Arts, Fashion

McQueen - Savage Beauty

For the opening of the Alexander McQueen exhibition Savage Beauty at the Victoria & Albert Museum, caught up with assistant curator Kate Bethune for a Q&A Tell us about the idea behind the exhibition?

KB With Savage Beauty, we wanted to tell the story of the time before McQueen was famous, a time when he was just driven by his pure creativity. You can see a real rawness in the designs. The materials for example, are very experimental; a dress, made from laminated lace, that’s been torn and shredded to expose the models flesh. We were really fortunate to inherit the brilliant work from Andrew Bolton, who was the curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Arts when Alexander McQueen’s Savage Beauty was showing there.

That, and the luxury of more time and more space, gave us the opportunity to increase the exhibition by 66 garments, accessorise and add some other exciting features. How does it differ from the New York exhibition from a few years ago?

KB It’s certainly bigger, including a new gallery at the start of the show, called the London Gallery. It was an important addition, because London was the heart of McQueen’s world, he was born in this city, trained on Savile Row, attended Central Saint Martins and established his fashion label here. The garments in this gallery are from three of his earliest collections. Given the size and nature of the exhibition, what were the main challenges?

KB The main challenge has been the incredible range of materials. McQueen didn’t just render his designs and fabric, he made dresses out of hand-painted glass and microscope slides! So our textile conservators had to get creative, to make sure that they would stand, displayed for a long period of time.

Another difficulty was adding that sense of drama and spectacle he was known for. We decided to screen his catwalk shows and even recreated some of those most spectacular catwalk moments, like the hologram of Kate Moss, inspired by Pepper's ghost, which was one of the most memorable finales to one of his shows, Widows of Culloden. She appeared as an ethereal spectre on a glass pyramid inside the catwalk. So incredibly moving and simply brilliant. How does the exhibtion manage to bring fashion into the world of art exhibitions?

KT Although it’s a fashion exhibition and McQueen was a fashion designer, in many respects he was an artist whose medium of expression was fashion. So, I think, this exhibition appeals to a very broad range of people. He, for example, was interested in iconographic art, renaissance art, graphic literature and contemporary installations. They were all brought together in his designs and especially in his spectacular catwalk shows. Would you have approached the exhibition differently if McQueen was still alive?

KB That's a difficult question to answer, it is extremely powerful because it is a retrospective and the decision was taken to focus solely on garments from his time as a creative director of the label. The museum always wanted to work with him, but the time was never right. I think it’s such a powerful show, because of his unfortunate passing. How is the exhibition in line with what the designer and the brand stand for?

KB Alexander McQueen was the man behind the brand, he was that raw creative genius. He shocked and provoked with his designs, with the trousers that exposed the lower back. The materials he used, his compelling catwalk shows; he was controversial.

We have had the full support of Alexander McQueen fashion label, which helped a lot in the process, and we really made use of the unlimited access to the company’s archives. Which piece stands out most to you?

KB McQueen was fascinated by nature and the natural world, especially birds, which is something you can see consistently in all his collections. Whether they informed the silhouette of a jacket or a dress or whether they were included as a print motive on a garment, it was a kind of signature. The standout piece for me is a dress from the Widows of Culloden collection, and it’s remarkable for many different reasons.

Firstly because of its construction; it is made from individual pheasant feathers, hand-stitched onto ribbons, which have then been sewn on to a net ground. Secondly, it’s a great tribute to nature, the beauty and fragility, and its colour palette. It pays worthy tribute to a collection, that was intended to honour the fate of the widows who have lost their husbands in the battle of Culloden in 1745. Is there a garment you would like to wear?

KB I love the corset from Dante, McQueen was fascinated with Victorian culture. It is a lilac corset, which is the colour of half mourning, a great Victorian reference. But it has these amazing wings that come up from the corset to obscure the face and there is that sense of elusiveness. It is a very classic McQueen silhouette. And he always aimed to empower women with his garments, to make them appear powerful and fearless, so I would love to be able to wear that piece.