition, with over 240 outfits and accessories, opening at the V&A on Saturday March 14, with more than 75,000 tickets sold before the start.
For anyone who followed his career or attended his extraordinary, sometimes brutal and occasionally dangerous shows, the well-named exhibition is a poignant journey through the development of a designer with a unique viewpoint and background, whose creations rose to the heights of beauty, but could also plumb the depths of ugliness and violence in a way no one else’s have and that, with the greatest respect to his worthy team of successors, cannot be replicated.
In his own words, he was a “romantic schizophrenic”, and the show’s design by Sam Gainsbury, who worked closely with McQueen, emphasises these contrasts. A bleak concrete studio in which his tailoring is set is followed by a room of heavy gilt frames and antique mirrors reflecting his gothic sensibilities, then a catacomb-like room of bones representing his interest in primitivism, with gilt and panelling showing his love of British (and Scottish) nationhood.
The exhibition also shows how, apart from being uniquely creative, he was a lead experimenter on more technical aspects, using latex, silicone and early digital printing, and pushing Swarovski to create its now widely used crystal mesh.
The V&A shop has a selection of exclusive re-editions of McQueen products, including the signature De Manta silk clutch (£465) in two prints from the Plato’s Atlantis collection and silk chiffon scarves (£345) with the same prints. The members of the current McQueen team have also excelled themselves with a collection of five special-edition scarves, each based on one of his iconic items. McQueen was always great at scarves – his original skull design arguably started the current global trend for this motif – and these designs are truly within that tradition. Each celebrates the outfit while also working more abstractly when tied. Some of the designs – the No 13 paint-spattered dress (1999, first picture), worn by model Shalom Harlow to be “decorated” by car-painting robots, and the beautifully drawn peacock-feathered lace dress from The Girl Who Lived in a Tree (2008, second picture) – feature in the exhibition, along with the extraordinary armadillo shoes from Plato’s Atlantis (2010, third picture), which form the centrepiece of a warmly coloured design.
There is also a stylised butterfly design from It’s Only a Game (2005, fourth picture) and the beautiful dress in McQueen tartan and its monochrome lacy surround from The Widows of Culloden (2006, fifth picture) – my personal favourite – which was the collection with a hologram of Kate Moss and is still one of the greatest-ever fashion-as-art events. Both dress and hologram are also in the show. The silk scarves are £345 and only a hundred have been made of each design, available at the McQueen flagship London store and online. As a memory that will last far longer than the exhibition (on until Sunday August 2), it is hard to think of a better tribute.