Savage Beauty

1 McQueen polished varnished clam shellsMy first opportunity to scrutinize Alexander McQueen designs came via the Isabella Blow Exhibition at Somerset House last year so I arrived at “Savage Beauty,” the Alexander McQueen retrospective at the V&A, keen to see more leather or wool (my favoured materials of late) and hoping to get inspired to take a more daring approach in my own pattern-cutting.

The exhibition intends to emphasise how McQueen took his influences from nature and there’s a lot of it in use: feathers, shell, wood, beaks, hair and horn.  We’re talking more than just trim: one whole coat seemed like a bubbling  eruption of dark hair coils which my friend dubbed “the Dr Who Monster”!  The other angle of interpretation is Romanticism.  Four rooms are named Romantic Exoticism, Romantic Horror, Romantic Nationalism (this would be of the Scottish kind) and Romantic Naturalism.  In the last, I spent a while admiring a hessian full skirt embroidered with straw flowers of the kind I haven’t seen since I was a child when they were a popular design on straw handbags.  There were dresses and bodysuits inspired by the kimono and sleeves of silks printed in the style of chinoiserie but updated to more vibrant palettes.  It’s a winner of a room, full of freshness and calm.

Not so Romantic Horror, a mostly black collection from McQueen’s days at Givenchy when he apparently imagined the creations of a disturbed surgeon who dismembers women and recreates them as animal hybrids.  Here the female form towers imposingly in her raven-plumed ball gown or in her leather-bandage dress with beak epaulettes.  She’s not so much frightening as dressed for defence, but from what?

If I entered the first room, or two, looking to learn from and to copy – a simple twist on tailoring can create an immediate swing from the traditional to the original – by room three, I abandoned such schemes.  My mind instead was shouting “who the hell has the balls to wear this stuff!?”

Of course, many of these are display pieces which made McQueen’s reputation without making it to a production line.  Nowhere is this more obvious than with the pair of wooden legs shaped like gnarled stiletto boots and carved extravagantly with grapes and vine.  They were made by a either a prosthetist or a wood carver (or both).  McQueen had a myriad of highly accomplished collaborators without whose skill he wouldn’t have been able to realize his visions so prolifically.

1 McQueen tailoringI got told off!  Apparently, I shouldn’t have been wearing my skinny leather rucksack on my back but in my hand like a bag in case I should bash into someone.  Later I did  notice a couple of men in the crowd carrying backpacks on their chests, like papooses, so as to comply with the regulations… go on London, just TAKE our dignity!  The guard who pounced upon me had all the charm of a Cold War James Bond villainess which put me in a nervously rebellious mood and so with shaking hands I took a couple of contraband phone pics of appalling quality (left, also the polished, varnished clam shell dress at the top).

If you can get to the V&A by August the 2nd but are reluctant to pay £17.50 for a ticket, think again!  Gone are the days of fashion exhibitions displaying static rows of frocks.  The game has upped somewhat.  Almost each room here is a built set and a couple are rather elaborate.  The music is wonderful too (and adds to the effect of this being a staged event).  Sarabande by Handel in the “Widows of Culloden” hall; while in the “Cabinet of Curiosities”, the largest of the rooms packed to the rafters with exhibits, we’re served the eerie lullaby sung by Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby (my favourite ‘pregnancy movie’ 🙂  )  As for the ‘hologram video’ of a Widows of Culloden bride Kate Moss spinning slowly like a dust mote, it’s worth a quarter of the admission on its own…

1 kate mossThe postcard of Moss in the silk mille feuille wedding dress is one of four I picked from the selection in the seriously tempting Savage Beauty gift shop (those trying to rein in their expenditure are advised to wear blinkers as they pass!).  Also included is a postcard of the golden feather coat which reminds me of the opera The Magic Flute, then there’s  my perfect kilt dress and one from the Naturalism collection.  If you think these would be good on your mood board, leave me a comment below and I’ll draw in early April then post them to the winner.

Link: Cabinet of Curiosities Images

Link: Booking is essential so check availability here

                     Link: Woman’s Hour interview with ‘Lee’s’ sister and his biographer

1 papagena

1 romantic naturalism

1 romantic nationalism

Isabella Blow

I didn’t think I’d like Isabella Blow, whose collection of designer dresses and hats is currently at Somerset House.  There’d been nothing to warm me in the portraits I’d seen, most showing her expressionless if not rather po-faced, and usually wearing one of her antelope-spike hats.  I admit I have an aversion to fashion, seeing it as a preoccupation of the rich who dress eccentrically to detract from an inner vacuum, with followers who seemingly dress identically when they should be making their own!

So did I have my prejudices overturned? 🙂

Not initially.  In the first display room, a familiar sight of a mismatched zip (ooh, at least  5mm, girls) spotted on the back of a lace Alexander McQueen skirt had me feeling rather smug.  “Blimey, he must have done that before he had people to do it for him,” I thought.  Even less impressive was a fashion feature in The Face showing a child clad in nowt but glittery Agent Provocateur knickers.  Clearly, we’d travelled into the past: a suspicion confirmed when one of the displayed documents turned out to be a fax (I’d forgotten they existed) which referred to the rather mundane  but very relevant matter of Blow’s expenses.

Amber Anderson photographed by Nick KnightHowever, you soon start to feel luck at being able to circle, and study closely, such giants of design as you see here.  I would have loved to touch some of the exhibits (like the fluffiest collar ever, on right) but I’d been warned off by repeated signs.  “No Photography” either, sadly.  As there wasn’t a catalogue of the exhibition on sale, here are some personal highlights which I’m trying to entrust to memory:

– One Philip Treacy hat, or ‘head sculpture’ if you will: a scarlet velvet number worthy of a female cardinal (if there was such a thing).  All parallel pintucks curling up in a sphere.  In a video clip, Blow very sweetly offers the theory that such hats “lift” faces like hers.  “Anyone can find a husband if they wear a Philip Treacy hat!”.

– An ice-smooth, silver shift dress, matched with a two-pronged headdress and the most pointed ever silver trident.  A she-Neptune outfit perhaps?

– A McQueen python-skin suit: a pointy-shouldered jacket and pencil skirt.

And if you think I’m just some sucker for power dressing, how about:

– The Jun Takahashi shocking-pink Burka printed with skewered-headed teddy bears (see it here)?  Very low Taliban-approval rating but Lady Gaga also gave it a go.

Looking around, I did in fact start to wonder if I haven’t lived when I haven’t partied  in frocks like these!

The exhibition veils over the ending of Blow’s and McQueen’s symbiotic relationship and you wouldn’t guess by the triumphant catwalk-show ending that Blow’s last years were ruined by depression, money worries and disappointment at her infertility and divorce.  I think this is deliberate.  We have to let this collection celebrate Isabella Blow and use our imagination to wonder at the rest of the story.

If you can, do go.  Till 2nd March.