LONDON- It is not often that a fashion designer simultaneously stars in two major museum exhibitions in the same city. But then, British-born Alexander McQueen – whose work takes centre stage in London this spring at the Victoria and Albert Museum and at Tate Britain – was not just any designer. From the moment he burst onto the scene during London Fashion Week in 1993, sending models down the runway in dresses hand-printed to look like they were covered in blood, his uniqueness was palpable. And today, five years on from his tragic death, his work continues to fascinate. 

“He was so different and ground-breaking in a time when it was easy not to be controversial,” says Lorraine Candy, Editor in Chief of ELLE UK. “He was an amazing visionary who was up there with Vivienne Westwood. His shows brought goosebumps to my arms. He was also a master tailor and created the best tuxedos in the world.” That McQueen could make functional, desirable pieces – women have described wearing his clothes as empowering – and also approach fashion and his craft as a form of high art is part of his enduring appeal.

butterfly-mcqueen-1920Butterfly headdress of hand-painted turkey feathers by Philip Treacy for McQueen Spring/Summer 2008. Model: Alana Zimmer. © Anthea Simms.



alexander-mcqueenAlexander McQueen photographed by Marc Hom in
1997. © Marc Hom / Trunk Archive.

Shaun Leane, a jeweller known for bold sculptural metal work and who spent seventeen years collaborating with McQueen, believes the designer’s legacy will be studied and appreciated in the very long term. “He changed silhouettes in fashion and fused old with the new to create avant-garde masterpieces,” says Leane. “He pushed boundaries I feel others wouldn’t to provoke people’s understanding of what fashion should be.”

McQueen’s legacy was assured by Savage Beauty, the retrospective originally shown in 2011 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and now restaged by the V&A. It became one of the most popular shows in the museum’s history, welcoming more than 8,000 people a day and extending its running time by a week. To say the show will be a hot ticket in McQueen’s hometown is an understatement. Sam Gainsbury and Anna Whiting, the creative team who collaborated with McQueen on many of his legendary runway presentations and on the Met show, return to oversee the London presentation. The V&A’s version is a third larger, with an additional 30 garments and an entire section dedicated to his early days as a designer.

For many, it could not come sooner. Fashion insiders were campaigning for the show to have its own moment in London ever since it created a sensation at the Met four years ago. However, according to the V&A’s Senior Research Assistant Kate Bethune, it was not something that could happen overnight. “We’re very privileged to be working with McQueen, an incredibly busy, active fashion house, and also with the production company Gainsbury and Whiting, who have a huge client list,” she says. “It took time and careful consideration to draw all the elements together and to get everybody’s diaries to match.” 

It promises to be worth the wait. Among the more theatrical highlights: a near life-size holographic 3D image of the spectacular moment when Kate Moss appeared in a rippling organza gown in the Autumn/Winter 2006–07 Widows of Culloden show. Then there are the tartan “bumster” skirts from the controversial Autumn/Winter 1995–96 Highland Rape collection, masterminded by McQueen to directly reference the English slaughter of his Scottish ancestors. Bethune’s personal favourite piece is a dress from the Spring/Summer 2001 VOSS collection. “It’s made from red and black ostrich feathers and features glass microscope slides that are painted red – it’s extraordinary,” she says.

Meanwhile, at Tate Britain, Nick Waplington/Alexander McQueen: Working Process documents the creation of a collection from start to finish.

waplington_1920Photograph by Nick Waplington from the series Alexander McQueen Working Process, on view at Tate Britain. © Nick Waplington.

In 2008, McQueen commissioned the Nottingham-born Waplington to chronicle in photographs the evolution of his Autumn/Winter 2009 collection The Horn of Plenty from design to runway. Waplington was a friend of McQueen, who invited him to collaborate on the project. “I wasn’t particularly keen,” admits Waplington. “I was living in Jerusalem and it involved a lot of travel but he was insistent that I did it.” There was also the fact that Waplington, best known for his photographic work centring on issues of class, identity and conflict, had little interest in fashion. “I tried to put him off but in the circumstances I felt I couldn’t turn him down,” says the photographer. “McQueen was a very private man. No one was allowed in the studio so it was a very privileged position to be the first person let in.”

Alexander_McQueen_Exhibition_London_3Inside the 2011 Savage Beauty exhibition at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art designed by
Gainsbury and Whiting.

What Waplington found most interesting during the year he was granted access to the designer’s world was McQueen’s incredibly hands-on approach. “He was an extremely creative individual and each day it was him actually making the garments. I understand that other fashion houses have teams of young people who are street-aware and who design by committee whereas with Lee we are talking about an auteur.” The show will juxtapose behind-the-scenes images of McQueen’s theatrical and intense working process with photographs of landfill sites and recycling plants to create a powerful commentary on destruction and creative renewal – the theme at the heart of The Horn of Plenty collection. Together, the 130 images promise to be a raw and unfiltered look at the fashion world as well as McQueen’s idiosyncratic creative journey as he crafted what would be his final complete collection. 

With these two very different major shows, the city will undoubtedly be abuzz with McQueen. Fashion insiders from around the globe are expected to flock to them and there has already been a rush on advance ticket sales. This isn’t surprising. As ELLE UK editor Candy puts it, “He was probably the biggest, most iconic British designer of his time.” As we prepare to mark five years since his passing it’s clear: Lee Alexander McQueen may well be gone, but he will never be forgotten. 


Nick Waplington/Alexander McQueen: Working Process, Tate Britain, 10 March–17 May

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, Victoria and Albert Museum, 14 March–2 August

Style writer Naomi Reilly contributes to The TelegraphThe Guardian and ELLE UK among other publications.

Lead image: Inside 2011 Savage Beauty exhibition at the Metropolitan Meuseum of Art designed by Gainsbury and Whiting.