I cannot begin to count the number of times I have climbed the slabs of concrete that form the staircase leading into the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET). One of the most esteemed amongst New York’s institutional time portals, it transports visitors to the eras they read about in history books. On this occasion, I had come for a very specific reason. Just like a tour ‘groupie’ travelling the world following my favourite band, I flew in from London after being invited to attend the private viewing of the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition on May 4, 2011.
It came just over a year after Lee Alexander McQueen’s death. When I first heard the tragic news in February 2010, I had been in a lecture at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York. I interrupted my lecturer and shouted, “McQueen committed suicide!” Both my lecturer and the fashion wannabes in my class looked at me as if I was wearing two-season-old Prada, and continued to discuss strategic ideas on how to market a fashion brand. Yet his death was to mark the plummet of creativity in an industry now so rife with copycats and homogenised lacklustre ideas.
So distraught was she by the news, American Vogue Editor-in-Chief, Anna Wintour, excused herself from the front row of a show in progress during New York Fashion Week. Since that day, the world of fashion has never quite been the same, but starting from March 14, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London will re-awaken the spirit of McQueen, much like the MET did four years ago.
Upon speaking to Claire Wilcox, Senior Curator of the exhibition, she explained, “The exhibition is curated thematically and addresses the things that interested McQueen.” It is a very personal exhibition, put together by the V&A curatorial staff with input and direction from some of the original members of his team, including Katy England, who worked as McQueen's stylist at both his namesake label and the House of Givenchy from 1996 to 2001, and hair guru Guido Palau, who was present at the press preview fielding questions from journalists eager to get an insight on what it was like to work with McQueen. Guido told me “he was largely collaborative and listened to your ideas.”
The exhibition occupies 11 rooms with 244 objects and accessories on display. The ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ is the exhibition’s showstopper. Over 120 items, created by McQueen and some of his long-time collaborators, such as jeweller Shaun Leane and milliner Philip Treacy, fill the black shelves. Visitors can then watch these one-of-a-kind pieces come to life in the video footage of some of McQueen’s most iconic and theatrical runway productions such as It’s Only a Game, where McQueen used the runway as a political platform with models battling each other in a chess match between America and Japan.
According to Senior Exhibition Research Assistant, Kate Bethune, the exhibition sets a new precedent for the V&A. “The V&A has never staged anything like this before, the level of craftsmanship and spectacle is like nothing we’ve seen from any designer.” When I ask Bethune if she thinks the exhibition will make another international stop after London she replies, “I don’t think so. It’s appropriate for the exhibition to end here where McQueen began.”
I must admit that, having already seen the same exhibition at the MET, I didn’t have the same emotional response here that I had in New York; there were no tears at the end. However, when I came to the final room, ‘Plato’s Atlantis,’ I took a moment to reflect on the body of work of the so-called ‘romantic schizophrenic.’ What message would McQueen want visitors to take away from his work?
I’d like to add to the sentiment of Wilcox and say that the only special element you can bring to any platform, especially the creative, is your personal story - the things that are deeply rooted in the identity of yourself, because this is the only thing in life that is truly unique. This is something that McQueen did so wonderfully - but he also always left room for his audience to bring their own narrative too.
Encore McQueen, you can take your bow again and again, because I don’t suspect in this lifetime we will ever see a showman original or wild enough to cast a shadow on your performance.
But, as the old adage goes, the show must go on…
[Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition is on at the V&A from March 14 - August 2, 2015.]
Words: Zadrian Smith
Image: Alexander McQueen by Steven Meisel for Vogue, April 2010