Lee McQueen was never one to hide his light under a bushel. A quote on one wall at Victoria & Albert’s stunning re-edition of Savage Beauty, the Met’s already-blockbusting show devoted to his work, reads, “When I’m dead and gone, people will know that the 21st century was started by Alexander McQueen.” Asked what Lee would make of this new, expanded exhibition, longtime collaborator Alister Mackie imagined him giggling, “I’m a genius.” As for last night’s gala launch? “If Lee was here, he’d already have left,” said Annabelle Neilson, the last of McQueen’s inner circle to see him alive. “But he would have been so proud of his team. It’s his family that put this together: Katy [England], Sam [Gainsbury], Guido [Palau], Philip [Treacy]…” They were all there last night, and many of the women turned out in McQueen dresses, which made the evening into easily the most glamorous event of the year. And as for the great absences, Issie Blow and McQueen himself, it was impossible not to feel their very physical presence in every corner of every room.
Inevitably, it was emotional—tears and laughter. Casting agent Jess Hallett was bracing herself before she went in. “All the shows we worked on. Sarah [Burton] said, ‘You’re going to cry.’” She had her Kleenex ready. Edward Enninful and Ronnie Cooke Newhouse stopped in front of one be-hatted, be-veiled mannequin, Enninful thinking back to the night he “borrowed” that very headgear to wear to a Vogue dinner hosted by Cooke Newhouse’s husband, Jonathan. Debra Shaw remembered La Poupée (Spring 1997), where she created one of McQueen’s most memorable and disturbing images when she walked manacled at her elbows and knees. “It wasn’t about slavery, it was about the artist Hans Bellmer and the dolls he made,” said Shaw. “But all I could think about at the time was the stairs. I’d forgotten I had to make my way down all those damn stairs.”
The inspiration for the black swan dress that is one of the show’s gothic centerpieces came from an afternoon watching nature programs on TV, Neilson recalled. “There was a black swan and white swan drifting on a pond. I said, ‘We’re having them,’ and Lee shouted at me, ‘Get out of my head!’” Then there was the Thai holiday where she walked into McQueen’s bedroom to find him surrounded by sketches, one of which was a perfectly realized distillation of what would eventually become Plato’s Atlantis, his last show. His talent was that profligate—extravagant, extraordinary, ultimately all-consuming—and the newly expanded exhibition is a breathtaking tribute.
The Savage Beauty gala night didn’t do too badly, either. After the dinner, FKA twigs performed in a rainbow of tulle from the Irere collection for Spring 2003. Then we were herded into an adjoining room for a mystery “performance.” Out came the Michael Clark Company dancing to Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel.” And then…hang on, was that Kate Moss in their midst? Yep, the woman McQueen used to call a female version of himself steals the show in awe-inspiring hologram form, but she also capped last night in the flesh with her contemporary dance debut.
For one guest, the evening had a special resonance. Andrew Bolton curated Savage Beauty at the Met, and ever since, it’s been the benchmark by which everything else he’s done has been judged. Walking round the show that Claire Wilcox has curated for the V&A with the invaluable input of Sam Gainsbury and Katy England, among others, he claimed he could finally feel a sense of release, like letting go. That was his McQueen journey done.
And now everyone else’s starts. “I’m going to take you on journeys you never dreamed possible,” McQueen once said. This particular trip begins Saturday, March 14 at the V&A. It lasts until August 2.
—Tim Blanks, Style.com