Spring pays for all staff to attend two cultural events a year with a friend – we even throw in travel and lunch. I took the opportunity to visit Savage Beauty, the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the V&A.
The exhibition, brought to London for 2015 following a fantastically successful run at The Met in 2011, is phenomenal. The craft in each and every item of clothing is exceptionally well complemented by the craft of the rooms, the soundtrack and the lighting.
From the moment you enter the show – Alice-like, from a bright V&A corridor to a dark space illuminated only by an eerie and gripping view of Alexander McQueen’s face, slowly morphing to a skull – you are wrapt by the emotion of the piece. This sudden immersion sets the mood: it’s impossible to shake off the sense of doom as you are led through room after room of fresh shocks, exquisite detail and dark psychology.
Would it be possible simply to enjoy the clothes for themselves? The quality of the tailoring, McQueen’s approach to the task (starting designs from the side, to ensure even the most awkward angle is revered by the cut of his clothes) and the rich colour palette would leave a deep impression, even out of context. Place them in the tapestry of his early death and famed life, match them with a bold and unsettling sound scape and sudden plunges from light to dark and this show creates an imprint that might never quite leave. His shows, we discover, always had that effect – who would forget Kate Moss floating eerily above the catwalk before disappearing into orbs?
Each room is designed to support a particular style or message. The exhibition is not quite curated by date, although there is a broad sense of progress from early days to the last show. I’ve never been to another show which takes a completely different approach to each room – in one, you find yourself in the middle of a cabinet of curiosities which is chock full of film, clothes and accessories, displayed from floor to ceiling and in the centre of the room: it’s relentless. Another is walled with bones. One has wooden panelling and gold wall sconces. At the end of another you find yourself facing your own image, until a lighting change reveals mannequins trapped in a perspex box.
Before seeing Savage Beauty I had a passing interest in McQueen. I’m old enough to remember the shock created by his bumsters – and to have seen how the bum, such an unexpected thing to reveal back in 1996, became a common sight thanks to the following decade’s fashion for low slung jeans. I’ve always been drawn to his frock coat style tailoring, exquisite embroidery, gorgeous colour palette.
But it’s not until you see the pieces close up that you understand the skill. It’s indescribably good: if anything brought me close to tears it was the opportunity to see at close hand the utter beauty of his craft. His death had never struck me as a tragedy before. Now it does.
In the year he died, McQueen tweeted ‘From heaven to hell and back again, life is a funny thing. Beauty can come from the most strangest of places: even the most disgusting places.’ This could be the brief for the show.