"I want to empower women. I want people to be afraid of the women I dress."—Alexander McQueen
Lee Alexander McQueen was born in 1969 in London. The youngest of six children, McQueen grew up on a council estate with a taxi driver father and school teacher mother. Leaving school at 16, the young McQueen apprenticed for two Savile Row tailors where he learned the meticulous art of cutting and constructing menswear. After stints working for theater costumers and designers Koji Tatsuno and Romeo Gigli, McQueen attended the legendary Central Saint Martin's where he earned his Masters degree in Fashion Design. In 1992, his entire graduate collection was bought by the fabulous, iconic fashion editor Isabella Blow, who is credited with discovering and mentoring McQueen and launching his career.
In October 1996, McQueen was selected by the president of LVMH, Bernard Arnault, to be John Galliano's replacement as Chief Designer at Givenchy Haute Couture. While at Givenchy McQueen learned to successfully combine his razor-sharp, bespoke tailoring skills with the fine craftsmanship of haute couture. During McQueen's five years at Givenchy, the designer delivered beautiful, dramatic collections with a distinctive dark and edgy side. Developing his reputation for dramatic and lavish runway shows while at Givenchy, McQueen featured robots spray painting a white dress worn by model Shalom Harlow in one show, and double-amputee model Aimee Mullins (who is also featured in Matthew Barney's Cremaster 3) walking down the catwalk on specially carved wooden prosthetics in another. After leaving Givenchy due to creative differences, McQueen focused on his own line (which 51% of was acquired by LVMH rival the Gucci Group) and continued his ascent to be one of the industry's most daring, renowned, and respected designers. It's no surprise then that the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute is honoring Alexander McQueen with Savage Beauty, a fantastic retrospective of the late designer's illustrious and sadly truncated career.
Featuring approximately 100 looks and 70 accessories spanning McQueen's nineteen-year career, the pieces were culled mainly from the Alexander McQueen Archive and also features a handful of his ensembles from the Givenchy Archive. A number of pieces are loaned from collectors including stylist Katy England (whose wedding dress McQueen designed) and Daphne Guinness, the heiress and couture collector who famously purchased Isabella Blow's covetable fashion collection after Blow took her own life in 2007. Signature McQueen designs on display include his infamous "bumster" trousers (which changed how high -or low- we wear pants), kimono-inspired jackets, and his three-point "origami" frock coat.
The exhibition is organized into six sections: The Romantic Mind; Romantic Gothic and Cabinet of Curiosities (highlighting the designer's references to the nineteenth century Victorian Gothic); Romantic Nationalism (displaying McQueen's Scottish pride); Romantic Exoticism (featuring works inspired by the cultures of Japan, China, Africa, India, and Turkey); Romantic Primitivism (displaying McQueen's contradictory take on primitivism "contrasting 'modern' and 'primitive,' 'civilized' and 'uncivilized'"); and Romantic Naturalism (exhibiting nature's strong and consistent influence on the designer). The talented creative team who produced McQueen's elaborate runway shows were enlisted for the exhibition's design. The Cabinet of Curiosities they created features shelves and nooks showcasing the various accessories, shoes, and headpieces McQueen created throughout the years alongside notable collaborators, including two of my favorites Shaun Leane (who creates gorgeous and disturbing metal pieces, ie: his rib cage corset) and well-known milliner Philip Treacy (whose hats Isabella Blow regularly wore and who recently gained notoriety for designing Princess Beatrice's "pretzel" hat for Kate and Wills' royal wedding). Unfortunately, the pieces in the upper cases were only visible from afar—and in the over-crowded, grid-locked room, it was pretty impossible to find good vantage points.
The comprehensive exhibition features pieces from McQueen's graduate collection titled Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims up through his final collection for A/W 2010 that was shown posthumously to rave reviews. McQueen's design assistant of fourteen years, Sarah Burton, who was appointed Creative Director after the designer's suicide, has shown two well-received collections for the label and has made quite a name for herself in sartorial history by designing Kate Middleton's princess-appropriate wedding gown and her sister's much-loved and unforgiving bridesmaid dress. I wondered how McQueen would have felt about his namesake brand being associated with the pomp of the royal wedding since legend has it while working on Savile Row, the designer with the bad-boy reputation embroidered "I am a cunt" into the lining of a jacket for Prince Charles.
Savage Beauty exhibits fashion at its finest—the oeuvre of a unique designer whose clothing was artistic, innovative, and evocative. This is by far the best Costume Institute exhibit I've seen. Though it's a shame he isn't here to receive the honor, I'm relieved that McQueen is represented in a stylish, tasteful, and elegant manner. I cried when I read the news of McQueen's suicide on February 11, 2010 (a mere nine days after his mother succumbed to cancer). Growing up, I followed his career and was a huge fan of his beautifully dark and daring work and rebellious "don't give a fuck" attitude. After fashion weeks, his would always be the first shows I'd look for in magazines, and later online, to get a glimpse of his stunning clothing as well as the excitment of his shows—shows inspired by the film They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, shipwrecks, asylums, Scottish history, and much more. His human chess game show for Spring 2005 was inspired by a scene from Harry Potter and his Fall 2006 show closed with a ghostly, life-size hologram of Kate Moss floating in gossamer fabric (see below - a small version of this is on view at the exhibit). Insightful, articulate quotes by the designer are featured throughout the exhibit, and it's disheartening to read the many references he made to death. One quote reads: "I oscillate between life and death, happiness and sadness, good and evil." Sadly, now that he's gone, it seems that he wasn't just referring to his work. Another quote near the beginning of the exhibit states: "I want to be the purveyor of a certain silhouette or a way of cutting, so that when I'm dead and gone people will know that the twenty-first century was started by Alexander McQueen." Long live McQueen! Learn more at metmuseum.org and at Alexandermcqueen.com. Through July 31st.
(Sorry, photography was not allowed inside the exhibit.)
SHOWstudio/Nick Knight's tribute to McQueen, 2010
Pepper's Ghost, A/W 2006, hologram by Baillie Walsh featuring Kate Moss