Category: Reflections (Page 1 of 4)

Liberty by design

By Liberty Archivist, Anna Buruma

Once I was asked to do a short presentation to the studio about significant past designers for Liberty. It made me reflect on who these designers were and what made them so significant. It made me realize that perhaps it wasn’t always the designers who were significant. Traditionally the buyers at Liberty had enormous power and it was they who commissioned designers to produce patterns for Liberty’s textiles.

Liberty Fabric. Image courtesy of Liberty Archive.

In the late 19th and early 20th century it was John Llewellyn who, while managing the silk department, commissioned the top designers of his day. People like CFA Voysey, Lindsay Butterfield and the Silver Studio created Liberty’s celebrated Art Nouveau look. During the 1950s it was the two descendants of the founder, Arthur Stewart Liberty and Hilary Blackmore, who commissioned Robert Stewart, Lucienne Day, Jacqueline Groag, etc. It was they who encouraged young designers like Althea McNish and Colleen Farr straight from the Royal College. Colleen Farr started Liberty’s first in-house textile design studio. Arthur Stewart Liberty employed Bernard Nevill when she left and Susan Collier when he finished. These designers were the ones who moved the look of Liberty forward. They didn’t necessarily create bestseller patterns, although sometimes they did, but they did get Liberty spoken about in the press and in the long run that got people through the door.

The present studio is very young and there are only a few who have been there more than two years. This makes the archive so important, as it shows what Liberty design stands for. It is much more complicated than the beautiful paisley or the small dense floral. There isn’t one Liberty look, there are magnificent geometrics, there are witty conversationals, large blousy flower designs, extraordinary abstracts.  My colleague and I have our desks in the studio, and we are part of the design team so we can alert them to things when we find something new and can respond to any of their questions immediately. Last summer the database was upgraded and now, rather than it sitting on just two computers, I have been able to make it accessible to the designers on their own computers, which means they can browse themselves rather than always seeing it through our eyes. It will be interesting to see if it will make a difference to what they produce in the future.

On a typical working day I am sitting at my computer, creating new data for recently digitized images or adding these to existing data. Nearly all the designs in the Liberty archive are now on the database and we are concluding the digitization project this year. There will always still be data for designs that have no image and these may never be filled. The cataloguing of the Liberty archive can go on and on for many years to come.

Anna Buruma is the in-house Archivist at Liberty’s and Curator for the Museum and Study Collection at Central St Martin’s

Liberty interviews  Anna Buruma

Reflecting on different views

When an exhibition travels from one venue to another, your awareness of the changes that exhibition undergoes is heightened. So often, your thinking around the themes shifts and you see the objects in a completely new way. And in a different light, objects take on different hues of meaning and symbolism.

By Ben Whyman and Laura Thornley

The Vulgar? Fashion Redefined. Winterpalais, Belvedere Museum, Vienna. ©Belvedere

In March 2017, CfFC staff worked with The Barbican Art Gallery and the Belvedere Museum to install The Vulgar: fashion redefined at the Winterpalais in Vienna. Prof Judith Clark and psychoanalyst Adam Phillip’s exhibition, displayed in the Barbican Art Gallery (October 2016 – February 2017) was re-presented in a completely different environment: from the brutalist concrete walls of a London gallery (with all its associations), to a Baroque palace in Vienna (with all its associations).

Even the title of the exhibition changed, becoming Vulgär? Fashion redefined. The question mark is important to note. The word’s cultural significance shifts as it is translated into another language, drawing out its nuanced meanings. The question mark calms some of the word’s violence. It became, in a very real sense, another exhibition, proposing different questions to reflect on.

The Vulgar? Fashion Redefined. Winterpalais, Belvedere Museum, Vienna. ©Belvedere

The number of exhibited objects decreased and some were changed, resulting in a different proposition. Travelling an exhibition into another venue places demands on space and positioning. Groupings of objects separated by walls in London, now shared the same spaces. New conversations emerge between the themes and new angles tell different stories. The elaborate Baroque backdrop presented challenges and clarity. The concepts don’t need to work as hard in this space, the history of the word is written in the walls, proposing new challenges to our notion of taste and assimilation, exclusion and mimicry.

We were working with different light in Vienna. With blinds drawn and reduced lighting (to protect the gold gilt Baroque interiors), pier mirrors and glass chandeliers, we were working with reflected shadows to craft new angles, drawing out alternative silhouettes, different meanings and propositions. It is this reflection of spaces and refraction of light that was so appealing as we installed the exhibition. How do you view a mid-18th century mantua from the Fashion Museum, Bath’s collection, next to a Gucci men’s embroidered suit from spring/summer 2016, within a gold-gilt Baroque interior? When you look into one of the many mirrors, the exhibition reflects back at you – how do you re-view it? As we viewed the mantuas and the Gucci suit, a mirror reflected puritan-inspired Dior and Givenchy gowns looming behind them – another reflection on a reflection.

