Alexander McQueen at the Metropolitan Museum: Savage Beauty
The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art presents an astonishing exhibition on one of the most extraordinary fashion designers of the 21st century. Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty is an extensive retrospective on the late designer’s career, covering every aspect of his work—from the inspirations that surged through his creative mind, to the iconic designs that made the McQueen brand (like the ‘bumster’ trouser of Winter 1996 and the ‘armadillo’ shoe from Spring 2010), and to the runway shows that solidified his title as fashion’s premier showman.
Curated by the Met’s Andrew Bolton, the exhibition embodies the distinct imagination of McQueen, thanks to the creative team who assisted in the production, all of whom were personally connected to the young designer—Sarah Burton (McQueen’s right-hand assistant and confidante, and now the creative director for the label), Sam Gainsbury (set designer for his runway presentations and the exhibition space), and Guido Palau (hair stylist who meticulously treated every mannequin in the show).
McQueen’s tragic career plus his virtuoso approach to high fashion has quickly made this exhibition the summer’s go-to show. Be sure to arrive as early as possible to avoid the long line that can easily stretch to an hour wait. But, once you see the crimson ball gown of dyed ostrich feathers and microscope slides and the white column dress of razor-clam shells standing side-by-side in coffin-like boxes in the entrance hall, you know that this is the show to see.
The exhibition shows that McQueen was an artist whose medium happened to be fashion. Bolton does so by immediately placing the designer in the context of 18th and 19th-century Romantic artists, poets, and writers. The show is thematically divided into five categories to reveal the philosophical and historical underpinnings in McQueen’s work. This division brilliantly shows off McQueen’s highly creative nature, as we see him making strong statements on everything from global concepts of beauty, to various historical transgressions, and to the specific ecological moment we face today. The show maintains that McQueen was an artist who was always looking and thinking, using a host of inspirations from popular film, to science, and to nature.
The artistic mind of McQueen is further exhibited in the way his construction and design process was highlighted. In the first gallery, the raw concrete space shows off McQueen’s precise tailoring skills. Trained in London’s famous Savile Row (where men flock to for the finest handmade suits) and educated as a Masters student at Central Saint Martins, we see much of McQueen’s ingenuity in patternmaking, offering sharp black coats and carefully constructed jackets—which were inspired by such McQueen-specific references as Jack the Ripper and the Crucifixion. But then in the eerie, shadowy Gothic room, the leather woven dresses, feather-covered coats, full-billowing capes, and intricately draped chiffon gowns reveal a love for feminine strength that only a womenswear designer would have—a lesson McQueen learned while creative director of Givenchy.
One room to take note of is the exuberant and overwhelming Cabinet of Curiosities. Lining the high black walls are shelves of hats, body jewelry, mannequins, and videos that reveal the extremely collaborative way McQueen worked. Though these various paraphernalia are meant to show off the bodily quality in the designer’s work, they are more interesting as forms of spectacles. We see original accessories handcrafted for his runway presentations from milliners like Phillip Treacy and Dai Rees, and jewelers like Shaun Leane and Sarah Harmarnee, all of helped to round out the image and mood the designer sought in his clothes. Monitors show such infamous runway moments like the human chess game of Spring ‘05, the kimono-clad model pressing through a wind tunnel in the Winter ’05 presentation, and the Spring ‘99 show where Shalom Harlow was dramatically spray-painted by two robotic arms. The runway footage helps to finalize the picture of McQueen we can take from the exhibition: McQueen’s powerful ability to inspire those around him.
Looking at one runway show, one collection, even one dress can unlock parts of the human imagination one would never think possible. Though he shocked the fashion crowd (do not be surprised to hear the disapproving moans of other guests while in the exhibit), he managed to achieve heights of design and artistry seen by few designers in our time.
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, on 82nd Street). The show has been recently extended and is on view until August 7th, 2010. Visit www.metmuseum.org for museum hours. For more information about the exhibition, click here.