If you haven’t managed to see the Alexander McQueen exhibition Savage Beauty yet, or like me, you have seen it once and want to go again, the V&A have made another 12,000 tickets available by opening the exhibition around the clock for the final two weekends of its run. The exhibition has been a huge success, with over 345,000 visitors. It is the most visited exhibition at the V&A for a decade – but why has the work of a fashion designer proved to be so popular?
Alexander McQueen was a very young designer, only just in his forties when he died in 2010. In the collections he created during his brief career, and the shows he staged, he managed to re-vision the past, reflect contemporary times, and shape the way we looked at the future. Sometimes the past will be a human historic past, as in the Highland Rape collection of 1995, or Joan (1998). At other times he went further back, inspired by a time or a place where humans hadn’t yet evolved, as in Natural Dis-tinction, Un-Natural Selection (2009), or Plato’s Atlantis, the last collection he completed before his death in 2010.
McQueen was able to use historical references in his work without verging on pastiche or kitsch. He did this partly with his shows, and the styling of the models, and partly through a sinister underbelly of motifs and ideas that were entirely modern. His work has gone beyond fashion and infiltrated the way we see the world around us. The skulls, the bones, the leather lacing and corsetry, the shoulders shaped like the tips of a bird’s wings, all are visual reminders or remainders of McQueen’s legacy. I was recently in the Natural History Museum across the road from the V&A, and was startled by a large display case featuring maybe a hundred little stuffed hummingbirds, seemingly trapped in a Sleeping Beauty forest of thorns. It looked like something Alexander McQueen had made, or dreamed up, but I was actually just seeing it through his eyes. It was no longer a display case of stuffed birds. It represented something, it provoked a reaction. This is what a true artist can do.
One reason why the exhibition is so popular is that Alexander McQueen was a very rare example of that now slightly unfashionable term “genius”. I know that anyone can be a genius if they spend 10,000 hours doing something, and that there are many factors that make an outlier into an expert. But when Lee McQueen was three years old, he could draw. And his ability to draw extraordinarily well saw him surmount obstacles in his life including an almost complete lack of formal education (up until he was accepted at art college on the strength of his talent), no financial safety net or support while he was at college, no network of old school cronies to rely upon, and a childhood that was brutally interrupted by sexual abuse. There were certainly outlier factors that helped him succeed – his charm and humour belied his initially rough exterior and meant talented people wanted to work with him, and stayed loyal to him. The very fact that he looked like the world’s least likely fashion person meant that fashion people noticed him. In the early years he was evidently focused on his goal, to the exclusion of unnecessary distractions such as getting a “proper job”, settling down with a partner, or being financially secure. One very important factor in McQueen’s success was that he was able to rent a studio in East London, in those glory days before glass towers and prime residential gobbled up the city’s creative spaces. This had the benefit of being relatively central, convenient, and at the time, cheap. It is difficult to see how unknown designers or artists could rent studio space while on the dole in London now. Ultimately however, McQueen’s appeal is partly due to the genius thing, whether this is a myth or not. People are fascinated by other people who are brilliant at something despite everything.
So we have the visual power of McQueen’s work that makes it appealing, and the genius thing. The visual power lies in the contradiction that exists in all interesting artists’ work. The contradiction between soft and hard, between flesh and soul, between beauty and horror, between old and new. The tension between these opposites acts as a visual hook for the eye. The other reason I suspect that people are fascinated by the man and his work is that McQueen was an extremely emotionally open artist. (I am deliberately calling him an artist, more of that in a bit). Much as I love fashion, there are few designers who you can say use their work as an expression of how they feel, or what they think. Fashion designers have a unique vision, a way of seeing the world that they present to us, but in most cases, it is just about the aesthetics. Alexander McQueen used his work as an expression of personal emotion. beliefs and as a response to trauma. Critics who accused him of misogyny missed the point. His collections were about him, much more than they were about the models or women in general. With each collection, he revealed something about himself that was uncomfortable, uncompromising, and not always easy to look at (let alone wear). This is why I refer to him as an artist, and this is why I think that so many people have gone to see Savage Beauty – because what they are looking at is not just another collection of pretty frocks at the V&A. They are actually seeing for the first time in his home country, an exhibition that explores the inner workings of a truly original, furiously talented, utterly unexpected, sadly missed creative genius.
For more information about Savage Beauty and to purchase tickets: