Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty

In his last collection before his death in February 2010, Lee Alexander McQueen returned to nature for inspiration. ‘I have always loved the mechanics of nature,’ wrote the designer. Plato’s Atlantis was inspired by Darwin’s 1859 the Origins of Species with a narrative that concerns itself with devolution rather the evolution of mankind.

Here McQueen’s complex, digitally engineered prints, inspired by exotic sea creatures, meet intricate craftsmanship, meet technology, meet the digital age. The collection was streamed live over the internet to entice dialogue between the creator and the consumer.

Plato’s Atlantis is the full expression of McQueen, and it marks the end to an intelligent, theatrical and visually exhilarating exhibition. Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty opens at London’s V&A Museum this week and is a must for anyone with an interest in design.

Fashion exhibitions can often fail to reflect the excitement of the runway – the cloths can look drab and lifeless on the cold mannequin. Here, the museum’s senior curator of fashion, Claire Wilcox, has succeeded in envisaging a seductive narrative that is dark at times, evocative at others, always theatrical and soaking in drama.

She explores McQueen’s incredible craftsmanship and his gift as a tailor. She searches his imagination, his many influences – the cabinet of curiosities room cannot but put a smile on the face – and how he challenged the boundaries of art and fashion.

Few fashion designers have managed to straddle the world of fashion and art. The industry can seem a little shallow at times due to the very nature of the product, its short lifespan and the seemingly vacuous world it inhabits. McQueen really was one exception.

There was something of a contemporary Elsa Schiaparelli about McQueen in the way he infused a sense of fun, an almost surrealist approach, to his work. Yet the clothes were always beautifully crafted and flattering. For him fashion was a performance and catwalks performance art.

The V&A is expanding on the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2011 collection to feature thirty additional garments, including some rare early pieces; and a new section will focus on McQueen’s fledgling development as a designer in London.

The museum has also acquired 13 photographs by Anne Ray an extraordinary body of work described by McQueen as ‘my life in pictures’ (pictured above). The two formed a close friendship in the 1990s and Ray was granted great freedom to photograph in McQueen’s studio and at his shows with no restrictions.

The resulting photographs capture the energy behind-the-scenes, the intense preparations for each spectacular performance as well as portraits of the designer in reflective and joyous moments.

McQueen was a huge fan of the V&A, saying the collections ‘never fail to intrigue and inspire me… it’s the sort of place I’d like to be shut in overnight,’ a sentiment shared by us.

So it is fitting for this wonderful establishment, one that champions art and design in all its forms and shapes, and is never afraid to be daring, to take on a visionary creative such as McQueen.

Nargess Banks

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, in partnership with Swarovski, is the V&A Museum in London from 14 March – 19 July 2015.

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Exhibition: Glamour of Italian Fashion

Italy seduces the senses through its art and architecture, design, fashion, food and language. Everything is so voluptuous, so desirable and so utterly Italian. The style is understated yet glamorous, summed up by the wonderful Italian word, Sprezzatura, which roughly translates to a question of attitude, a mood, a certain nonchalance and ‘a sense of easy elegance in action’, notes Sonnet Standfill, curator of The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014.

The exhibition that’s just opened at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is the story of Italian fashion, tracing its history from war-torn Italy through the glamorous 50s and 60s, and the fashion powerhouse that it has evolved into today.

It isn’t easy curating a fashion exhibition as such. The costumes inevitably lose much of their vibrancy once pinned to a static mannequin. Fabric needs movement, it needs flesh and a body, and perhaps a bit of Sprezzatura. Here the curators have breathed life into the costumes by giving clothes a place, a history, a narrative – at times serious – and by juxtaposing the static exhibits with moving images from films and catwalks.

Writing this from Milan, where the annual design week is in full swing, it is easy to forget the austere Italy of post war years when it wasn’t so much fashion but their expertise in textile design, in leather craftsmanship that steered them on. The V&A exhibition, packed on its opening day, reveals this pride in craftsmanship, in material knowhow – yet walking through the streets of Milan today it is obvious that fashion is so instinctive a part of Italian culture.

The story begins with the landmark Sala Bianca catwalks that were organised by Giovanni Battista Giorgini and held in Florence from the early 50s, introducing Italian fashion to the world stage at the time dominated by Paris.

The exhibition examines the impact of Hollywood and films like Roman Holiday shot on location in Italy in propelling this popularity. Hollywood stars Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor became style ambassadors for Italian fashion, fuelling a keen international appetite for luxurious clothing made in Italy. Italian stars such as Sophia Lorena, Claudia Cardinale and Gina Lollobrigida became style  symbols.

On display at the V&A are around 100 ensembles and accessories by leading Italian fashion houses including Dolce & Gabbana, Giorgio Armani, Fendi, Gianfranco Ferré, Gucci, Missoni, Prada, Pucci and Versace, through to the next generation of talent including couture by Giambattista Valli, bold ready-to-wear from Fausto Puglisi and work from Valentino’s new designers duo Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli.

A poignant concluding video examines the role of Italy in future fashion with some honest contributions by some of these contemporary designers.

The Glamour of Italian Fashion really does capture the dynamism of Italian fashion. It draws out the defining factors unique to the Italian fashion industry – the use of luxurious materials, expert textile production, specialist, regional manufacturing, and its strength as a source of both dynamic menswear and glamorous womenswear.

The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014 is at the V&A Museum from now until 27 July 20144 and is sponsored by Bulgari.

Nargess Banks

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | | | Published by Banksthomas

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