Ben Whyman and Laura Thornley work at the Centre for Fashion Curation

The Vulgar: fashion redefined is at Winterpalais, Belvedere Museum, Vienna 03 March 2017 to 25 June 2017

 

Top Stitching

 

On the coastal stretches of North Norfolk, sea and sky merge in broad, watery brush strokes. Walking along a shingle ridge, my eyes water with cold and my ears ping, while my dog zig-zags on ahead, nose to the ground. At the water’s edge, dunlin scurry back and forth, as the waves pull out and tumble back in again.

Top stitching – image courtesy of Claire Wilcox

Driving inland, away from the freezing wind, I go to get outfitted. In the dim, wood-lined shop with its gold lettered windows, I become absorbed in the pleasures of clothing. Above, I can hear the crunch of scissors through cloth and the intermittent stutter of a sewing machine. Everything is made to order.

I try on an A-line skirt, with side buttons. It’s firm and makes me straighten my back, as if I’ve been mildly rebuked. Paper legends explain the theory. Each design is represented by a simple outline, seams clearly notated, front and back. They seem to be as much about archetypes as the garments themselves; the idea of a skirt, a shirt or a waistcoat.

It seems simple, but the permutations are endless. I linger over the samples, but Marie’s patience holds. I observe how precise the double tracks of top stitching are, as they follow a seam or curve around a pocket. She observes that they don’t make life easy for themselves and talks of the difficulty of finding skilled seamstresses.

A brown cardboard box arrives in the post. The linen shirt, black canvas skirt and solemn grey wool coat make me feel as if it’s the first day of school. Norfolk seems far away. I think of the light fading on the marshes and the unearthly cries of plovers, and the ridged sand top-stitched with bird tracks, stretching away to the sea.

Claire Wilcox

19.11.16

Claire Wilcox is Chair in Fashion Curation at London College of Fashion and Senior Fashion Curator at the V&A.

Read all posts by Claire Wilcox

Reflections on Savage Beauty

Two years ago this month, the V&A opened the Savage Beauty Exhibition, the largest retrospective of the work one of the most innovative designers of recent times, Alexander McQueen.  Curator Claire Wilcox reflects on the restaging of Savage Beauty.

Alexander McQueen was one of the most influential designers of his generation. His radical and fearless visions changed the way we look at fashion. He provoked with his ‘Bumster’ trousers, he astonished with dresses made from glass, shells and crystals, and he shocked with his powerful and spectacular catwalk shows that involved elaborate storytelling, compelling theatre and raw emotion.

Installation view of ‘Cabinet-of-Curiosities’-gallery, Alexander McQueen Savage-Beauty at the V&A (c) Victoria and Albert Museum London

The original version of Savage Beauty took place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in 2011. It was curated, completely brilliantly, by my ex-V&A colleague Andrew Bolton  and became one of the Met’s top ten most visited exhibitions. I spent two whole days in the exhibition and became convinced it was essential it be shown in London. I had had various conversations with Alexander McQueen when he was alive about the V&A putting on a show of his work, but he always said ‘I’m too young’ or ‘Tomorrow, tomorrow!’

I’m so glad the V&A re-staged the exhibition. It was created just months after McQueen’s untimely death with all the attendant passion this evoked, but Savage Beauty has stood the test of time. Before the doors even opened on 14 March 2015, the dates had been extended to the 2 August and over 100,000 advance tickets were sold. There was so much goodwill about the exhibition coming to London, and especially the V&A. It really felt like something of a homecoming.

Fashion in Motion

The V&A has a long history of working with McQueen. He was the second designer to take part in Fashion in Motion in 1999, introduced to me by Philip Treacy, who was the first. McQueen immediately understood what it was about, which was to bring live, time-based fashion into the museum’s galleries. We staged a second Fashion in Motion in 2001 with McQueen and his longstanding collaborator Shaun Leane. By then, McQueen had become famous, and the museum was deluged. Thousands of visitors saw pieces such as the brocade top with hanging sleeves, a coiled metal corset in the middle and an aluminium yashmak inset with Swarovski crystal which Shaun has remade for the exhibition, and which is going to become part of the Museum’s permanent collections.

McQueen was really a 19th century romantic. He loved the Museum, saying ‘The collections at the V&A never fail to intrigue and inspire me. The nation is privileged to have access to such a resource’. One on occasion, we were walking through the Victorian Cast Courts past the massive statue of David, and Trajan’s column. He suddenly stopped and said: ‘This is the sort of place I’d like to be shut in overnight.’

Radical Fashion

I worked again with McQueen in 2001, on the exhibition Radical Fashion, which was inspired by a new shift in fashion towards the experimental and the radical. The embroidered garment in the case features in Savage Beauty, as does the chrysanthemum dress. In fact all of the pieces that were shown in Radical Fashion were reshown in Savage Beauty. Fashion imagery in the 1990s and early 2000s was also changing as the digital landscape created a new world of possibilities. Magazines such as Visionaire and Dazed & Confused represented this new energy in image making. The image by Nick Knight and McQueen, from 1997, is still in my mind one of the most arresting examples from that time.  Devon’s young face is like a manga heroine’s. She wears a cheong sam from McQueen’s La Poupee collection, a clouded contact lens and her forehead is pierced with a digital safety pin. I found it completely inspirational, and still do.

