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The genius of Alexander McQueen

— July 2015

Associated media

Alexander McQueen, Butterfly headdress of hand-painted turkey feathers Philip Treacy for Alexander McQueen La Dame Bleu Spring Summer 2008 © Anthea Sims

Gilly Turney reports on the acclaimed exhibition on a much-lamented fashion designer, now on in London

Alexander McQueen (1969–2010) was not just a genius fashion designer: his creative talents also crossed into the worlds of theatre and art.   His fashion shows were legendary for their flamboyance, theatricality and wit, and an outstanding retrospective at London's Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) is a timely reminder of the unique talent the fashion world has lost.

One of the most innovative designers of his generation, McQueen challenged the boundaries of art and fashion, by blending the latest technology with traditional craftsmanship.

With more than 240 ensembles and accessories,‘Savage Beauty’, at the V&A until 2 August 2015, presents the largest number of individual pieces designed by McQueen and his collaborators ever seen together.  Originated by the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the exhibition has been edited and expanded for the V&A, and includes some rare early pieces lent by private individuals and collectors. Some are from the estate of the late fashion editor, Isabella Blow (who was largely responsible for his initial success after she bought his entire 1992 ‘Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims’ collection) and the House of Givenchy, where he was head designer from 1996 to 2000.

A skilled tailor (McQueen began his career as a tailor's apprentice in London's Savile Row) he used an eclectic range of influences and unlikely materials from the natural world, heritage, ancestry, Gothic, primitivism, technology and handcraft, in his designs.  He stitched locks of hair under linings, crafted garments from animal skin, horn and razor clam shells, constructed ball gowns from feathers and flowers, distressed textiles with chemicals, created accessories from pearls and pheasant claws, and hats with birds, nest and eggs. He referenced Islamic and Middle Eastern cultures and West African tribes, mixing their traditional influences with Western elements.

From the very early stages of his career, McQueen stood out as an exceptional talent. In a series of ten rooms, ‘Savage Beauty’ presents the dominant themes and concepts of his extraordinary body of work: from that first ten-piece graduate collection, ‘Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims’, inspired by Victorian London and focusing on tailoring, to the debut of his 'Bumster'low cut trousers so shocking at the time but de rigeur now, to his 1993 ‘Taxi Driver’ collection inspired by the Martin Scorsese film of the same name, and to his last completed futuristic ‘Plato's Atlantis’ show for Spring/ Summer 2010.

Acclaimed as his greatest collection, ‘Plato’s Atlantis’ shows a world where ice caps have melted and humans have learned to survive underwater, with an army of models wearing digitally printed dresses inspired by amphibious and oceanic creatures and towering 30.5cm (12 ins) high 'Armadillo' boots, plaited hair and prosthetically enhanced faces... This was the first ever fashion show to be streamed live on the Internet.

McQueen was fascinated by his Scottish heritage, as shown in the ‘Widows of Culloden’ Autumn/Winter 2006 collection. Inspired by the final battle of the Jacobite risings, it features his tartan dresses, tweeds suits, a stunning headdress by Philip Treacy and Shaun Leane of a bird’s nest filled with blue, speckled Swarovski-gem-encrusted eggs flanked by a mallard’s wings, and the spectacular finale – an ethereal holographic 3D image of Kate Moss in a rippling organza gown – dramatically displayed in a separate gallery.

Born Lee Alexander McQueen in Lewisham, South London, in 1969, McQueen grew up in Stratford.  The youngest of six children of a London cabbie and his wife, he loved the city, ‘It's where my heart is and where I get my inspiration’.

After an apprenticeship in Savile Row and then Milan, he took a master’s degree in Fashion Design at Central Saint Martins before being 'discovered' by stylist and fashion editor, Isabella Blow,  who helped launch him on to the fashion world by buying then modelling his first collection for BritishVogue.

It is hard to believe that five years have passed since his tragic death in February 2010 aged only 40. His designs and name are still very much a part of British fashion, the legacy carried on by his head of Womenswear and now creative director, Sarah Burton. 

The finale of the exhibition is a visual extravaganza befitting such a great designer. A double-height gallery, the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’, displays his unique designs interspersed with film footage from most of his catwalk shows, from floor to ceiling over four walls.  It is amazing! Catch it if you can…


Gilly Turney
Fashion & art journalist, stylist and historian

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