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Behind Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty — my interview with the V&A’s curator

17 Mar
Alexander McQueen at the V&A

The Romantic Gothic room at the V&A’s Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition

First, do read my review of the extraordinary Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition at the V&A. And now, to put it in context, here is an edited version of the cover feature I wrote for this month’s Where London, the excellent events magazine distributed in four and five-star London hotels. In it I interview the show’s curator, Claire Wilcox, who often used to meet Alexander McQueen at the V&A.

London Fashion Week, the year 2000: Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman and actress Gwyneth Paltrow take their places in the front row of a warehouse space to see the latest catwalk collection by Alexander McQueen. As the models strut past, a simple mirrored box in the centre of the stage reflects the audience’s faces back at them. At the show’s climax, the box falls apart to reveal, replacing the audience’s faces, a grotesque, obese woman, naked but for a fetish-style gas mask, and surrounded by moths.

‘The two most terrifying things in the fashion lexicon,’ as the model herself wrote in her diary: ‘ample flesh and moths.’

‘It was a great thing to do in the fashion industry,’ said Alexander McQueen later, ‘turn it back on them! God, I’ve had some freaky shows.’

Alexander McQueen at the V&A

The final room at the V&A, and Alexander McQueen’s final collection: Plato’s Atlantis, with the notorious ‘armadillo’ shoes

McQueen was never one to take the easy route. Growing up in east London as the son of a cab driver, McQueen had made dresses for his three sisters, and never wanted to do anything else. The only O-level he got was in Art, so he left school and apprenticed at a Savile Row tailor, where he stitched secret insults into the lining of a jacket for Prince Charles. His graduate collection at the prestigious Central St Martin’s, where he was invited to take an MA in Fashion Design when they recognised his talent, was entitled Jack The Ripper Stalks His Victims. His first proper collection was entitled Taxi Driver, and inspired by the violent Martin Scorsese movie. His first catwalk show was entitled Nihilism. They got stranger after that.

‘Each time he’d say, “how am I going to beat that now?”, and push himself harder and harder,’ says Claire Wilcox, the curator of the V&A’s Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. ‘His shows were extraordinarily theatrical.’

McQueen won British Designer of the Year four times; he was made chief designer of Givenchy at just 27. So the fashion world was stunned when, aged 40 and depressed at the death of his beloved mother a few days before, and the suicide of his great friend and mentor Isabella Blow before that, he took his own life.

Alexander McQueen at the V&A

The Romantic Gothic room again, at the V&A’s Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition

The Metropolitan Museum exhibition that followed in New York a year later broke box-office records. Martin Roth, director of the V&A, recalls how gripped the city was when he flew over for just one day to see it. ‘This immigration guy stopped me and said, “What is the purpose of your visit?” I said, “I’m going to see Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty.” And he said, “No.” I said “What do you mean, no?” He said “No. It’s sold out, I’ve tried twice for me and my wife!”’

The V&A has expanded the Met show by an extra third of physical space, and added 40 more garments and accessories to the 200 previously on display (see my review). One welcome change is a new gallery right at the start entitled London: ‘I thought it would be a good idea to understand more about his early days in London when he was broke,’ says Wilcox. ‘This city does produce some great designers. It’s a real cultural melting pot. There’s a marvellous education system here, and a real independence of spirit.’

The vast Cabinet of Curiosities room at the V&A’s Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition

Wilcox is reminded of a quote from McQueen to illustrate this. She goes off to ask someone to look it up, and returns slightly breathless: ‘What McQueen said is, “Clothes don’t come from a notepad. It’s eclectic. It comes from Degas and Monet and my sister-in-law in Dagenham.”’

And the ’80s were a fantastic time for street style. ‘After punk,’ says Wilcox, ‘you got that new wave of historicism in Westwood and Galliano, the club kids like Boy George dressing up, the emergence of magazines like iD and Dazed & Confused — it was rebellion mixed with historicism and theatre and a devil-may-care attitude.’

9._Duck_feather_dress_The_Horn_of_Plenty_AW_2009-10._Model_-_Magdalena_Frackowiak_represented_by_dna_model_management_New_York.__Image_-_firstVIEW-500x750

Duck-feather dress by Alexander McQueen

Wilcox first met McQueen 20 years ago, and often saw him at the V&A. Surprisingly, for those who think of McQueen only as a rebel, she says he loved bird-watching. Feathers inspired him, not just for their beauty but their engineering, and he drew a lot of his colour palette from the animal kingdom. He also loved museums, says Wilcox, having been taken to the South Kensington museums every Sunday as a child. ‘He noticed everything – he wouldn’t talk much, he would just look; and when he looked at clothes in our archive he understood their construction immediately. I learned a lot from him.