V&A Archive

McQueen frequently researched the V&A’s fashion and textile collections. I often showed McQueen and Sarah Burton, when she was still an intern, tailoring such as this. McQueen’s collections always had a reference to 19th Century tailoring in them. He especially loved the way the jackets were cut tight to the spine, and how the sleeves were inset. Among examples of this were a walking jacket in the Widows of Culloden collection.

McQueen’s library was full of books from the V&A, in fact on one visit to the museum he bought so many books he had to order a taxi. I was especially pleased to see the 1954 Christian Dior dress Zemire,  on the mood boards from the Horn of Plenty collection. Zemire was shown in my exhibition The Golden Age of Couture in 2007. You can see these mood boards in the Nick Waplington show at Tate Modern, or in Nick’s amazing book which documents the making of this collection. Mood boards were a very important aspect of the way McQueen worked, and you can see some from his last fully realised collection, Plato’s Atlantis, in the book we created to go with Savage Beauty.

V&A

Installation view of ‘Romantic Nationalism’ gallery, Alexander McQueen Savage-Beauty at the V&A (c) Victoria and Albert Museum London

Plan

Savage Beauty was the largest ever retrospective on McQueen and it is the largest fashion exhibition the Museum has ever staged. It filled all 3 of our major temporary exhibition galleries. 244 garments and accessories were on display, including 66 new additions for the V&A. There were over 35 film screens and each room has its own, specially commissioned soundscape. The intention is for it to be immersive, and theatrical, like McQueen’s catwalk shows.

In order for McQueen to turn his visions into a reality on the catwalk, he relied on a close circle of creative individuals. This was the case even from the early London days, when he worked with the stylist Katy England. What was very important in preparing this shown to be able to work with Sam Gainsbury and Anna Whiting of Gainsbury and Whiting, who produced all of McQueen’s shows from 1996, as well as other McQueen’s key collaborators, including production designer Joseph Bennett and director of scenography Simon Kenny. John Gosling produced the amazing soundtrack, Daniel Landin did the lighting and Guido designed the head treatments and face masks. Sarah Burton, who worked closely with McQueen for nearly 20 years advised on the new additions. These people knew McQueen inside out, and very helpfully for the museum, gave us an insight into the way he thought and, basically, his bravery. They helped us to push the boundaries of the exhibition, turn the sound up a bit, take some risks and take some artistic licence. Working with McQueen’s trusted collaborators was fundamental in ensuring the exhibition met the uncompromisingly high standards that McQueen set for himself, and, I believe, helped to bring sense of spectacle that was synonymous with his catwalk shows. If they didn’t understand how this was done, who would? It was fascinating being a fly on the wall as they discussed the scenography.

Entrance

The entrance lobby of the show opened with a projection of McQueen morphing between a portrait and a skull, a kind of installation that Sam Gainsbury referred to as ‘a Bill Viola’ moment. We made the decision not to put the exhibition title here, assuming everyone knew what show they were coming to! It is a compelling image produced by McQueen’s nephew Gary James McQueen, and it was used as the invitation to one of his shows and also on the cover of the Met book, so is a kind of tribute to that too. McQueen had a melancholy and often dark aesthetic. Many of his works reference death, and memento mori. Yet his work was also about regeneration, transformation and self-expression. He called himself ‘a romantic schizophrenic’.

London

London was the heart of McQueen’s world. He was born and raised in London. He trained in the city and he established his fashion label here. McQueen left school at 16 and then became an apprentice on Savile Row, first with Anderson and Sheppard, then with Gieves and Hawkes. Here he learnt the cutting and tailoring skills that were to inform his entire career. He then moved to Berman’s and Nathan’s where he learnt about theatrical costume.

At 20, he was employed by London based designer Koji Tatsuno, and then went to Milan on spec, but got a job as Romeo Gigli’s design assistant. All of these experiences were to prove crucial to McQueen’s development as a designer. But it was gaining a place on the Central St Martins MA course in 1990 that cemented his career. He applied for a job as a technician, but Bobby Hillson, who interview him, recognised his talent and told him he should be on the MA course. His graduation collection, Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims, was bought by Isabella Blow who became a fearless champion. In less than 5 years, McQueen was Chief Designer at Givenchy – a position he held for almost 5 years. It was a meteoric rise for a young, working class man.

The exhibition opened with ‘London’, an entirely new gallery that situates McQueen in his home city and includes footage and clothing from three of his early London shows: The Birds, Highland Rape and The Hunger. It was an important gallery because it tells the story of a time before McQueen was famous, when we was a young designer, full of raw energy and creativity but without money to invest in expensive materials and elaborate shows. You can also hear his voice as part of the soundtrack, and also his mother reading out one of his school reports.

