This year, the Costume Institute fashionably breaks its own premise: for the first time, their annual exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art celebrates just one designer: the late Alexander McQueen, an enfant terrible of British fashion turned elegant, uproarious couturier. From his first collection in 1992 until his death in February 2010, McQueen captivated the style community with his gorgeous, nuanced, provocative work, and the Met’s presentation is a comprehensive and inspired overview of his life and career.
“Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” runs May 4-July 31 at the Met. It features approximately 100 ensembles and 70 accessories and is curated by the Costume Institute’s Andrew Bolton and directed by Thomas P. Campbell, with insight from Alexander McQueen creative director Sarah Burton and designer Stella McCartney. Your intrepid fashion reporters attended the opening with the creators yesterday morning; after the unveiling, McCartney spoke warmly of her friendship and Savile Row tailoring days with McQueen, Burton succinctly expressed her honor in being involved, and Bolton underscored the designer’s tragic passing with a reverence clearly shared by his audience.
Our impressions of the exhibit:
For those not familiar with McQueen’s flair for theatrics on the runway, the exhibition’s collection of videos of past shows from 1997 to 2010 is an excellent introduction. On display is the legendary white cotton muslin dress that was spray-painted black and yellow on the runway at his spring/summer show in 1999. Above the splattered dress is a video that shows how the piece became such a lovely mess: Model Shalom Harlow, wearing a pristine white dress, steps onto a revolving turntable, where two industrial robots zap her with color to great applause from the audience. Dripping with paint, she dramatically staggers off the platform, looking gloriously disheveled and completely sexy. The performance is so thrilling that it’s surprising to learn there were no rehearsals. As Harlow says in an interview on the museum’s blog: “Alexander and I didn’t have any conversation directly related to this particular piece and to creating this moment within his show. I like to think that he wanted to interfere as little as possible and allow me to have the most genuine, spontaneous experience as possible.”
McQueen once said, “I want to empower women. I want people to be afraid of the women I dress,” and his runway shows epitomized this philosophy. Take, for instance, a masked model courageously swaying in a ring of fire during the finale of McQueen’s Joan collection (from Fall/Winter 1998-99). Or, as part of his The Overlook collection (from Fall/Winter 1999-2000), which was inspired by The Overlook hotel in Kubrick’s The Shining, models fearlessly tromp down a runway that resembles an eerie forest in a snowstorm. The best video of the exhibition, however, is so small it could almost be missed if one were going too fast. It’s a hologram of Kate Moss floating in a little glass pyramid, a miniature replica of the pyramid used at the finale of his 2006 collection Widows of Culloden. McQueen, who welcomed controversy, chose Moss to star as a ghostly being in his show at a time when many in the fashion community had shunned her for drug abuse. Truly, it was this instinct to never follow the pack that served him so well in his sadly too-short career.
I was so impressed by the thoughtfulness of the McQueen exhibit – not just the presentation of his garments, but the space the curators gave his intentions. The Met gives great reverence to his rationale behind each line, not least because it was always fascinating. McQueen was a conscientious designer; his controversial Nihilism collection was, he explained, a “response to designers romanticizing ethnic dressing, like a Masai-inspired dress made of materials the Masai could never afford.” Nihilism was the line in which he sent out a latex dress bearing locusts and gorgeous gowns smeared in mud. He was such an inquisitive mind: his final collection was called Plato’s Atlantis, a brood of crystalline, shimmering, yet sharply edged femininity–and much like The Timaeus, its mythical status does seem warranted in its cleverness. And symbolic predilection: the collection was meant to foreshadow evolution after the ice caps had melted.
One of McQueen’s major inspirations (and one of his most misunderstood) was his Scottish heritage. His Highland Rape collection from autumn/winter 1995-96 was a seminal work because it protested the English occupation of Scotland and expressed fury over the Jacobite Risings–this was the “rape” in question, though upon the line’s release, histrionic critics and incurious neophytes immediately assumed that it was a glorification of violence against women. They saw the plaid tartan and intercut lace panels as sexual propositioning, the exaggerated female forms lewd – when really, McQueen was attempting to mourn his ancestors and present triumphant defiance.
The Met exhibit honors all of McQueen – not just his gorgeous, seemingly physics-defying creations, but the sensitivity behind his provocation. It is mournful, celebratory, and transfixing. McQueen deserves this. He was a critic, an aesthete, an intellectual, and a romantic – and most of all, he was a powerful designer because he let his work speak so intimately of himself.
Walking into the Romantic Gothic part of the exhibition was spooky (howling wolves could be heard in the background) yet completely fascinating and intriguing at the same time, as if stepping into a ghostly chamber with a trail of candy leading the way. Being that the overall theme in this exhibition is the romantic mind and its many complex layers within it–as McQueen stated, “I’m a romantic schizophrenic”–these avant-garde pieces skewed into the perverse and underlying sexuality. And did it ever. This highlights McQueen’s historicism, his engagement with the Victorian Gothic, and juxtaposes between life and death, darkness and light.
McQueen, who was inspired by Tim Burton, created a world of mystery and adventure made for an S&M goddess, you know, the one that secretly lies within all of us. From a grandiose black bolero jacket that flows long and wide in the back with a lace face cover-up to a black leather woven, tight silhouette dress with a Victorian high neck, these pieces do more than impress, they leave you overwhelmed. As one passerby whispered “Fabulous…fabulous.”
The attention to detail is what got me. Each section of the garment, from the lace sleeves to the ornate hem, down to the buttons, was all an intricate part of the overall look. We’re not simply looking at a leather bound halter gown or a black feathered dress, because through these highly-wrought gowns McQueen is conveying an emotion, a feeling that perhaps we don’t want to experience because of fear or sadness and that is what is genius. I found it to be the most magical aspect to McQueen’s art and this retrospective. As he once said, “I find beauty in the grotesque like most artists. I have to force people to look at things.”