‘There are many stories about his prowess with scissors. It’s said that after he joined Givenchy as Creative Director, the staff took fright at the speed and confidence with which he cut their fabric.’

And that’s what is sometimes forgotten about McQueen. His shows were controversial and spectacular, with models being spray-painted by car-factory robots or gigantic trees made of fabric twisting upward from the catwalk; as he told Time Out when we interviewed him for a cover feature, ‘I don’t want to do a cocktail party, I’d rather people left my shows and vomited. I prefer extreme reactions.’ Yet the clothes themselves were strong enough not to be overshadowed.

McQueen

Alexander ‘Lee’ McQueen himself, shot in 1997 by Marc Hom

McQueen had a supreme mastery of line and cut: however outlandish and science-fictional his creations were, they always flattered and enhanced the female form, turning skinny models into fashion superheroines. ‘I want to empower women,’ he said. ‘I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.’

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Wear and dare: inside V&A’s Alexander McQueen show

16 Mar
Alexander McQueen's It's Only A Game catwalk show, 2005

Alexander McQueen’s It’s Only A Game catwalk show, 2005

The V&A’s blockbuster show Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty is like an art exhibition, a film, a theatrical performance and a fashion show all rolled into one. It’s even better than last year’s Bowie exhibition, and those who know what a rabid Bowie fan I am will know what high praise that is. Even just hanging on a fetish-masked mannequin or simple wire frame, the clothes have life, and conjure up fantastical visions of alternate worlds. To my surprise, I found myself close to weeping at one point.

My companion said “yes I know, it’s so sad he killed himself when he was so young,” but it wasn’t that. It was the way the clothes hung, how they were cut, the hard or jagged or geometric shapes made from soft fabrics, the transformations of dresses into birds, the weird juxtapositions like the dress inspired half by American football gear and half by a kimono, the sheer astonishing radiant beauty and riotous inventiveness of them that pricked forth tears. Does that make me weird?

I’m kicking myself for never going to one of McQueen’s shows, even while I was Editor of Time Out, even when we put him on the cover. [For the strange story of the Time Out golden-shower shoot, see my review of the Isabella Blow McQueen collection.] The V&A has the next best thing: video footage of the shows. There go his catwalk Glamazons stamping through water, standing in a ring of fire, spellbound in a blizzard, getting spray-painted by robots, trading places like chess pieces on a giant illuminated chequered board.

The V&A has pulled out all the stops in giving these powerful clothes a suitably dramatic setting. The Romantic Gothic room is hung with vast, ornate gilt frames; the black walls of the Romantic Primitivism room are made of bones and skulls, like the Paris Catacombs; the Romantic Nationalism room is all mahogany wood panels, befitting the Imperial grandeur of the bright red, military-inspired clothes.

Alien-Shoe

McQueen’s ‘Alien’ shoe from 2010

Any other clothes would be overpowered by these surroundings, but here are jackets of ponyskin with impala horns jutting from the shoulders, costumes made of gold-painted goose feathers or black duck feathers or synthetic bouffant black hair, fanciful shoes with platforms a foot tall or with designs inspired by the Alien movies (right). You couldn’t overpower them with a nuclear bomb.

There’s even a whole room devoted to an ethereal, floating Kate Moss, created for one of McQueen’s shows using the 19th-century theatrical illusion of Pepper’s Ghost. She appears from a wisp of smoke, coalesces into evanescent life, long hair waving and organza gown billowing like Ophelia sinking peacefully beneath the water, and is just as quickly returned to the spirit world whence she came.  All things must pass, as McQueen was keenly aware, and fashion is the most transitory of the arts: it shines brightly for a single season and then, like a butterfly, it is gone.

In a similar vein, March and April are already mostly booked out for this fabulous exhibition – whoever you need to bribe, threaten or screw to get a ticket, do it quick.

Click here for my interview with the curator, Claire Wilcox, which formed the cover feature of this month’s Where London magazine. You may find it useful, as if there is one criticism to be levelled at Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, it’s that it is not good at putting McQueen’s work into the wider context of his life and times.