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On the eve of the opening of Savage Beauty, at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, Lucy Norris and V&A curator Sonnet Stanfill took a moment to sit in The Cabinet of Curiosities to talk about Lee McQueen’s homecoming show. Reflecting on themes of craftmanship, spectacle and the designer’s representation of the woman, the pair also took the time to chat sellotape shoes and clam shells.

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LN: So first of all Sonnet, congratulations on the exhibition.

SS: We’re so excited…

LN: …I can’t imagine!

For those people who may have already had an experience of the Savage Beauty exhibition at The New York MET, or for those who may have simply got the exhibition catalogue, what can they expect from the V&A – why come to the London show?

SS: Well, I think for those people that were lucky enough to see it in New York, they will see a lot of familiar faces – you know, familiar friends – garments that were on show…because essentially we’ve taken the show from the MET and added additional material. However, the London show is sixty-six pieces larger than the MET exhibition.

LN: Wow…

SS:  I think what comes across is that even for those people that are not that interested in fashion or haven’t been to that many exhibitions about fashion is the sense of drama that infuses the entire project –  it is a very immersive experience. Each room is created and styled / staged differently from the other. There are bespoke soundtracks that are created room by room, so the end result is a very emotional experience.

LN: Hmm. Incredibly emotional, incredibly emotional….and from what I can see, you have added a bit on top of the exhibition as well, at the beginning?

SS: That’s right…

LN: So, could you tell us a bit about that section; the London focus etc…

SS: Yes, I think it was really important to highlight the London connection. First of all because McQueen was born in London, he trained on Savile Row – and he did his Masters degree at Central St Martins – so for him as a designer it was a strong point of reference, a touchstone. But also the fact that the exhibition has come to London, and that London has its own fashion traditions, so we’ve started the exhibition with a new section entirely. Some of the pieces that are in that section were shown before but some of them are new. I think it’s just really nice to focus our attention on the early years when he was just getting started – and to remind the visitor that actually he wasn’t always famous, he wasn’t always rich. The London section has wonderful details like shoes that are styled by Katy England, to replicate the shoes from their early collections, when they essentially didn’t have money to buy footwear for all the models. They used to rip the uppers off, and attached the soles to the models feet with Sellotape.

LN: haha, love it.

SS: Well, that’s just an indication of the kind of…DIY..

LN: Yes, that’s DIY fashion for you…

SS: Yes! And, also it’s really nice to have Katy England’s input. Someone so central to his own career, in kind of helping him realize his collections. She styled the London section and therefore had a real imprint.

LN: So, the London section leads into the tailoring section?

SS: Yes, it does.

LN: And in there, for me, when I saw that section it kind of helped me when I was journeying forward through the rest of the rooms…understanding primarily that he was a tailor. He was an architect…

SS: Yes…

LN: And every piece I looked at from that room forward, I asked myself – okay – where would I begin to make that? It’s almost meditative. His individualism came from his craft…

S: That’s such a good way of putting it and very good to highlight the tailoring experience as the kind of scaffolding upon which all the other elements were placed. If you look at some of these pieces close up, you’ll see that he really wasn’t afraid of cutting cloth and that he was a masterful tailor. You know, first working at Anderson and Sheppard, then at Gieves and Hawkes – and then after that going to the theatre costumiers at Berman’s & Nathan’s. So, the fact that he left school at 15 and went straight into that experience is incredibly formative. And you’re right; you can see the link throughout – from collection to collection – right back to that tailoring skill.

LN: I think everyone is so interested in McQueen and the spectacle.

SS: Yes…

LN: But actually, with him, it comes back to – like you said – the basic scaffolding. Being able to actually construct…

SS: There’s a quote in one gallery from McQueen that goes something like: “first of all you need to know how to construct a garment before you can deconstruct it”. So, really setting aside the theatrical and dramatic catwalk presentations and some of the occasional disturbing effects of the designs, there is this link back to a deep understand of how clothes are made and how they move on the body.

LN: And, it seems to be that there is that constant push and pull between these diametrically opposed fronts: construction versus deconstruction, good versus evil…almost as if he was trying to destroy the system yet respect it at the same time.

S: Yes.

Givenchy “Eclect / Dissect” A/W 1997 & “Supercalifragilisticexpialido..” A/W 2002

LN: I’m very interested by the idea of curator or artist as audience member. With McQueen’s work being so emotional and visceral, I’d be interested to know which room you emotionally connect to?

S: Well, it depends which room I’m sitting in.

