It’s here. After years of campaigning, debate and furious anticipation, the Met Museum’s Savage Beauty exhibition has finally come home. And that’s very much how it’s been billed; the return to the city of one of London’s most renowned, most popular, most controversial - and most missed - designers.
It’s not just a re-run, though. The Victoria & Albert’s version is a substantially revised version of the New York show, with whole extra rooms added, and a whole swathe of newly donated material. And from the word go, London’s place in the McQueen story is placed front and centre, with one of true many quotes that are peppered through the exhibition; “It’s where my heart is, and where I get my inspiration.”
Curated by the Met’s Andrew Bolton with Gainsborough & Whiting - the set designers who realised McQueen’s fantastical shows - each space is a jolt to the senses, moving from the bare concrete opening rooms (a tribute to the stark Hoxton studios where McQueen began, and to the industrial sensibility of his original Conduit Street store), through opulent ballrooms and subterranean cemeteries, mirror-walled kaleidoscopes and elegant wallpapered salons, to the exhibition’s heart; a vast, multilevel court lined with video screens, rotating mannequins, and piece after iconic piece from the designer’s work. It’s a spectacular mix of the delicate, the theatrical and the macabre; there are lace gowns teamed with fetish masks, cocktail dresses writhing with human hair, ballgowns filled with dead flowers or drenched with seashells. And many of McQueen’s legendary collaborators make an appearance too, from Shaun Leane’s skeleton body-cages and spiked mouthpieces to Philip Treacy’s extraordinary headwear.
McQueen’s life - and death - hover large over the whole experience, from the hologram portrait which dominate the entrance (which flicks back and forward from flesh to bone as you approach.) But the moments where the exhibition comes to life are those where the V&A comes closest to evoking the spirit of his groundbreaking shows. There’s the showcase from Voss - the show where he forced an audience full of fashion press to watch their own reflections in a mirrored box before flicking the lights to reveal an asylum of grotesques. There’s the sci-fi undersea aliens of his final show, lined up against a giant screen flooded with water. And there’s the Kate Moss hologram from the ‘Widows of Culloden’ collection, a swirl of limbs and rippling cloth unfurling from a speck of light in a large, darkened room. It’s the exhibition’s quietest, most intimate moment, and the point where you feel McQueen’s spirit most intensely; like the hologram itself so faraway, so close.