Tag Archives: V&A

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. 

Fashion’s unholy trinity: Isabella Blow, Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy

24 Nov

One of the most exciting exhibitions on fashion I have ever seen has just opened. Better even than the Louboutin at the Design Museum, and those who know me know I love shoes; better too than its current Paul Smith exhibition.

It’s Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! at Somerset House. Even more than the V&A’s current Club to Catwalk, it makes one proud to be a Londoner – it’s impossible to imagine the wild, daring, inventive but still utterly wearable designs of Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy, Isabella Blow’s most famous protégés, originating from any other city.

There are so many extraordinary outfits here, taken from Blow’s personal collection – she famously spotted McQueen at his Central Saint Martins graduation show, and bought the entire collection for £5,000. Most remarkable is a sailing ship fashioned as a black hat, its feather sails curling behind it as though permanently caught in the wind: this was inspired by Blow telling Treacy about the short-lived fashion for 18th century women to wear a ship in their vast wigs to commemorate a naval battle.

There are some lovely stories alongside the clothes. Sophie Dahl tells how she was crying by a parking meter when a regal apparition emerged from a taxi burdened with a gravity-defying hat and dozens of shopping bags. Dahl offered to help her, and Blow – for it was she – asked why she’d been crying.

“I’ve had an argument with my mother about what I’m going to do with my life,” said Dahl. “Would you like to be a model?” asked Blow. “Yes, please,” she said. Blow helped her become the most famous plus-sized model in the world.

I also love the description of how, when Blow became Fashion Editor for the new Sunday Times Style magazine, its editor would have her walk the long way through the office so that everyone in that uptight, tie-wearing office could see her. The Sunday Times’ overall editor was, apparently, too terrified to meet her.

It reminds me of being at the Times, when the transvestite, Turner Prize-winning potter Grayson Perry was a columnist for the Arts section. He would come to drinks parties dressed as his alter-ego, a little girl in a huge blue frock and hair bow called Claire.

There’s a dark side to the glitz and glamour. McQueen and Blow fell out when the former sold his label to Gucci, in a deal Blow had helped to broker, and she wasn’t rewarded. Both later committed suicide – Blow in 2007, McQueen in 2010.

I’ve followed the three for years. I own a fantastic pair of McQueen trousers, bought for a risible £30 at the Designer Warehouse Sale. From the same place, I own four Philip Treacy hats – a sensible black fedora, a blue in the same design, an Elvis hat and a Marilyn hat (see pics, below).

Back in 1997, when I edited Time Out, we were delighted to get Alexander McQueen for our London Fashion Week cover. The yellow liquid in which he and model Karen Ferrari were doused was intended by McQueen to represent a “golden shower”, but in the end the side of him that acted as head of respected fashion house Givenchy won over the punk side of him that once stitched “I am a c***” into the linings of Prince Charles’s jacket. At the last minute he begged us not to mention the golden shower idea, so our Fashion Editor, Lorna V, coyly referred to it in the cover interview as “a truly wicked portrait of his choice”.

As to Blow, we put her on the cover five months later, at the next London Fashion Week. To be honest, I had to be persuaded by Lorna V – Blow was, after all, not a designer or model but a stylist at another magazine – but I’m glad I was.

“She doesn’t seem to care,” wrote Lorna V, “that her dyed-red cropped fox-fur jacket by designer Tristan Webber is sweeping dust from the floor, that her silver lace dress by Alexander McQueen is twisted so tight it’s exposing her ample bosom, and that her neon-yellow Manolo Blahnik stilettos (worn with matching tights and knickers) are scratching the tiles.”

“I’m like an animal foraging for truffles, or an eagle looking for prey,” Blow told Lorna of her hunt for new talent. “I just can’t seem to stop. It’s in my blood.”

But working in fashion will inevitably warp your own sense of self. Blow admitted her obsession with hats started as a way to draw attention away from her face, saying: “I’m hideous. I won’t have mirrors in the house because I can’t bear to look at myself. I suppose that’s why my lipstick is never on evenly.”

Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! is on at Somerset House until March 2, 2014. Club to Catwalk is at the V&A until Feb 16, 2014. hello my Name Is Paul Smith is at the Design Museum until March 9, 2014. The next Designer Warehouse Sales are Dec 6-8 (women) and Dec 13-15 (men).

David Bowie Is at the V&A: it really is the freakiest show

16 Apr

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I’ve just returned from what is, in my thoroughly unobjective opinion as a Bowiefreak, the best exhibition ever mounted. The V&A’s David Bowie Is deserves the hype. But since tickets have been selling out quicker than a rock star clutching a can of Pepsi, and you’re unlikely to get to go for a while yet, let me guide you through it in song…

ImageCh-ch-ch-changes. Bowie, the exhibition makes clear, changed the image of every band he joined, even before he started his solo career.

