Alexander McQueen, whose work is celebrated in a magnificent new show, Savage Beauty, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, was never one to take the easy route. As a teenage apprentice to a Savile Row tailor, he stitched secret insults into the lining of a jacket for Prince Charles. His graduate collection was entitled Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims. His first proper collection was entitled Taxi Driver, and inspired by the violent Martin Scorsese movie.
His shows were controversial and spectacular, with models being spray-painted by car-factory robots or gigantic trees made of fabric twisting upward from the catwalk.
"Each time he’d say 'how am I going to beat that now?' and push himself harder and harder," says Claire Wilcox, the curator of the V&A’s Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. "His shows were extraordinarily theatrical."
McQueen won British Designer of the Year four times; he was made chief designer of Givenchy at just 27. So the fashion world was stunned when, aged 40 and depressed at the death of his beloved mother a few days before, he took his own life.
This exhibition at the V&A (14 Mar-2Aug) is showing around 250 items in a huge exhibition space, with 10 thematic galleries. Savage Mind is devoted to his tailoring (check out the frock coats). Gothic is his very last collection, with beautiful Byzantine colours of white and gold.
"In Cabinet of Curiosities, you can see the extraordinary metal corsets and face jewellery of Shaun Leane, who was one of McQueen’s closest collaborators, and hats by Philip Treacy. There’s a beautiful gallery devoted to Asian-influenced dresses, worn by figures revolving in front of mirrors as though in a music box," explains Wilcox.
The real show-stopper will be an entire room devoted to a floating Kate Moss, her organza gown and hair billowing around her as though she were underwater.
Wilcox first met McQueen 20 years ago, and often saw him at the V&A. "He loved museums, having been taken to the South Kensington museums every Sunday as a child. He noticed everything – he wouldn’t talk much, he would just look; and when he looked at clothes in our archive he understood their construction immediately."
Growing up in east London as the son of a cab driver, McQueen had made dresses for his three sisters, and never wanted to do anything else. The only O-level he got was in Art, so he left school and worked in fashion from the age of 16, including a stint in Milan as pattern-cutter to Romeo Gigli. He took an MA in Fashion Design at prestigious Central Saint Martins almost by accident: he applied for a job, but was so talented he was encouraged to enrol as a student.
An exhibition of behind-the-scenes photographs at Tate Britain this month, entitled Working Process, shows how hands-on McQueen was in preparing his shows. He seems so full of life, and yet, tragically, less than a year after these pictures were taken, he was dead. The huge Savage Beauty show, which may eclipse even the V&A’s record-breaking David Bowie exhibition of 2013, is a fitting testament to the enduring power of his imagination. And having been chosen to design Kate Middleton’s royal wedding gown in 2011, the label he founded is more thriving than ever.
Savage Beauty runs from 14 March-2 August. For more museums and galleries in London, click here.