The gallery showcased ten designs – some of which have never been on display since they were worn on the catwalk. Many demonstrate the experimental materials and processes that McQueen used right from the beginning of his career. For example there is a dress from Highland Rape made from laminated lace which has been torn and shredded to expose the flesh, and skirts and tops made from translucent  polyurethane. A plastic label has been stitched into the top, under which is a lock of human hair. McQueen incorporated these labels in a number of his earliest collections; he used his own hair in the very first ones. In his graduate collection, he embedded dark strands of human hair underneath the silk linings of jackets. It gives them a strong, visceral quality that evoked the darker facets of the Victorian East End. McQueen’s use of hair is an example of memento mori, which was inspired by the nineteenth-century trade in human hair.

The designs in this gallery were raw and fierce. On occasion McQueen was accused of misogyny on account of his early models appearing on the catwalk wrapped in cling-film or wearing garments that had been torn and slashed. In fact, McQueen greatly admired women, and he said he always wanted to create strong, powerful clothes to protect them- and to make the women he dressed appear fearless.

McQueen was thought pretty hard edged but, as throughout his career, he managed with the support of a devoted team, among them his longstanding stylist and close friend Katy England, who was consultant on this early section, and also allowed her wardrobe to be raided!

Bumsters

The audaciousness and rawness of McQueen’s Highland Rape collection in particular hit the headlines, partly because of a misunderstanding about the title and also because of its intensity. Highland Rape was a commentary on the atrocities suffered by the Scottish at the hands of the English in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was a response to the romanticising and mythologizing of Scotland’s past.

McQueen found that creating a narrative on subjects that he cared about deeply or was intrigued by helped to imbue his collections with passion. The collections with a strong narrative always produced the best clothes, which were created to illustrate these narratives throughout his career.  One of the key members of his staff said: ‘It was personal and emotional, and he never wanted to water it down’.

McQueen redefined the silhouette with one of his most iconic designs, the ‘Bumster’ trousers which have a waistband that is cut 5cm below that of hipsters to elongate the torso and expose the lower spine. Bumsters caused a sensation and they appeared in his early collections again and again.

Savage Mind

McQueen’s formal training on Savile Row gave him the skills to cut cloth and it was a skill he never lost. There are many stories about his prowess with scissors. It was said that the atelier staff at Givenchy took fright at the speed and confidence with which he cut their expensive fabric. The tailoring gallery with all the different components – jackets, frock coats, trousers were the nuts and the bolts of his trade, a language which appeared again and again in his collections. The scenography of rough concrete and harsh lighting reflected the atmosphere of his early workshops, and the Gatliff Road Warehouse where many of his early shows took place.

Throughout his career, McQueen skilfully blended tradition and subversion: a jacket is formed from shaped pieces of fabric, each one printed with details taken from part of a 15th century triptych by Robert Campin called The Thief to the Left of Christ. Campin’s depiction of the crucified figure is striking, and it intended to provoke feelings of awe and amazement, much like McQueen’s catwalk shows. It was one of my favourite pieces in the exhibition because it demonstrated how McQueen sought to galvanise women with his strong tailoring, for example with features such as the exaggerated shoulders, but also because it was entirely steeped in history.

Gothic

In complete contrast, the Gothic gallery was filled with old mirrors and carved gold wood. Every garment was black, rich and laden with symbolism. McQueen’s Gothic sensibility is a recurring theme in his collections. His was always a romantic Victorian kind of Gothic, influenced by Edgar Allen Poe and Tim Burton films, with a touch of Miss Havisham. He enjoyed the theatricality, and the nipped in Victorian jackets were said to have been inspired by Isabella Blow’s dressing up box. But he also knew his history, and he was especially fascinated by Victorian garments in the V&A’s collection.

Among the examples of designs on display in the Romantic Gothic gallery was a corset from McQueen’s Dante of 1996. McQueen was drawn to the melancholia associated with the Victorian Gothic tradition. In this case he incorporated its colour palette. This corset has a lilac ground- the colour of half mourning- which is overlaid with lace applique and jet beading.

Dante explored the themes of war and religion. It was McQueen’s most dramatic catwalk show to that point and was presented in ChristChurch, Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Baroque edifice in Spitalfields, East London.

McQueen’s collections were often autobiographical. He had learned from his mother, an amateur genealogist, that his maternal relatives descended from the Huguenot immigrants who had moved to the area several centuries before.

Sometimes McQueen’s Gothic sensibility verged on the theatrical. Tim Burton collaborated on his Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious collection. He designed the show invitation and also the lighting for the show which took place in the Vaults of the La Conciergerie in Paris, where Marie Antoinette was held prisoner the night before she was executed. McQueen loved dark drama!

One design referenced the figure of the 18th century highwayman with its masked hat by Philip Treacy and billowing cape of parachute silk.

McQueen’s dark aesthetic was, however, tempered by lightness. An ethereal printed chiffon gown on was one of several on display from McQueen’s final collection that was completed by Sarah Burton after his death. A number of the garments in the collection were printed with details from religious paintings, such as Hieronymus Bosch’s depictions of the afterlife. This dress, however, has a softer, more ethereal feel. It includes the image of ‘The Virgin of the Annunciation’ from Hugo van der Goes Portinari.

