Much has been said and written recently about both the salacious aspects of Alexander McQueen’s lifestyle and about the complex, densely referenced mind which conceived some of the most beautiful dresses of our times.
Both these angles miss the point. The Savage Beauty exhibition, which opens at the VA on Saturday, doesn’t. Which is why it is not just an accomplished show or a beautiful one, but – much more importantly – a brilliant and absorbing experience. Because it doesn’t really matter whether McQueen was a tawdry tabloid figure or some kind of wise sartorial truthsayer. What matters is that McQueen was a larger-than-life character who had not only a loud voice but something original to say, who made clothes so beautiful they make you want to laugh out loud, so exquisite you want to stroke them, and yet so fierce that sometimes, walking around this exhibition, the mannequins look just a tiny bit like they might bite.
This is categorically not the sort of fashion exhibition in which clothes are placed reverentially onto pedestals with long captions explaining craftsmanship and history. (Thank god for that, because McQueen would have hated it.) The rooms are categorised by visual theme (exoticism, nature, Victorian gothic) and tell two stories side by side: that of McQueen’s career, and of what it was like to go to a McQueen catwalk show.
McQueen’s life story begins and is rooted in London. The first room is sheathed in huge concrete blocks that recall the Gatliff Road warehouse where his first shows were staged; the second, all grey walls and skylights, resembles the dingy Hoxton studio of his early days. (Next to the infamous bumster trousers is a McQueen quote: “You take inspiration from the street, with the trousers so low. You don’t need to go to India, you can find it in places like Bethnal Green and Brick Lane.”) The rooms become grander and more sumptuous as the show tracks McQueen’s rise, designing Givenchy haute couture and showing at Paris fashion week: the concrete and grey morphs into wood panelling and gilt frames, the industrial skylights are replaced by stagey spotlights.
The heart of this show are two rooms in the middle, the Cabinet of Curiosities and Pepper’s Ghost. The Cabinet of Curiosities is a double-height room divided into a multitude of box frames for individual showpieces. At the centre of the room, the Spray Paint Dress in which Shalom Harlow was decorated/defaced by robots at the finale of a show rotates on a mannequin, like a tiny ballerina in a child’s jewellery box. The walls are stacked with wonders: a headpiece in the shape of a peacock, with a wooden body and coral tail; a skirt constructed like a foldable wooden fan, with layered shards of birch plywood, embroidered with intricate punch-holes; a medieval suit of armour made of crystal. It is an immensely powerful room in telling the McQueen story, because standing in it you feel both the thrill of a soaring imagination, and the terror of descent into madness. There is something oppressive, almost nightmarish, about a head rattling with so many visions.
Pepper’s Ghost recreates the finale to the Widows of Culloden collection. It is an illusion, in which a fairy-sized vision of Kate Moss is conjured up out of thin air by a Victorian technique using projectors and mirrors, which at the time tricked viewers into believing they were seeing ghosts. It is especially poignant now, as a reminder of the other character who is here but not here: that of McQueen himself.
In the entrance hall, before the first room, there is a black box dominated by a vast hologram in which McQueen’s face morphs back and forth into a human skull. The image was first used as an invite to one of his shows, and there is a cacophony of backstage noise: chattering, music, clattering footsteps, the sound of McQueen himself shouting over the top. The sinister atmosphere that he loved to create is conjured up at every turn. There are walls plastered with bones, as if built brick-by-brick out of skeletons; there are mannequins wearing leather balaclavas with zippered smiles. There are walls of show videos, which give a sense of their unique atmosphere: the football-terrace racket of photographers shouting at models as they snarl and strut.
The clothes themselves are displayed with wit and charm. Frock coats from McQueen’s student collection sit on simple metal stands: this tailoring, after all, is the spine on which the McQueen world was built. Seen up close, what strikes you about many of the clothes is how beautiful, how sexy, they are. A leather bodice with fox fur sleeves overlain with a leather harness looks less harsh, and more sensual, than you can imagine from photographs. And there are pieces which are mind-blowing simply in the fact of someone having conceived of them: for instance, an American football helmet and shoulderpiece, made from fibreglass painted with Japanese koi fish and blue-and-white waves and snow-capped mountains, like a kimono.
Savage Beauty is the best-dressed haunted house you will ever visit. A ghost train ride in terrifyingly high heels, with Kate Moss as Tinkerbell as the train’s conductor. Seventy thousand advance tickets have already been sold, beating the previous VA record set by the David Bowie exhibition. But even if you have to get up unfashionably early to get in, you should go.