The ever-circling skeletal family. The headset commentary offers snatches of song and interview, and amazingly it “knows” where you are, switching back and forth depending on which exhibit you are standing in front of. It’s like being inside a living documentary.

ImageCracked Actor. As well as selling over 140 million albums, Bowie has acted in over a dozen feature films including Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth (right). There’s a separate screening space for clips from the likes of Labyrinth and Basquiat, as well as the loin cloth he wore while playing the Elephant Man, to no small acclaim, on stage in New York.

ImageThe hand that wrote this letter. In addition to the cut-up lyrics for Blackout (left) there are loads of handwritten song lyrics, most of which, sadly, are pristine, with none of the crossings-out and rewriting that usually make handwritten songs and poems so fascinating. Did they spring fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus? Or, more likely, are these just write-ups of the final versions? There are a couple of kooks, however. Most striking is a deleted verse from Fashion: “Hell up ahead – burn a play – start a fight/If you’re covered in blood, you’re doing it right.” There’s also a glimpse into how Heroes could have been very much worse: “And we kissed/And you felt called” is crossed out and replaced with “And we kissed/As though nothing could fall.”

ImageHang him on my wa-wa-wa-wall. Bowie’s interest in art goes back to his teens: a school sketchbook is here, along with sketches for album covers (such as his self-portrait for Heroes, right), costumes, stage sets, and characters and backdrops for a projected film set in Hunger City. He’s no draughtsman, but he has the vision for others to follow. Most poignant are two canvases from his Berlin period (including a bug-eyed Iggy Pop), with a bit of an Egon Schiele vibe. He has said that painting helped him to kick his drug addictions.

Return of the (Very) Thin White Duke. As well as loads of stage costumes, his measurements are written out in detail. His waist size in the early ‘70s is given as 26.5in!!

ImageSpace Oddity. The V&A show is vast, full of nooks and corners and booths. At the end is a cavernous space dominated by a vast screen pumping out supersized videos, and costumed mannequins stacked up in see-through boxes four storeys high.

Five years. The V&A has collaborated with the BBC on a documentary entitled Five Years, covering 1971, 1975, 1977, 1980 and 1983. It will be broadcast sometime next month.

He’s a star, man. I went round the exhibition with a Bowie neophyte, who previously had no interest in him or his songs. Afterwards she spent hours watching past videos and interviews on YouTube.

Click here for my blog on David Bowie’s Where Are We Now?

Click here for my 1995 interview with Bowie and Eno

Hollywood Costume: why clothes maketh the man

22 Jan
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Animal Charm: great costume design for our terrorista fashionistas

There’s an old expression that, to understand someone, you need to walk a mile in their shoes. This is what many actors do. Literally. They find the character through the clothes.

That’s why the V&A’s Hollywood Costume exhibition, which closes on Jan 27 (tickets sold out online but still available on the day), is such an eye-opener. “There’s no doubt costume is character,” says Martin Scorsese in a video interview. “You can feel the transformation.”

There’s Matt Damon’s grey clothes from Bourne: simple, utilitarian, designed to blend into a crowd. They made 25 identical outfits due to the abuse received in the action sequences. At the other end of the scale, there’s Marlene Dietrich’s exquisite dress for Angel, on which a score of embroiderers worked for two and a half weeks.

And, best of all, Indiana Jones’s outfit. “A cultural icon is born when the character can be instantly recognised in his silhouette,” says costume designer Deborah Landis. The designer has to bear in mind practical as well as aesthetic considerations: the famous beaver-felt hat was given a specially short brim to allow the cameras to see Harrison Ford’s eyes.

My own revelation came on the featurette I co-wrote with director Ben Charles Edwards, Animal Charm, starring Sadie Frost, Sally Phillips and Boy George. In the opening scene, Frost’s character is kidnapped by terrorista fashionistas objecting to her promotion of fur. (See trailer here: http://bit.ly/y78KML.)

We wrote the scene as “three women in balaclavas”. But when it came to filming, it was decided that these ex-models would wear something more daring: knitted balaclavas by Piers Atkinson were procured, with full make-up and attached wig. Stylish, provocative, more than slightly sinister, they became a defining image of the film.

It’s a timely reminder that even character, as Joaquin Phoenix pointed out in his gracious London Critics’ Circle Award speech this week (bit.ly/10D8sra), is a collaboration. Critics sometimes write as if the director is the only person who matters. They are the person responsible, of course, and it’s their vision, ultimately, that is being served. But they are only as good as their team: costume, lighting, cinematography, sound, score, editing, actors and, yes, writers.

One reason I predict great things for Ben Charles Edwards (talent, youth and fearlessness apart), is that he knows how to get the best from that team. When last we met, he was a whisker away from getting funding for his first feature, written by the brilliant musician Al Joshua of Orphans & Vandals. If so, it will be one to watch.