Primitivism

The design of this gallery was entirely new for the V&A. It is filled with bones and skulls- the skull of course is especially significant and became a ubiquitous brand motif for McQueen. But it also references the morbid preoccupations of much fine art of the 1990s and 2000s, for example Damien Hirst’s diamond studded skull. The gallery was capped with an extraordinary film sequence by John Maybury. It was projected at the start of McQueen’s Irere collection, and shows a girl plunge into the sea and appear to drown. As she sinks deeper into the water, the tendrils of her torn chiffon dress appear to ensnare her legs. But, as with many of McQueen’s narratives, Irere was a transformational tale. In the catwalk show the girl is saved and she becomes an Amazonian princess.

The idea of the untamed and an interest in the animal world inspired McQueen throughout his career, and it was summed up in the exhibition’s title of Savage Beauty. McQueen loved nature documentaries such as the Blue Planet (this was my first piece of homework, to sit down and watch the Blue Planet!). And, like a lot of designers, such as Vivienne Westwood, enjoyed National Geographic magazine. But his work was never literal; he absorbed influences, but wore them lightly. The work was always McQueen.

This gallery which has a very earthy feel to it. McQueen once said ‘Everything needs to connect with the Earth. Things that are processed and reprocessed lose their substance.’

The garments were from two collections It’s a Jungle Out There, and Eshu. Both collections engaged with the animal kingdom, the survival instinct, and tribal cultures; Eshu taking its name from an African tribe worshipped by the Yoruba people. One of the garments was a ponyskin jacket with impala horns embedded in wooden blocks concealed within the shoulders. Paired with bleached denim trousers, the look was an example of McQueen’s exciting combinations of materials and references, drawing here on the African plains and ’90s street culture.

Another, a lasercut leather dress which sits atop an exposed metal crinoline, is the Victorian reference in this collection.

There was also an astonishing dress made from a skirt of horsehair and a bodice of glass beads. In places the beads have been built up into several layers. This gives the bodice a mossy or algae-like quality and gives the impression that the garment is alive and growing.

McQueen was not afraid to be direct with his references and he also often worked with intriguing materials, which sometimes had fetishistic qualities. On display are designs involving skin, hair, horn, latex and even mud.

Nationalism

McQueen was also fascinated with his Scottish heritage. It helped to inform his identity and gave him a cause to champion, and he frequently used the MacQueen family tartan. McQueen first engaged with his Scots ancestry in his Highland Rape collection of 1995. He returned to the theme 11 years later with The Widows of Culloden. It was a beautiful collection and a much less aggressive rendering of Scotland’s past than Highland Rape. Each garment in the collection was rendered to the highest level of craftsmanship, and each one was conceived of as a precious heirloom.  The design of the Nationalism gallery reflecteda Scottish baronial hall. Handel plays in the background to reinforce the grandeur and complement the majesty of the garments on display.

McQueen’s collections often centred around elaborate narratives. The Girl Who Lived in the Tree told another transformation story about a girl who lived in an old elm tree in his garden and became a princess. It was arguably one of his most lyrical collections and many of the pieces are embroidered with Swarovski crystal. The collection also drew inspiration from the twilight years of the British Raj following a month-long trip that McQueen took to India with Shaun Leane. You can see it in the shoes and sari fabrics that McQueen used.

The garments on display in this gallery were among the most majestic in the exhibition and they really underscored the skills that McQueen brought to his own label collections following his tenure as chief designer of Givenchy. He always said that the years he spent in France were instrumental in enabling him to develop couture techniques and a lightness and softness of touch.

Team

McQueen always worked in teams. He was brilliantly talented, but he also recognised talent in others, and while he often worked alone cutting a jacket or a frock coat, his shows were like being on the set of a film production. He also surrounded himself with artists –   the Chapman Brothers, Sam Taylor Johnson and Anne Deniau (some of whose photographs the V&A had just acquired). His Show Producer for many years Sam Gainsbury, was Creative Director of Savage Beauty. Sam is the reason why the exhibition has such high production values.

Cabinet

McQueen’s creative collaborations were fundamental in enabling him to realise the entirety of his creative visions. They spanned hat makers and jewellers, to glass technicians, prosthetists, leather workers and even welders. The Cabinet of Curiosities paid tribute to these rich and diverse collaborations and formed the heart of the exhibition. It filled the entire North Court exhibition gallery, and extended upwards to 6 and a half metres high. It was perhaps the most intriguing, dazzling and mesmerising of all the galleries and was hugely impactful. In all the tours I’ve gave, we always got stuck there!

The Cabinet included over 120 accessories and show pieces- garments that were made for the catwalk but never intended for commercial production. It was also filled with 27 screens showing footage from McQueen’s many catwalk shows.

What made McQueen so fascinating is the remarkable breadth of materials that he incorporated into his body of work. Some of the most intriguing – such as a bodice made from mussel shells and a headdress by Philip Treacy made from wood and coral were on display in this gallery.

