You may not have noticed, but there are currently two exhibitions on in London about Alexander McQueen’s work. While the V&A’s ‘Savage Beauty’ has garnered most of the headlines, and ticket sales, Nick Waplington’s display of photographs he took of McQueen’s ‘Horn of Plenty’ collection of 2009 at Tate Britain, is an excellent insight into working process, and a fascinating combination of artist and designer in terms of themes and approach.
Spread across several rooms, all of which were empty when I visited, the exhibition comprises huge prints that chronicle the collection’s progress from initial ideas, through mood boards, fittings and fabric choices, to the ultimate culmination of months of work – the catwalk show. What is so refreshing in Waplington’s images is his ability to capture the emotions of those involved, and, allied to this, the number of people necessary to produce such complex designs. His photographs show McQueen, at times elated, at times exhausted, surrounded by the detritus of a busy studio. Spools of material, the omnipresent pin cushion wristbands worn by assistants, packets of cigarettes, chocolate bars, pens and sketches scattered on desks, as McQueen’s team strive to perfect each design, and thus its moment of triumph on the runway. Fit models stand stoically, as fabric is swathed and pinned to their form. Accessories are tried out and assembled. Each stage presents new complications, and new approaches, as shown in the detailed images.
Waplington juxtaposes these stills of fashion’s work in progress with photographs taken from a landfill site not far from McQueen’s studio. Each room in the exhibition presents the viewer with comparisons between luxury and excess, and the gruesome, yet oddly aesthetic piles of rubbish consumer society leaves in its wake. In each case, Waplington’s technical approach to his subject is evident; as much care is taken in a composition of fabric swatches pinned to a board, as with a stack of discarded compressed papers and food wrappers. The East End is therefore shown as a site of both creation and destruction, or rather of the beginning and end of the consumer food chain. Location becomes significant to each – part of McQueen’s own heritage and identity, and the throwaway culture and hidden recesses of the city where rubbish is laid to rest.
The final room is painted black; a literal dark room that glows with light boxes, each displaying an image of the catwalk shows backstage theatricality. Models are dressed in the final designs – and McQueen’s themes of exaggeration are dramatised further by their red lipsticked mouths and whited out faces. Waplington’s juxtapositions become even sharper, as the delicate silks used to create ‘plastic bag’ hats are worn by elegant women for the ensuing show, their gauzy delicacy mimicking the plastic sheaths photographed so scrupulously in the previous rooms.
The exhibition as a whole is an incredible journey through McQueen’s work on this self-consciously retrospective collection. He was reflecting on his own oeuvre, on the extremes of femininity that fascinated him, on his own roots and influences. In turn, Waplington’s approach mirrors and amplifies this, his artistic sensibility commenting on what he witnessed, and his role as outsider/observer of McQueen’s relentless pursuit of a fashion aesthetic that was self-reflexive and critical of its own world view.
‘Nick Waplington, Alexander McQueen: Working Process’ is on at the Tate Britain until 17 May