The flip side of genius

‘Savage Beauty’, an exhibition of Alexander McQueen’s work and journey is a fascinating insight into the mind of a tortured genius. From his start as an apprentice tailor on Savile Row to his rise as the enfant terrible of British fashion, it showcases the convoluted workings of a mind that constantly strained against the leash of conformity.

Born in the East End to a cabbie father and a teacher mother, he knew very early on that he wanted to be a designer. He was also aware of his sexual orientation, and not the least bit embarrassed by it. From Savile Row to Milan to Central Saint Martins college of Art and Design, his education and experience was varied, and contributed largely to giving him the reputation of creating the impeccably tailored look. Yet, it was this very background, this knowledge of construction that allowed him to deconstruct with such confidence and assurance.

With his football hooligan looks, his bizarre vision, his sexual proclivities that he played out in graphic detail in his collections, he set out to shock the establishment. And shock he did. Slasher dresses that paid homage to Jack the Ripper, the bird motif that recurred constantly – nightmarish regurgitation of Hitchcock’s classic ‘The Birds’, bumster trousers that displayed bum cleavage more appropriate to a building site than a runway, fetishist manacles and masks, models sprayed with faux blood or urine, there was no boundary left unexplored, no terrain not rampaged through.

All along though, there was the perfect tailoring. And wild, fantastical art. Juxtaposing elements that had never previously been seen together before- leather, feathers, crocodile heads, lace and tartan, horns and chains… the world fed his imagination, and that in turn fed his creativity.

Yet the demons that haunted him, also purportedly led him to abusive relationships, unprotected sex with unsuspecting young men, and a drug habit that aside of being de rigeur in the fashion circles, had him spiralling down a vortex of despair and self loathing. The more successful he became, the more he outlandish he tried to be. The more the establishment accepted him, the more he spurned their advances.

At age 40, he took his own life, barely weeks after his beloved mother’s death. A cocktail of drugs,pills and tranquillisers were found in his system. He had hung himself after slashing his wrists with a ceremonial dagger and meat cleaver. Just as flamboyant in death as he was in life.

The world lost a designer of significance. For whom, designing wasn’t limited to clothes. It was theatre. Sometimes bizarre, sometimes absurd. Always hugely entertaining.

‘Savage Beauty’ runs at the V&A till the 2nd of August 2015. Well worth a visit. Even if you do come away with a feeling of complete insignificance in the face of a humongous talent.

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