New Additions

We have been so fortunate that, with the luxury of more space, we were able to add more objects to the V&A exhibition. Most of them appeared in the Cabinet. Among these were a necklace on the left by jeweller Shaun Leane which was one of my absolute favourites. Shaun was trained as a fine jeweller and goldsmith, but his collaborations with McQueen propelled his creative horizons. Not only did he produce elaborate body sculptures for McQueen, such as the aluminium coiled corset, but he also had to work a new range of materials. In this he found himself drying out and lacquering pheasant claws, which he combined with strings of precious Tahitian pearls. The intriguing combination of organic materials is one of many examples where McQueen redefined conventional perceptions of beauty through his unique visions.  The exquisite Bird headdress by Philip Treacy was from the La Dame Bleue collection in which both designers came together to pay tribute to their former muse and mentor Isabella Blow, who had recently committed suicide.

Also displayed was the ‘Bell Jar’ dress, so named because its shape takes the form of a Victorian bell jar. It is encrusted with Swarovski crystal and weighed a staggering 18 kg! Our textile conservators had to design special supports to reinforce the mannequin so it could withstand display for such a long time.

One of the most exciting additions was a  jewelled yashmak which was remade by Shaun Leane for V&A exhibition. It was originally made for McQueen’s S/S2000 collection called Eye, and it was also shown at the V&A’s McQueen and Leane Fashion in Motion event 14 years ago as I showed earlier. I am delighted to say that it is now part of the Museum’s permanent collection and I’m thinking we should really display it in the Armour gallery!

Another special commission for the exhibition was Philip Treacy’s remade Chinese Garden headpiece from It’s Only a Game. It is an exquisite, intricate design carved from cork and gently trembles as it rotates on its turntable. Many of the pieces turned in this section because we wanted to animate the gallery, but also because the pieces were spectacular from every angle.

Pepper’s Ghost

This is probably the most evocative gallery in the show. It recreates one of McQueen’s most memorable catwalk moments, when Kate Moss appeared as a spectral apparition on a glass pyramid at the centre of the catwalk at the end of the Widows of Culloden show. It used a nineteenth century technology called Pepper’s Ghost, as a way to conjure up the magic of McQueen’s catwalk shows for our exhibition at the V&A.

Exoticism

This section reflected McQueen’s enduring interest in Asian dress and textiles and, in particular, the kimono. He avidly studied the Asian collections at the V&A and even incorporated historical materials into some of his designs. The way the collar of a kimono stands out was a detail McQueen borrowed from again and again – the nape of the neck was thought to be very erotic in Japanese society.

One of the most spectacular garments was a dress made from the panels of an antique Japanese silk screen from a collection called Voss. Beneath sits an underdress of lacquered oyster shells. The look is finished with a shoulderpiece by Shaun Leane made from silver and black Tahitian pearls. It was classic McQueen in that it fused hard and soft, savagery and beauty, for the clusters of pearls are melded to silver spikes that protrude upwards from the neck and appear to threaten the delicate skin around the face.

McQueen was a masterful showman, and Voss was one of his most impactful catwalk presentations. The collection – which fused McQueen’s interest in the Far East with his love of nature – was presented in a large glass cube. A tiled white floor and padded walls evoked a cell in a psychiatric hospital. The cube at first appeared mirrored; the audience of journalists and buyers were confronted with their own reflection, for hours. Then, the lights went down, and the models came out. Unable to see out of the two-way mirrors that formed the walls of the cube they pressed their hands against the glass, and appeared trapped inside a strange world of McQueen’s imagination.

McQueen’s shows were undoubtedly often provocative and controversial. It could be an endurance test to get through them – I know, because I was at Voss, and it was very disturbing. Sometimes they involved avant-garde installations that were akin to performance art. Although it was something he refuted, McQueen really brought an artistic sensibility to fashion, and the catwalk show.

McQueen’s intention was always to elicit a strong audience reaction. But his shows weren’t just about shock; they were always purposeful. McQueen always had a point to make. Voss was a commentary on the politics of beauty.

As the show came to a close, the opaque walls of a glass cube at the interior gave way. They smashed on the floor, revealing the naked, voluptuous figure of the fetish writer Michelle Olley, who lay on a chaise longue, masked and attached to a breathing tube while moths fluttered about her.

The finale – which was based on a photo called Sanitarium by his favourite photographic artist Joel-Peter Witkin -asked the audience to question the true meaning of beauty. It was his most transgressive catwalk moment.

In 2001 we recreated the glass box from this beautiful and terrifying collection for Radical Fashion. It’s a dazzling dress with a skirt of dyed ostrich feathers and a bodice made from hand-painted glass microscope slides; each one hangs delicately, mimicking the feathers on the breast of a bird.

In 2001 and again in Savage Beauty we showed the Japanese inspired dress  made from beach mats which McQueen brought back to his studio from a weekend trip to Brighton. The mats had been dyed and worked into appliqued chrysanthemum roundels, yet another of countless examples of McQueen’s inventiveness and resourcefulness with materials.

