Closed Exhibition - Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty
Periscope Tour of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty
This tour was originally broadcast live on Periscope on 21 July 2015
Re-live the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty experience with this exhibition tour from our archives, lead by Senior Research Assistant Kate Bethune.
Good morning, my name’s Kate Bethune I’m delighted to be taking you on this highlights tour of Savage Beauty. Savage Beauty is the largest retrospective on Alexander McQueen, it’s also the largest and most ambitious fashion exhibition the V&A has ever presented.
We’re just walking through the entrance gallery, you will have seen an image of McQueen’s face. It was taken by his nephew, the photographer Gary James McQueen, and it morphs between an image of his face and a skull. It’s an important mood-setter, and it’s supposed to draw you immediately into his creative mind.
This is the London gallery, it’s a new gallery for the V&A exhibition. Which was originally presented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in 2011. It’s a really important gallery, that has ten designs, from three of his earliest collections, including Highland Rape, The Birds and The Hunger. I’m just stood now in front of a piece from Highland Rape. This is the first time that he used the McQueen family tartan - his father’s family came from the Isle of Skye - and these are the iconic bumster trousers. McQueen completely redefined the silhouette with these trousers, he lowered the waistband five centimetres below that of hipsters, to elongate the torso and show the back of the lower spine. These designs are really raw, fierce and edgy, and they show the experimental materials and processes he was using right from the outset of his career, such as this beautiful laminated lace that’s been torn and shredded to expose the model’s flesh. And you can see these fabulous head treatments by Guido who used to style the models’ hair for the catwalk. And I’m just going to spotlight on this lock of hair. It’s a clear plastic label, under which is a lock of human hair, and McQueen used these right in the earliest collections, and he was literally embedding his DNA into the garments themselves.
We’re now walking through into the tailoring gallery. As you can see the design of these two galleries is very bare, it’s very industrial and it has the feel of his early workshops in the Hoxton area of east London. Above all, McQueen was a master tailor, he left school when he was 16 to become a tailor’s apprentice on Savile Row. First with Anderson & Sheppard and then with Gieves & Hawkes, and then he went on to Berman’s and Nathan’s, the theatrical costumiers in Camden, and you can see how these experiences influenced many of his designs, a lot of them have a very theatrical flare to them. This is one of my favourite pieces in the entire exhibition. It’s from his graduation collection Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims,. And it really really shows how McQueen invested the narrative of the collection into the garments themselves. You can see features such as the dagger-shaped cuffs – I’m just going to focus on those for you - and that blood-red silk lining gives a very strong, visceral quality that really evokes the darker facets of the Victorian East End. And inside this jacket is dark strands of human hair, and it draws on McQueens’s darker aesthetic.
What makes Savage Beauty so special and impactful is that we’ve worked with so many of his original collaborators, including Sam Gainsbury who produced all of his catwalk shows from 1996, through to the DJ John Gosling who used to produce the soundtracks to his catwalk shows. And the galleries are therefore very dramatic, and very immersive, because we’ve worked with the people who really understood and knew him.
This is a fabulous piece from The Horn of Plenty collection, it’s one of McQueen’s bird women. He was very interested in duality and metamorphosis. And you can’t quite make out whether the model is a woman or a bird, or whether she’s in the process of transforming between the two. I just want to highlight this corset from McQueen’s Dante collection. It has that classic 19th-century corseted silhouette, McQueen loved the Victorian period. He was also drawn to the melancholia associated with the gothic tradition- we’re standing in Romantic Gothic now – lilac is the colour of half mourning, and it’s been embroidered with this beautiful jet lace and beading. And it’s classic McQueen, in that it fuses tradition and modernity with those lapels that flick upwards to obscure the model’s face.
In this casket, we have five designs from McQueen’s last collection, which was completed by Sarah Burton after his death. Many of these pieces have details from religious paintings. This is a depiction of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. His dark aesthetic was tempered by moments of extreme beauty. Here we have angels from Hugo van der Goes’ Portinari Altarpiece. And the final look in this collection: a stunning coat made of goose feathers that have been painted with gold paint.
Walking through now into Romantic Primitivism, which is an entirely new gallery, designed for the V&A. It’s filled with resin bones and skulls. It evokes the catacombs and the intention is that you feel as though you are in an underwater ossuary. A beautiful film sequence by the director John Maybury is at the top of the gallery, and it shows a girl plunged overboard a ship and appear to drown, and as she sinks deeper beneath the waves, the tendrils of her torn chiffon dress ensnare her legs and pull her deeper under. And this was projected at the start of one of McQueen’s collections called Irere. But it was a transformational tale, and in the catwalk show the girl is saved and she is transformed into an Amazonian princess. This is a gorgeous dress from McQueen’s collection Eshu and it really underscores the couture techniques that McQueen brought to his London label after his time as Chief Designer at Givenchy. It’s made from a skirt of horse hair, so it really highlights the interesting materials McQueen used in his designs, and it has a bodice of very fine glass beads that have been built up into layers, so it has this mossy and algae-like quality, and it looks as though it’s alive and growing. So Primitivism, the gallery we’re stood in now, has many examples of McQueen’s interesting and intriguing use of materials and it celebrates his love of the animal kingdom, and also tribal cultures. I love this piece, because it shows that he was drawing his references far and wide, here he’s drawing inspiration from the African plains. We’ve got some taxidermied crocodile heads on the shoulders there. But also 1990s street culture, with those bleached denim hotpants.
