Alexander McQueen: the fashion outsider

Two exhibitions in London celebrate the iconic designer Alexander McQueen, nicknamed “Lee”: a photographic exhibition, Nick Waplington/Alexander McQueen: Working Process at Tate Britain, and a crowd-pleasing fashion show Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty at the V&A. I went first to Tate, twice, to attend a tour led by co-curator Carolyn Kerr, and later went with Nick Waplington himself along with Simon Baker, Tate’s Curator of Photography and International Art. 

Lee had met Waplington at a party and approached him in 2007 to document his 2009 Autumn/Winter show, which would become his penultimate show. He wanted a non-fashion photographer to document the show. Most importantly, the designer was keen to leave a legacy of his collection as a young man ahead of turning 40.


I wonder how far in advance Alexander McQueen had planned his suicide, and if he was conscious of leaving a legacy. Without speculating on the reasons of his suicide, he may have felt like an outsider, being an east end boy, the son of a taxi driver. He seemed to be contemplating a life after fashion, enrolling in an MA programme at the Slade School of Fine Art, as Nick Waplington noted.


Tate’s exhibition is based on Nick Waplington’s photo book. He followed the designer, staying in the background and taking his pictures unobtrusively. 250 of the resulting photos, all composed, are included in a scrapbook displayed at Tate. A picture of Lee at work smiling, which Waplington initially didn’t want to include, ended up being a standout work in the show.


Lee was concerned about consumerism, particularly given the backdrop of the 2009 recession in the UK, which put him at odds with the high-end world of fashion. Hence the inclusion of photographs of Veolia landfill sites. Landfills photographs were “interventions” according to Waplington, intuitively juxtaposed with pictures documenting Alexander McQueen’s show. 


Although the V&A ‘Savage Beauty’ exhibition stays within the realm of fashion, it demonstrates that McQueen treated his catwalk shows as performances and compares him to a Romantic artist. I found he was using a variety of unusual materials in his designs, as an artist could do, such as horse hair and crocodile heads and albeit not the only designer doing so, he used art prints in his dresses. 


I give special mention to the exhibition designers at the V&A, who created exquisite set and music for each room. So at the end – though not a fan of fashion exhibitions – I enjoyed myself more than I expected.   In two complementary exhibitions, I felt Lee’s hope to move away from the fashion world in Nick Waplington’s show, before seeing McQueen’s fashion designs at the V&A.   ‘Nick Waplington/Alexander McQueen: Working Process’ runs until 17 May 2015 at Tate Britain; Savage Beauty until 2 August 2015 at the V&A.

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