Naturalism

I’ve already mentioned McQueen’s lifelong interest in nature. He drew inspiration from its beauty and fragility and also found a unique colour palette derived from the natural world.  As a young man McQueen loved bird-watching and in later life took up falconry.

Like references to the Victorian period, you can find a reference to birds in almost all of his collections. Sometimes they informed the silhouette of a dress or coat, other times they appear as print motifs, and on other occasions he borrowed their material properties, crafting dramatic gowns from feathers which, when picked up, is a light as a bird, virtually weightless. McQueen even incorporated aspects of taxidermy. Birds are everywhere in his collections.

Web Installation view of ‘Romantic Naturalism’ gallery, Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty at the V&A (c) Victoria and Albert Museum London

Some of McQueen’s most beautiful and fragile designs are on display in this gallery. There is a dress made entirely from stripped and varnished razor clam shells, which McQueen once saw washed up on a Norfolk beach. I even tracked that beach down myself, during research for this exhibition; it took three hours to walk there, and had to be at low tide, but the effect was stunning. McQueen decided the shells had outlived their usefulness on the shore, so he took them and made a dress out of them. Then, during the show, the model Erin O’ Connor, ran her hands up the dress, cutting them to shreds. The shells clattered to the floor, and so their usefulness was over once again.

McQueen was deeply aware of life’s transience, and he had a very uplifting attitude toward it. He once said ‘It’s important to look at death because it is a part of life. It’s a sad thing, melancholy but romantic at the same time. It is the end of a cycle – and everything has an end. The cycle of life is positive because it gives room for new things.’

I loved the Naturalism gallery – full of bird song, and brightly lit, like a conservatory. The image shows a dress from his Sarabande collection made from silk and real flowers. On the catwalk fresh and dried blooms were used, but for conservation reasons we can only use dried and silk flowers. When the model walked, the blooms fell to the floor, exposing the transience of living things, and we emulated this in the display. The dress was inspired by contemporary artist Marc Quinn’s installation of frozen flowers, ‘Garden’ and also the photographic compositions of decaying fruit by Sam Taylor-Johnson, both artists that McQueen knew and admired.

Plato’s Atlantis

Plato’s Atlantis was the finale of the exhibition. As I have mentioned, McQueen was a masterful storyteller, and Plato’s was his most fantastical. It predicted a future world where the ice cap had melted and mankind had been forced to adapt in order to survive under the seas. As the catwalk show progressed, the models’ features changed- cheeks were enhanced with prosthetics and hair was sculpted into fin-like peaks to connote biological adaption and their evolution into a semi-aquatic species. The collection was filled with startling digital prints derived from natural organisms such as snakes, moths and jellyfish. Each print was engineered to fit the specific contours of each pattern. Plato’s also launched the iconic ‘Armadillo’ boot, the shoe with a 30cm heel that was entirely without reference to the anatomy of the foot; a show that fused a claw-like menace with that of a ballerina en pointe. No-one had ever seen anything like this before – it was so innovative and new.

Installation view of ‘Platos Atlantis’ gallery, Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty at the V&A (c) Victoria and Albert Museum London

McQueen also broke new technological ground with this collection by filming it live with two motion control cameras which surveyed the audience and the models and then transmitted or streamed it live over the internet via Nick Knight’s fashion website SHOWstudio. Unfortunately this crashed, because McQueen launched Lady Gaga’s latest single as the finale, and she mentioned this on twitter. However, the entire show was an incredible mixture of craft, nature and technology. The film alone that McQueen with Nick Knight and editor Ruth Hogben made was absolutely remarkable, and an extended sequence from it was played in the exhibition, which you can see it on SHOWstudio. Plato’s was widely considered McQueen’s greatest achievement, but I suppose the great unanswered question is, who knows what he would have done next?

The Book – Alexander McQueen

The book was complex and ambitious and we didn’t have quite enough time to do it, but I have no regrets for all the late nights and weekends spent editing it. The approach was kaleidoscopic. No one approach seemed right for a book on McQueen. For a designer who could include up to 300 references in any one collection, we needed multiple voices to articulate his significance and assess his meaning. So the book drew together the voices of 28 authors – some of whom were V&A scholars, while others are subject specialists, or collaborators of McQueen. Through their close knowledge of McQueen and their expertise in the diverse areas that McQueen drew inspiration from – iconographic and contemporary art, film, the Gothic tradition and nature to name but a few – they bring many new perspectives to the body of work of this most complex of designers.

Website

The website, the Museum of Savage Beauty which accompanied the exhibition, was inspired by the Cabinet of Curiosities and included new V&A photography, more essays and video clips of setting the objects in context. It explored the hidden stories and craftsmanship behind some of the most remarkable objects made by Alexander McQueen and his collaborators. His work is placed alongside historical objects from the V&A’s collections to give insight into the things that inspired him, and perhaps lead visitors down the rabbit hole, into McQueen’s mind.

Claire Wilcox is a Senior Curator at the V&A and the Curator of Savage Beauty. She is  Professor in Fashion curation at London College of Fashion.