And yet again a complete contrast. We’re now walking into a very regal and majestic room,. This is Romantic Nationalism, and it celebrates McQueen’s fascination with his Scots ancestry. He first used tartan in the Highland Rape collection, but 11 years later he returned to the theme of Scotland in his beautiful collection The Widows of Culloden. And it was a much softer, much less aggressive rendering of Scotland’s past than Highland Rape. And Handel is playing in the background to reinforce the grandeur of the designs on display. But McQueen was also interested in the wider British past, and he also loved his English roots. And this collection The Girl Who Lived in a Tree was inspired by a 600-year-old elm tree in the back of his Sussex country garden. McQueen was a masterful storyteller and this collection was about a feral girl who left the darkness of a tree to meet a prince and be transformed into an opulent queen. And lots of these designs are embroidered with beautiful Swarovski crystal, such as this dress here, which has a bolero - when you look at it from the side it recalls the petals on a rosebud. And the collection also followed a month-long trip to India that he had taken with his close friend the collaborator and jeweller Shaun Leane. And you can see those references in the jewelled slippers, and also the sari silks that are used in some of the pieces.
But we’re now going to walk into my favourite gallery in the entire exhibition, which is The Cabinet of Curiosities and it’s the most overwhelmingly, breathtakingly beautiful space. It’s filled with over 120 accessories and show pieces. Everything that you see on display here was worn on the catwalk, and it really pays tribute to McQueen’s creative collaborations. What makes him so special is that not only was he remarkably talented himself, but he also recognised talent in others. And it was through his collaborations that he was able to fulfil his ambitions for fashion. We have 27 screens in this room, showing footage of many of his catwalk shows, and the sounds that hopefully you can here are all taken from his catwalk shows. Above all, McQueen was a masterful storyteller, and a masterful showman, and he really set a new precedent for what could be achieved in the remit of a fashion show. His shows involved avant garde installations and performance art. And this dress that you see spinning here on this turntable was created in the finale of a collection called No. 13, and the model stood on this wooden disc that was rotating at the centre of the catwalk while two car robots spray painted her dress live in front of the audience. And no one had ever seen anything like this before. It was so raw and so intense, so emotional. In fact it was the only collection that actually made McQueen himself cry. And it was inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, and the impact of technology on handcraft. Here are some other pieces from that collection, a dress, an ensemble, rather, with a skirt that’s made from plywood, and this beautiful leather corset, a leather bodice that was made by the prosthetics workshops at Roehampton hospital, with these amazing prosthetic legs that were carved from ash wood that have filigree relief carving inspired by Grinling Gibbons. And it was modelled by Aimee Mullins, the Paralympic athlete.
McQueen loved the V&A, he often used to come here to visit our Textiles and Fashion collections, he was involved in our Fashion in Motion catwalk series of events, and was spotlighted in numerous of our exhibitions. And he really loved the Museum, he said ‘the collections at the V&A never fail to intrigue and inspire me The nation is privileged to have access to such a resource’.
We’re moving now into the most emotional room in the exhibition, it’s the moment where Kate Moss appears as a spectral apparition on a pyramid at the centre of the catwalk at the end of the Widows of Culloden catwalk show. It involves a stage technology called Pepper’s Ghost, which derives from the 19th century. So again paying tribute to McQueen’s love of the Victorian era.
Moving through now into Romantic Exoticism, McQueen loved Asia and the Far East, especially Japan. He loved the kimono for its simplicity on account of its minimal seams, and so the kimono in its deconstructed form appears in many of his collections. And in this gallery, each piece is stood in its mirrored recess showing infinity views of the pieces on display. These designs are from a collection called It’s Only a Game, which was conceived of as a chess game between East versus West, Japan versus America, and you can see that in all the references to Asian silhouettes and motifs, such as Koi carp and lotus flowers. But here on the end, a reference to an American footballer with the shoulder pads and helmet. So it shows that McQueen was humorous as well, there was a lot of humour injected into his work. Sometimes he was accused of misogyny, because in the early years his models often appeared on the catwalk either wrapped in cling film or showing their flesh, but he greatly admired women and he always wanted to create strong, powerful clothes to protect them and to make people feel afraid of the women he dressed and that’s why there’s often a very hard aesthetic to many of the designs. Sometimes they draw on armour, he literally wanted to armour and protect his women. And this one here which is made from thousands of tiny metal pailletes, is inspired by 15th-century samurai armour. But the stand-out piece in this gallery, for me, is this dress here which is made from the panels of an antique Japanese silk screen which McQueen bought at a market in Paris and he dared to cut it up and turn it into a dress. And underneath that is a dress of oyster shells, and it’s these rich combinations of materials, the contrast of the heavily embroidered silk, the hard, shiny oyster shells that really intrigue and fascinate. And it’s finished with this shoulder piece by Shaun Leane the jeweller, which is classic McQueen in that it fuses hard and soft, savage and beauty with the silver spikes that look like they are going to pierce the delicate skin of the face.
