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VM inspiration - McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition at the V&A


The exhibition ‘McQueen: Savage Beauty’ has finally made it to the London, having been a huge success in New York in 2011.

This spectacle of an exhibition showcases fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s work, from his M.A. graduation collection at Central Saint Martins to his death in 2010. It is curated by the V&A’s own Claire Wilcox in consultation with Costume Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art, curator Andrew Bolton.

Garments are exhibited on a themed basis, enabling comparisons between recurring McQueen tropes of construction and topic as they develop over time and documenting his work at Givenchy, which provoked a step-change in the delicacy of his own collections. VM practitioners will certainly find the exhibition an inspiration.

The exhibition, sponsored by Swarovski, and supported by Amex with assistance from Samsung and M.A.C., is divided in to ten rooms, each exploring an aspect of McQueen’s oeuvre.

It commences with an overview of McQueen’s work, with garments from the Alexander McQueen brand including the Spring/Summer 2015 collection, against a back projection of runway shows.

Displaying a cross section of garments from 1995 to 2005 on mannequins against back-projected giant screens has become an effective but formulaic means of conveying the excitement of fashion change, for both exhibitions and fashion brands. We see the runway show incorporated in to many store windows and screens, and while this looks great when the show is recent in customers’ minds, it can look old rather quickly - unless the brand takes on board that in using screens it has not eliminated the difficulties of maintaining quality visual merchandising, but created its own television channel, which it must fill.

The first room examines McQueen’s tailoring past and the sensationally publicised elements of his brand, including the ‘bumster’ pants and skirts. These resemble a studio space with garments on body forms with wheeled bases. The wall behind the body forms and the raised platform on which they are positioned resembles unpainted concrete, all illuminated by harsh florescent strip lights.

McQueen preferred to drape on the stand, and to view the body sideways in order to create new shapes. The body forms are therefore nicely shown side-ways showcasing, for example, the curved-pattern black pants that, when fitted on the mannequin, produce folds of extra fabric at the front knee but stand perfectly away from the back of the calve. A hoard of mannequins positioned side-out is probably about to appear in UK and European retail windows.

The third room is almost totally lined with beautifully-fogged, giant mirrors in broad gilt frames. It showcases a selection of black pieces from McQueen’s own and the Givenchy collections, in a mood of opulent but decayed grandeur. The outfits are accessorised with headdresses or masks and shoes, just as a good window should be. The selection documents the step-change in quality and complexity reflected in McQueen’s garments, much as moving production to Italy did for Vivienne Westwood..


At the end of the room an elaborate glass-fronted gold cabinet with Baroque clawed feet showcases five mannequins arrayed in the most delicate of fabrics and materials. These include organza, lace, finely sequined work, and gold-painted cock feathers. Enclosing the mannequins in a free-standing cabinet prevents dust on delicate fabrics and successfully conveys a retro museum-like atmosphere. Simultaneously this is redolent of a store window.

The next room is lined with dimly-lit resin or glass-fibre femurs, vertebrae, and skulls to create a catacomb with small skull-trimmed, illuminated niches, each containing a mannequin wearing an outfit exploring McQueen’s theme of Romantic Tribalism. The vaulted ceiling curves towards a shallow Perspex dish set in to the ceiling, showing a watery video of a submerged figure. There is a soundtrack of mechanical and industrial origin, perhaps rowing, or a chain clanking, or a spade digging. In VM terms, we have now left the realm of retail and entered the world of the gothic.

The next room is a Cabinet of curiousities: intriguing, private collections of Renaissance men, which included human and animal specimens; objects from the natural world; sculpture; clockwork automata; and ethnographic items provide the inspiration.

The V&A temporary exhibition space allows five boxes stacked on top on of each other and interspersed with flat screens. The edge of the floor is lined with mirrors again and, peering in the subdued lighting at the attribution at mid-thigh height, identifying an object in a group positioned so far overhead is not easy.

Experiencing the room is rather like participating in a difficult version of Kim’s game, where participants have to recollect items on an exposed, and then covered tray, relying on observation and memory. In terms of VM, the wall cabinet of boxes is a classic for accessories and small, perhaps folded, merchandise. However, any VM practitioner might be tempted to make the lighting rather brighter.

The centre of the room features the dress spray painted in the S/S 1999 runway show and surrounded by bench seats, which allows an easier view of the niched walls.

The next room is of classically-paneled wood with a series of broad, rising wooden steps either side of the central walkway, rather like a Scottish castle interior with wall sconces. With tartan elements in all the garments displayed, this room considers McQueen’s cutting techniques, and his elegantly-plundered Scottish and historical references. This space, perhaps with less pronounced steps, would be perfect for retailing anything from sofas to premium fashion brands, the only proviso being that the merchandise would have to be colourful or eye-catching in some way. If it were tastefully bland the end result would be rather dull: it’s the juxtaposition which makes it work.

Evoking Alice’s experiences in Wonderland, the next room contains two parallel lines of classical, museum-quality glass cabinets, with a pathway between. Each contains one mannequin and the perspective they generate, each on turned baroque legs raising them about 30cm from the floor, mean that they tower above visitors. The feeling generated in visitors is of being very small, diminutive in the presence of this creative giant’s work. The memory that this is likely to evoke is of being a small child taken to a slightly forgotten regional museum, where unlike most museums today, the ethos is ‘look but don’t touch.’

The penultimate room has a series of angled floor to ceiling mirrors, forming two sides of a triangle, the third side being open to the central walkway. For those with a fashion-history knowledge, the reference to couturier Charles Worth (1925 – 1895) is distinct. Worth photographed every item in each of his collections as worn by a model positioned in front of two angled mirrors. This has the advantage of displaying the back of the garment as well as the front. It is, of course, difficult for a VM practitioner to conceal any pinning. Ideally, museum curators should not have this problem as the mannequin is made to fit the size of the garment, and pinning would risk damage to the fabric of the accessioned garment.

The last gallery showcases McQueen’s final collection from S/S 2010, with a row of contemporary Mercury-styled, wing-helmeted mannequins wearing mirrored-animal-print dresses paired with the amazing Armadillo shoes, again positioned in front of a bank of flat screens.

In total, the exhibition has ten rooms, each an inspiration for Visual Merchandising, and for beautifully thought out fashion.

All images: Victoria & Albert Museum, London