Monday, 30 November -0001

ALEXANDER MCQUEEN: SAVAGE BEAUTY

The first retrospective of the designer’s work in Europe is as glorious as his legendary shows

Written by Robin Dutt
Robin-Dutt-2015One might expect this Alexander McQueen retrospective to be a ‘fantasy’. And it’s not churlish to say that it is predictable. Plunged into darkness (sometimes almost pitch-black), the visitor navigates past sculpted alien mannequins, each tightly veiled in metal, zipped leather or other coverings. Thus masked, devoid of humanity, they force one to concentrate on the clothes, almost all of which are revelling in a fetishistic glory. Here is all the drama and spectacle of his runway shows.

The exhibition is a celebration of the exquisite cutting and making techniques that McQueen honed on Savile Row, and is painstaking in its exhaustive romp through the couturier’s colourful, though short, career. Each room, or dungeon cell, provides the perfect backdrop to his outfits – the most memorable being a cavern lined with replicas of skulls and femurs or tibias, framing the ironic vivacity of lace, tulle, feathers and the like. Anyone who has visited Italy’s Capuchin Crypt will surely recognise the reference.

The partnership with Swarovski is not simply the search for the best sparkle in the business. McQueen was adamant about this, saying, ‘I don’t just want to use crystal – I want to invent something new.’ His work is beautiful, but totally original? The artist Erté might have had a thing or two to say about that. Swarovski has a history of supplying sparkle to houses such as Chanel, Schiaparelli, Balenciaga, Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. And in all of these couturiers’ cases, they too did not simply want fizz and flash.

The final rooms of the show are the best, where outfits are stacked one on top of the other in boxes, some mounted on motorised discs reminiscent of those plastic ballerinas in tulle, twirling to a tune each time the jewellery-box lid is opened. These boîtes are intended to be breathtaking, from the sheer variety to the audacious placing.

But the point final is a Kate Moss hologram, emerging from a luminous cosmic sparkle-drop and developing into a diaphanous Elgin goddess dancing under a crystal pyramid, her tresses and her gown more delicate than a fritillary. And then she is diminished, still dancing, until she has disappeared once more into the tiny light.

Savage Beauty, for some, will have that sideshow attraction of shock and sensual surprise. Exiting the museum into London’s twilight grey was indeed a shock to the senses. But at least it was real.

Until 2 August at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7: 0800-912 6961, www.vam.ac.uk


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