The Metropolitan Museum of Art has staged a fitting tribute to Alexander McQueen, a complicated and brilliant man ...
From THE ECONOMIST online
Some may never forgive Alexander McQueen for introducing us to the bumster: a low-slung trouser that delivered an eyeful of “bum cleavage”. Elongating and sexy on the runway, it was often less fetching on the high street. But like it or not, it was a typical twist on the ordinary by the British fashion designer. Following his death last year from suicide, his masterful creations and gothic imagination are the subject of an excellent new exhibition, “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty”, at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The clothes are breathtaking; resplendent and jarring, come-closer and run away all at once. The pieces are arranged to illustrate the evolution of McQueen’s talent and taste over nearly two decades of work. His creations are uniquely intelligent, and every turn of this show is infused with his character.
The first room appears simple, with some faceless mannequins dressed in McQueen’s tailoring. But the effect is an education: eyes are swiftly trained to drink in the precise curves of the fabric; the sharp lines and poised silhouettes. McQueen once explained that he approached his designs from the side, to get the biggest challenges out of the way first—all those lumps and bumps, bottoms and breasts. As we make our way into the next room, this doesn’t feel like a show about fashion. The atmosphere is far too dramatic for that, and our attention is too keen. We are gazing open-mouthed at garments that don't seem like clothes. But then, of course, they are.
Curated by Andrew Bolton, the exhibition gathers pace with a series of bewitching scenes arranged thematically (eg, romantic exoticism, romantic primitivism). Corsets and frockcoats steeped in bleak Victorian melancholy give way to Masai-inspired necklines and beading. An artful mutation of an American football uniform comes swathed in the lilacs and green of Japanese prints. Each room is arranged to enhance the marvellous clothes, as clips from his otherworldly runway shows play in the background.
The exhibition includes other examples of McQueen’s busy mind. He once asked Philip Treacy, an Irish milliner, to make a hat of a bird out of wood (a request Mr Treacy admits was a challenge). The result? A charming, scribble of a bird made of twigs of bleached driftwood and coral, perched drunkenly on a headpiece. It can be seen here, alongside other accessories and collaborations, including an aluminium animal-spine corset made by Shaun Leane, a jeweller.
What is striking throughout is the inspiration McQueen drew from nature. One of the first garments visitors see is a dress of razor-clam shells so delicate, so implausible, that one can’t help but wonder how it hangs together. The effect is evocative enough that I nearly heard the sound of the shells scratching against each other. McQueen used horse hair to make skirts, crocodile heads to adorn shoulders, leather to sheathe the body and feathers to catch the light. The exhibition’s exit is guarded by futuristic mannequins—club-footed and gazelle-like—plated in iridescent armour. These arresting sentries are from his final full collection, “Plato’s Atlantis”, inspired by Darwin’s “The Origin of the Species”. Nature was a source of both beauty and darkness for McQueen.
As the title of this exhibition suggests, McQueen revelled in a more gruesome side of life, too. He was clearly preoccupied with death throughout his career. His 1992 graduation show at Central St Martin’s was called “Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims”. For “Highland Rape” (1995/6), he created the McQueen tartan, a nod to his Scottish roots that also let him grapple with what he called the 19th-century “genocide” of the Scottish by the English in the Highland Clearances. “The Horn of Plenty” (2009/10) featured a menacing, winged hourglass dress of black duck feathers, a romantic, raven-like symbol of death.
This show does little to challenge McQueen’s reputation for being a tortured genius. But it also includes testimonials from women he dressed and worked with, such as Sarah Jessica Parker, Naomi Campbell and Sarah Burton, his first assistant, now the head designer of his house (who designed Kate Middleton's wedding dress). They speak touchingly of his awe-inspiring dexterity and nimble hands. Shy and shifty, his awkward demeanour was at odds with his way with scissors. McQueen’s shows, Ms Campbell says, were “terrifying”, but also “the most fun because you pushed yourself to do something out of your comfort zone.” Being dressed by him was an honour and a joy to watch.
What a fascinating world McQueen created, full of intrigue and beauty, lightness and something macabre. This show is a worthy tribute to such a complicated and gifted man.
"Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until July 31st 2011
Georgia Grimond is on the editorial staff of The Economist and Intelligent Life, based in London. Picture credit: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce; Chris Moore/Catwalkin