Judith Clark has curated Homer Faber: Fashion Inside and Out, part of an inaugural event at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini in Venice showcasing European craftsmanship. The exhibition, which took place in the spectacular space of the disused Gandini swimming pool, took as its theme how traditional techniques inspire contemporary design and exhibition-making.
Tag: CfFC (Page 1 of 3)
Alison Moloney, International Exhibitions Curator in CfFC at London College of Fashion, has been awarded a British Council Art Connects Us grant to travel to Cape Town and Johannesburg to develop a research programme and to explore possible exhibition opportunities and collaborations with CfFC. Alison is organising at talk at Gallery MOMO, an experimental art gallery which has displayed some of the South Africa’s most interesting fashion designers/artists on Saturday 3rd March in collaboration with Erica de Greef, a fashion theorist, curator and lecturer at the University of Cape Town, and the gallery director. Gallery MOMO and involving some key industry players, There will be a panel discussion around approaches to fashion curation with a chance to see the 1914 Now series of films, commissioned by Alison. Alison will also be meeting designers and artists while she’s there for possible collaboration with LCF. See below for the venue’s press release.
By Jenna Rossi-Camus
This summer I will be completing a research fellowship at Yale University’s Lewis Walpole Library in Farmington, Connecticut. The library is a renowned centre for 18th century studies and material relating to Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill House – all of which are central to my practice-based PhD project. I was awarded the travel grant to support my research towards the development of a site-responsive fashion exhibition at Strawberry Hill, Horace Walpole’s neo-gothic villa in Twickenham, London. The proposed exhibition examines fashion graphic satire in tandem with historic and contemporary dress, and material connected with Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill, engineering the exhibition as a space for reflection upon the relationship between fashion and humour and as a conversation amongst architectural and psychological spaces, their histories and resonances.
The fellowship will afford me the opportunity to physically engage with material artefacts that were collected by Walpole – objects that have both informed the development of my project and that are proposed as exhibits in it. Most significantly, I will be able to spend time with albums of satirical prints that Walpole compiled and his extra-illustrated guide to Strawberry Hill. These artefacts have become talismans to my research that have inspired me to frame the exhibition itself as an “extra-illustration” of Strawberry Hill, and to explore Horace Walpole’s engagement with practices of exhibition-making.
During the research period, I will be in residence at Timothy Root House, an 18th century American farmhouse within the library’s idyllic 14-acre campus that has been housing researchers since 2001. I am particularly looking forward to this aspect of the fellowship; time to write and reflect in close proximity to nature and to objects touched or created by Walpole himself.
Find out more about Jenna’s research
Read an interview with Jenna
Find out more about PhD Research at the Centre for Fashion Curation
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
by Ben Whyman
Earlier in 2016, I wrote a blog for Frances Corner on masculinities. I explored how LCF is working hard at celebrating the breadth of research and practice on masculinities taking place at the College. The plural ‘masculinities’ is important: how do we define this, when there are increasingly so many different perspectives, including identities, gender, sexualities, ethnicities, the fashion media and the dressed appearance.