It is a show that promises to change minds about haute couture. Bigger than any fashion exhibition ever mounted at the Victoria and Albert Museum and one of the major cultural events of the spring, Savage Beauty will celebrate the radical designs of the late Alexander McQueen.
Details of the show, which has been in preparation for two years, have been closely guarded, but this weekend the museum’s senior researcher, Kate Bethune, has drawn back the curtain a little to reveal key elements – and some of the challenges faced by the museum.
“As well as being the biggest, this is the most varied show the VA has put together in terms of the materials used,” she told the Observer.
“From dresses made of glass microscope slides or razor shells to plywood or feathers, it is the breadth of materials that has made it fascinating for us. McQueen’s collaborations with skilled craftsmen, with glass blowers and metal workers were fundamental to his design genius.”
Most of the clothes have come from the McQueen archive, but a quarter have been sourced from private owners. Each garment, however, is treated as if it belonged to the VA for the duration of the show, said Bethune. “They are all checked by our conservators and some did have to be rejected if we felt they would not withstand the show. The shells, in particular, are exceptionally fragile. Luckily McQueen’s creative output was so absolutely vast, there was no shortage.”
McQueen’s bespoke mannequins also caused problems: “We had to reinforce them because some of the dresses are so heavy. The Bell Jar dress is covered in Swarovski crystals and weighs an incredible amount.”
The exhibition is largely a recreation of the show that took Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art by storm in 2011, but with important additions and more space, said Bethune. “It is about a third bigger, with 66 additional pieces, including some that have never been displayed. The cabinet of curiosities element of the New York show has been extended because we have a double-height gallery and are showing 20 pieces that were worn on the catwalk but never intended for sale.
“I am particularly pleased with our new inclusion of some of McQueen’s early experimental work, done before he was famous. It is a nice point of contrast to his later, refined work for Givenchy.”
Savage Beauty will range across 10 rooms filled with displays of womenswear, from his MA graduate collection in 1992 to his unfinished collection of 2010. The first section of the show, London, will highlight the power of his unsettling early collections, The Birds, Highland Rape and The Hunger. Ten designs, including his notorious “bumster” trousers, will feature next to footage of his earliest catwalk shows.
During the final weeks of the show in New York, the Met had to stay open until midnight to cope with four-hour queues. It also offered 17,000 people $50 tickets to allow them in on a Monday, when the museum is normally closed. The show was eventually seen by 650,000 people.
Hilary Alexander of the Daily Telegraph called it “an absorbing, astounding walk through the extraordinary convolutions of his mind, and the technical virtuosity he could summon up in order to turn his ideas and thoughts into reality”.
Among unseen work this time around is a red ballet dress from his 2008 autumn/winter collection, The Girl Who Lived in the Tree, and a white feathered dress from The Horn of Plenty, his last, feted 2009 show in Paris, just a few months before his suicide. There are also rare early pieces borrowed from private owners, such as his friend Annabelle Neilson. “We are borrowing a clear sequinned top from her, laid over an image of the Romanov children. It is a haunting piece,” said Bethune.
Unique photographs from this last show, taken by McQueen’s friend Nick Waplington, are currently on display at Tate Britain. In an interview with Observer Magazine last month, Waplington revealed that McQueen had been accepted to study for an MA at the Slade art school in London. He wanted, Waplington said, to pursue his passion for fine art and find “a way out of fashion”. McQueen was a fan of the VA and once said its collections “never fail to intrigue and inspire me”. He added: “The nation is privileged to have access to such a resource … it’s the sort of place I’d like to be shut in overnight.”
The production company that collaborated with McQueen on many of the catwalk shows, Gainsbury and Whiting, has worked with the museum and a gallery has been dedicated to recreating the spectacular moment in one show when a supermodel appeared as a holographic image, dressed in rippling organza.
His involvement with the museum dates from the 1997 show Cutting Edge: 50 Years of British Fashion 1947-1997. He was represented in the Fashion in Motion series in 1999 and then with Shaun Leane in 2001.
“It has been a dream of Martin Roth, the museum director, to bring Savage Beauty here. It has just taken a long time to get to all the stakeholders,” said Bethune.
Alongside Savage Beauty and the Tate Britain show, a new series of McQueen catwalk photographs taken by Ann Ray has been acquired by the VA this year. Another exhibition marking the fashion designer’s impact, five years after his suicide, is also running at the Proud gallery in Chelsea until 5 April. McQueen: Backstage – The Early Shows by Gary Wallis includes a collection of unseen archive photographs of the early days taken by a fellow student who continued to work with McQueen for several years.
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7, from 14 March to 2 August. Nick Waplington/Alexander McQueen: Working Process is at Tate Britain, London SW1, from 10 March to 17 May