Read all posts by Claire Wilcox

Researching The Vulgar

 

Project Assistant Laura Thornley from the Centre for Fashion Curation describes her role working on the exhibition.

What was your role within The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined exhibition?

My role was manifold – beginning with researching the historical definitions and use of the word through literary history, coordinating elements of the exhibition production and culminating in the installation of the show over the course of a month.

Laura with Costume Mounter Gesa Warner (L-R). The Vulgar Fashion Redefined. Barbican Art Gallery

Laura with Costume Mounter Gesa Warner (L-R). The Vulgar Fashion Redefined. Barbican Art Gallery.

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No future? The burning of Punk

by Susanna Cordner, Archivist,  London College of Fashion

On Saturday 26th November 2016, after a series of “warm up” burnings of individual items, Joe Corré, founder of Agent Provocateur and son of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, burned a boat full of rare punk pieces as a protest against ‘the corporatisation of punk’. As my role revolves around caring for collections and objects, I have been asked a number of times what I thought of this action. So, consider this posting my opportunity to work through those thoughts…

Joe Corre, the son of Vivienne Westwood and Sex Pistols creator

Joe Corre, the son of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, burns his £5 million punk collection

Archives and collections can be a way of collating and capturing experience, of taking the objects that survive as testimonies to a time or movement. While this naturally relies on looking back, it does not have to be a sentimental process – in fact, collections are sometimes the great correctors of clichés and misunderstandings in how history happened. Objects can survive as proof of how a life was actually lived. Instead of taking someone else’s word for it through a secondary source, object-based study allows you to return to the physical facts.

However, collecting also inherently relies on removing objects from their original context. In an archive, materials – such as letters, diaries or a designer’s early experimental sketches – that were only ever meant to be seen by a select few, move from the private to the public. As well as being a personal reaction to a period, they become a tool for reading that time, too. These sources are essential to decoding and in turn interpreting and representing the past. But taking something out of its context can inevitably cause a shift in agency and purpose. In this light, I recognise Corré’s anger and concerns at the ways in which the rebellion he was raised in has since been appropriated.

Many past public figures, such as Charles Dickens, have protected their own legacy (or had it protected for them by descendants) by burning personal documents. Like an author killing off their favourite character in their last book, destroying “the evidence” in this manner could be read as an attempt to take control of a legacy. Paradoxically, however, Corré’s actions will also have further embedded his own place in a narrative which actually arguably belongs to his parent’s generation.

Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, which was first published in 1967 and had a huge influence on the Sex Pistols, opens by stating that ‘in societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all life presents as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.’ As explored, this ‘moving away into a representation’ is a risk in all collecting practices. However, if Corré’s argument is against this ‘accumulation of spectacles’, then both he and his parents gave their rebellion the wrong release by expressing it in part by producing commercial products.

It is inescapable in this debate that Corré’s parents themselves helped to both create and commercialise punk by providing a space in which to experiment, but also, significantly, one in which to buy. Punk was a scene as well as a movement, and, as with all great rebellions, there were of course always people who thought that they could buy their way in – including some of those who counted (and others who continue to count) themselves as customers of Westwood and McLaren. It seems contradictory to protect a movement from commercialisation by burning a collection made up mainly of items which would once have been commercial products themselves. There is a further contradiction in both denouncing something as dead and appropriated to the point of irrelevance, whilst also protectively taking ownership over it to the extent of exerting your right to destroy it. Corré clearly understands that the things, not just the ideas, matter, otherwise he wouldn’t have wanted to destroy them so publically.

The mark of the success of Westwood and McLaren’s work is that their designs survive (well, the ones that weren’t on that boat do…), simultaneously as signifiers of change and friction, but also as credits to the starting point of enormous commercial success. It would be naïve to categorise, protect, or even burn their work as only one or the other.

In the face of reproduction, misinterpretation and sentimentality, it is all the more important to revert to the core, to preserve the evidence that separates the imitation from the original – both commercially and culturally.  Punk has the uncommon advantage of having been recognised as culturally significant before it was too late to capture it first-hand. That gives us the rare opportunity to collate oral histories, and objects, from those who actually experienced it, to better respect it and understand it in the future. It is arguably all the more important to go through this process of collation with movements that are anti-establishment, to perhaps protect them from being airbrushed by the powers that be in the future. In so doing, we can also use these testimonies to counter or question some of the interpretations and reiterations of punk still turning up in the industry today.

Corré’s protest allowed him to denounce the establishment’s celebration of a movement that rebelled from it, but it ignored the fact that his own stake in that movement was in part a commercial one. It also did nothing to help protect and distinguish in the future true punk from the sanitised imitation he so hates.

Luckily, while Corré’s protest costs future generations some hugely significant cultural material, the work of his parents is already recognised in collections across the world. With those objects we can try to conjure and respect the explosive context in which they were originally created.

 

Susanna Cordner is the Archivist at London College of Fashion Archives

Jeff Horsley on a Brief and Incomplete Account of Punk fashion exhibitions 

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