The need to go astray, to be destroyed, is an extremely private, distant, passionate, turbulent truth.
I’ve always had a feeling of certainty that it was me who discovered him. It all started with the unusual bottle of perfume – a ruby red heart-shaped glass bottle sheathed in chrome designed by Patrick Veillet. This was it, the fragrance that matched me so well that it actually turned heads. I was hooked and felt safe wearing it…this was my armour, my Kingdom, my Alexander McQueen…Then I started digging deeper, soon sucked into his uncanny, beautiful world where power just kept on clashing with frailty.
His work and imagery became the leitmotiv of my dissertation entitled, ‘The Transgressive Character of the Late Twentieth-Century Fashion in the Perspective of Georges Bataille’s Philosophical Anthropology’(2007), a dark story on some of the 90s most nihilistic and ambivalent moments in fashion aesthetics that took me nearly two years to complete.
I saw Savage Beauty at the V&A on 1st August, one day before the end of the exhibition – it was the last and only weekend when you could see his carefully staged ouvre at night. My friends recalled it as a surreal experience – walking out of the museum into the light of dusk, touched and shaken, picking up their thoughts, half-awake, half-dreaming.
I didn’t know what to expect…but I did want to find some of McQueen’s work I covered in my dissertation that just fit the heterogenic, excessive vision of mankind depicted by Bataille. Two collections and one dress made me rush through the rooms until I recognised them.
Voss (Spring-Summer 2001), featured models in a mirrored box with strong resemblance to a mental health asylum who could see nothing apart from their own reflections. So they preened, “staging a solitary performance (…) like a sex show, to an audience of fashion voyeurs concealed behind a one-way mirror” (Caroline Evans, Fashion at the Edge). This very box later unveiled another one, far more disturbing with a naked women (Michelle Olley) in a mask and a breathing pipe in her mouth surrounded by large moths. The curators at V&A reconstructed that show by playing its recorded version behind the glass box presenting mannequins dressed in pieces from the collection including the famous carmine dress made of microscope slides and dyed ostrich feathers, modelled by Erin O’Connor.
It was a subversive spectacle, touching on abject and alien that was also apparent in Plato’s Atlantis (Spring-Summer 2010), the second collection I was looking for and McQueen’s last one where computer-generated prints mimicked snake’s skin, butterfly wings, jellyfish and other sea creatures in a riot of kaleidoscopic, iridescent images and engineered dress designs that simply transformed the models into another species. Plato’s Atlantis is like an insane combination of ‘The Abyss’ and something mythical where the final look – the dress, leggings and ‘Armadillo’ boots covered with holographic sequins – represents a complete metamorphosis of the model into an androgynous, luminous, extraterrestrial being. There’s no messiness in the process, everything at this catwalk show is lab clean with two motion control cameras tracking the models along the catwalk and projecting their images onto a large screen.
These two cameras referred back to the robotic, industrial paint sprayers that came to life during the Spring-Summer 1999 collection and sprayed the white dress of the doll-like Shalom Harlow. That dress was the centre piece in the Cabinet of Curiosities at the V&A presented on a revolving mannequin with an uncanny melted/paint dripping face…Everything that surrounded us was surreal featuring torsos and bodices, Shaun Leane’s jewellery evoking something atavistic and violent. I could also see up close the prosthetic legs hand-carved in wood for Aimee Mullins. When it came to the size of the garments everything seemed so tiny and precise. Just unreal with the room filled with the innocent/sinister music theme from ‘Rosmary’s Baby’ by Krzysztof Komeda. “Georges Bataille would be delighted” I said to my sister.
Savage Beauty was an overwhelming experience. To see McQueen’s work at this scale was something remarkable. Did I cry? Yeah, a bit. But it was also exceptional to see my sister so moved by the raw power of his aesthetics, craftsmanship and edgy, complex vision of human condition that just transcends these fashion garments into something radical…A statement far from easy and safe, a philosophy that doesn’t allow to strip life to the banality of daily routine.
Let’s bring the grandeur back, shall we?
It's been published on The Stuff & Stories blog at 27 August 2015