This is a remarkable dress from McQueen’s Voss collection. It’s made from a skirt of dyed ostrich feathers and the bodice is made from hand-painted glass microscope slides. And although glass is a harsh material, each slide hangs so delicately from the body that it mimics the feathers on the breast of a bird. McQueen absolutely loved birds and nature. And I’ll show you a few more designs that touch on that theme at the moment. But the intention with this dress was that every slide with its red was hinting at the blood beneath the skin. This coat here again inspired by his love of Japan. - the chrysanthemum is a symbol in Japanese culture - is made form beach mats. He once went to Brighton for a weekend and returned to the studio with beach mats and that’s the end result. And that really shows his inventiveness and resourcefulness with materials.
Moving on into Romantic Naturalism. This celebrates McQueen’s love of the natural world and the beauty and fragility of nature. These pieces are some of the most delicate and fragile in the entire exhibition. This is a dress that’s made from silk and real flowers. There are still some of the original dried hydrangeas on the dress. And when the model walked the catwalk, the blooms fell off her dress to the floor, exposing the transience of living things. And it was inspired by Mark Quinn’s installation of frozen flowers called Garden. Also the compositions of decaying fruit by his friend the photographic artist Sam Taylor Johnson. And at the end here we have a dress that’s made entirely from stripped and varnished razor clam shells. McQueen found these washed up on a beach in Norfolk and he decided they’d outlived their usefulness so he took them back to the studio and made a dress out of them. And then in the catwalk show the model Erin O’Connor ran her hands up the dress and they fell off and clattered and smashed on the floor, and so their usefulness was over once again. And this, a beautiful dress, made entirely from pheasant feathers. It’s a beautiful tribute to the beauty and fragility of nature. Each pheasant feather has been individually stitched to lengths of ribbon that have then been attached to a net dress underneath. The number of hours involved in making this dress and the attention to detail is quite remarkable.
And then the exhibition closes with Plato’s Atlantis, which was McQueen’s last complete collection. As I said, he was a masterful storyteller and Plato’s was his most fantastical. It predicted a future world where the icecap had melted, the seas had risen, and man had had to evolve in order to survive under the water. So McQueen presented his models as an army of hybrid alien animal/human forms and as the collection progressed the models’ features changed, their faces were enhanced with prosthetics and their hair was sculpted into finlike peaks to connote biological adaptation and their evolution into this semi-aquatic species. Plato’s was the collection where he mastered the application of digital printing techniques, here you can see how startling and vibrant the prints are, and they’re all derived from actual organisms: moths and snakes and jellyfish. And the final look of the collection: the jellyfish ensemble. As you can see, it’s made from thousands and thousands of pailletes, and the skirt recalls the membranes on a jellyfish. And this was the collection that launched the iconic Armadillo boots, the 30 centimetre high shoe that was entirely without reference to the natural anatomy of the foot, but fused a claw-like menace with that of a ballerina en-pointe. No one had ever seen anything like this before, it was so fantastical and new. And in the background you can just see this huge video wall that was projected during Plato’s Atlantis. It was produced by McQueen in collaboration with Nick Knight and Ruth Hobgen and it shows a video sequence with the model Raquel Zimmerman writhing amid snakes. And this was the first collection ever to be live-streamed over the internet, not just by McQueen but of any fashion designer. So it’s this remarkable combination of craft, technology and nature. So thank you very very much for joining us on this, our very first ever V&A Persicope tour of an exhibition. The exhibition is still on display until 2 August and there are 200 tickets available every day, but do come early to avoid disappointment. Thank you very much.
In partnership with Swarovski
Swarovski is delighted to partner the V&A in bringing Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty to London. The crystal house and Alexander McQueen share a rich history, beginning in the 1990s when Isabella Blow introduced the young maverick designer to Nadja Swarovski. Swarovski went on to support McQueen’s Spring/Summer 1999 collection, the first of numerous collaborations including the creation, alongside Tord Boontje, of the V&A’s Grand Entrance crystal Christmas tree in 2003; and the dramatic Swarovski Gemstone-encrusted Bird’s Nest Headdress for his Autumn/Winter 2006 collection. Swarovski has worked with designers since Daniel Swarovski’s precision-cut stones became prized ingredients in the dressmaking ateliers of Paris, beginning the tradition of close collaboration between Swarovski and haute couture that remains to this day.