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15 December 2015

Savage Beauty, V&A, London

Alexander McQueen may no longer walk among us, for which couture is very much the poorer, but he lives on in a canon of incomparable work recently exhibited in London: Savage Beauty was the unquestionable hit of the V&A’s summer roster.

The exhibition tracked his output from his 1992 MA graduate show through to his unfinished 2010 collection. Included are the infamous “bumster” trousers – so perilously low-rise that the skinny dared not sneeze – and a 3D hologram of Kate Moss set to the soundtrack of Schindler’s List, the haunting finale to his The Widows of Culloden collection in 2006.

A degree of fascination attaches to the gifted who die tragically early; given the uncompromising naming strategy McQueen applied to his collections – e.g., Nihilism, Highland Rape, The Widows of Culloden and The Hunger – it’s tempting to see Savage Beauty through a prism of personal torment. But this would be to detract from his extraordinary creativity. He worked with a vast range of materials, from plywood to razor clam shells, metals to Swarovski crystals, feathers to leathers, embroidered silks to tartan wools, and his technical expertise and ingenuity have to be seen to understand why he was hailed a genius. One illustration was his insistence on designing from the side – if his clothes flattered the body’s worst angle, he reasoned, they’d work all the way round. The spectacle didn’t stop with McQueen: also on display was breathtaking work from celebrated collaborators – jewellery by Shaun Lean and sculptural hats by Phillip Treacy.

No account of Savage Beauty can ignore the mannequins’ faces: encased in leather and metal, they resembled modern versions of the Scold’s Bridal or the gimp mask. Misogyny? Surely no one who loved his mother so deeply could have loathed the rest of womankind? My companion at Savage Beauty was a psychotherapist whose observations give another perspective: “McQueen spoke of how beauty comes from within, but I was struck by the flamboyant and aggressive surfaces (leather, feathers, polyurethane, plywood, et cetera) and how any sense of an inner self disappeared. This was emphasised by the masks and headdresses, often reminiscent of S&M or animal themes, so the models appeared faceless, powerless, interchangeable. Watching the videos of his shows, they seemed to focus on external drama to avoid seeing inside. Could a fragile inner self have been extravagantly hidden to the point where containing it became unbearable? And what about the incessant need to be yet more creative over time? Is creativity constantly regenerative and quantifiable? Did it become a burden?”

Poignantly, just before his death McQueen had been accepted for an MA at London’s Slade School of Fine Art. He had wanted to pursue his passion and get out of fashion. If only he could have applied the title of his Spring/Summer 2005 collection to life: It’s Only a Game.