LN: Haha..yes…

S: Take this room, The Cabinet of Curiosities…I saw the exhibition at The MET and because of the scale of the room it had this feel of being inside a jewellery box. Whereas here, the V&A has been able to use the double height space, the six metre high ceiling to kind of supersize that section. It’s almost…it’s so overwhelming…not just because of the quantity of material in this room but also the stories that they tell about his collaborations, about his connections to a whole network of creatives. Whether they were the milliner Phillip Tracey or the jewellery designer Shaun Leane. But you know, unknown creatives and specialists – who were working with leather or wood. Those people and their skills are also represented here. Because McQueen wasn’t just talented himself but that he recognized talent in others; that was a special quality of his collections. They connected him to this amazing network and this wider diaspora of creatives that you see here.

LN: Yeah, absolutely. Wonderful. Hopefully, many people that come to see the exhibition – who are not fashion specialists – will reappraise fashion as being the art form that it is…or certainly can be.

SS: Yes, absolutely. I think he definitely pushed the boundaries and some people have called his fashion presentations disturbing and upsetting. I don’t think he ever intending to just shock, he was very much intending to tell a story that connected with them in some way and which could change the way they felt.

LN: Yes, I can see some emotional balancing going on with the curation. The Primitive room is very raw…

SS: Yeah…

LN: …and then I guess we couldn’t gone from that straight into Highland Rape. I mean, this is quite a distinguished, English room to have within it…

SS: …yes..

MacQueen Tartan: Romantic Nationalism

LN…some really nationalist and ferocious narratives …

SS: Yeah…

LN: …around the Highland clearances – and his Scottish heritage – and to an extent the pieces from “The Girl who lived in a tree” which are entangled with the narratives of British rule within India…

SS:  Hmm..hmm..hmm…

LN: Some critics have said in the past that his collections were misogynistic but we know he empowered women…do you think that visitors will understand his love of women / his relationship with the woman?

SS: I hope so.

LN: I know it’s a complex one…

SS: Yes, it is a complex one but I hope so. The V&A have spoken to a number of the models who were working for him – presenting his clothes on the catwalk – and they have used the word “empowerment.” They said they did feel empowered and not degraded within the catwalk presentations. I think that there were moments earlier on his career when he was misunderstood. So, the Highland Rape collection is a prime example of that because of the title; people assumed certain things. But actually it goes back to what you mentioned earlier, his own preoccupation with his Scottish ancestry. It was a political commentary about the mistreatment of the Scottish by the English, so there is much evidence of political and social engagement with his collections.

Also, the notion of redefining beauty is very important to him. He was somebody who found beauty in the unexpected. So, without being a fashion specialist, you can come here and see that. You can come here and look at a dress made out of clam shells, and see that he is responding to elements of nature. By incorporating surprising materials like this, he was also showing how to find beauty in the unexpected.

LN: Yes, absolutely. I love how he was using that clam dress  as a form of consumerist commentary around how Western designers are so inspired by tribalism but yet use materials that would be unaffordable for any actual tribe. To see Lee McQueen’s words “fashion can be really racist” written up on the wall…

SS: Yes..

Razor Clam Shell dress, “Voss” S/S 2001

LN: …in reference to how the fashion industry “others” different cultures…and how he tried to do it with integrity.

SS: … that’s a very good point.

LN: Just very quickly, before we wrap up.

SS: Sure.

LN: I do love the soundtracks in each room. For example, where we are now there’s a typewriter tapping away…and a cyborg voice chattering over there in the corner. Who did the sound?

SS: So, yes – that was created by John Gosling, who room by room created a soundscape for each theme. He worked with McQueen on a number of shows. That’s quite true of the exhibition as a whole. For example, Sam Gainsborough who worked with him on production advised on the build and the design for the exhibition – as she did for the New York MET version – so a lot of people who facilitated his catwalk shows and worked with him in other ways were advisors on this project.

LN: Wow, so it’s a – and I’m gonna say it in an American accent – it’s a genuine team collaboration…even with him not being here. Posthumously, they are all still really on board – and you can really feel that.

SS: I think it gives it a kind of integrity really. It ensures that it is done to a standard that one would expect from McQueen himself.

LN: Yes, it’s so strange to see those shoes over there from his last collection. The last time I saw them was at the McQueen showroom….and now years later, they’re here in a museum.

SS: Yes, I think people will stop and think about his collections…and really go through them again.

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Savage Beauty opens today (14th March 2015) and runs until 2nd August 2015. The exhibition was made possible due to the support of Swarovski, American Express, M-A-C Cosmetics and Samsung.

Tickets to the exhibition cost £16, V&A members enter for free.

Images: Pret-A-Rever.com