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Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty


The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

May 4-July 11, 2011

Hologram of Kate Moss in McQueen dress

Hologram of Kate Moss wearing a printed silk gown by Alexander McQueen

Lines queuing for exhibition outside the museum

Lines for the exhibition "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty," snaked around both sides of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

“You’ve got to know the rules to break them. That’s what I’m here for, to
demolish the rules but to keep the tradition.” Alexander McQueen

By Michele Leight

There comes a time in many artist's lives when they must choose which course to take: painting, sculpture, photography, etc. Alexander McQueen did not like to think of himself as an artist, and there are those that refuse to entertain the idea that fashion could ever be art. However, they might think differently after seeing "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, on view this summer, where his ensembles evoked paintings, gothic novels, Mother Nature and other-worldly forces, fusing old world artistry with cutting edge design. McQueen was offered a place at the Slade School of Art in London, but did not take it. Perhaps he chose fashion because it has the potential to influence - and reach - the masses. It is no coincidence that McQueen was the first designer to webstream - live - a runway show usually reserved for the fashion elite and high profile clients, causing the hosting website to crash because of the surge in visitors.

Illustrated above is the hologram of Kate Moss in movement wearing one of McQueen's most romantic dresses. This diminutive, delicate 3D hologram caused a sensation at the Museum show. It was pure theatre, 21st century style. McQueen had his hand on the pulse of youth culture, and this was how he wanted to show his work. Most young people think his clothes had more to do with art than fashion. McQueen's runway shows were extremely important to him, the arena where he staged his spectacles about something that was important to him. They were closer to performance art than fashion shows that were purely about clothes and top models. McQueen's shows were a vehicle that unleashed his powerful imagination.

"Romantic Gothic" installation

"Romantic Gothic" installation: Left: Dress, autumn/winter 2010-11, gray and white printed silk; Center left: Ensemble, autumn/winter 2010-11, Coat of duck feathers painted gold, skirt of white silk embroidered with gold thread; Center right: Dress, autumn/winter 2010-11, gray and white printed silk; Right: Ensemble, autumn/winter 2010-11, Dress and glove of printed silk, underskirt of duck feathers painted gold; Shoes (below): autumn/winter 2010-11, nylon composite painted gold, plastic beads and gemstones

Shoes by McQueen

Shoe, by Alexander McQueen: Autumn/Winter 2010-2011: nylon composite painted gold, plastic beads and gemstones

Alexander McQueen was uncomfortable with elitist views of fashion or life. Yet his love of art, literature, nature, and even ugliness, - like the grotesque paintings of Hieronymous Bosch and contemporary Francis Bacon - fused to create some of the most gorgeous and luxurious "couture" ensembles of the 20th century, (and the first decade of the 21st century.) However, they were always spiked with a gothic or fantastic twist that were entirely his own. Compromise was never part of McQueen's repertoire, evident in the printed pink silk satin coat from his early MA graduation collection at St. Martins School of Art and Design in 1992, all the way through to the final, fabulous gothic and nature inspired ensembles circa 2010-2011, illustrated here. Like the designer, they are a fascinating composite of opposites. The pink silk coat is exquisitely tailored, but its opulent surface is printed with a pattern of spiky thornes and lined with human hair. It could be a metaphor for the designer's philosophy of life, often lived perilously close to the edge. The coat, from a collection called "Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims," was displayed at the exhibition in an installation entitled "The Romantic Mind." Who but Alexander McQueen would choose Jack the Ripper as the inspiration for his MA collection? Most of us would play it safe and not risk a failed grade. But McQueen was all about risk. His entire first collection, including the "human hair" coat, was bought by Isabella Blow, his muse and close friend till the time of her death.

"Jack the Ripper" coat

From the installation entitled "The Romantic Mind:" Coat, "Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims," (MA Graduation Collection), 1992;
Pink silk satin printed in thorn pattern lined in white silk with encapsulated human hair; From the collection of Isabella Blow courtesy of the Hon. Daphne Guinness

When the world learned that the designer of Kate Middleton's wedding dress was The House of McQueen, it added to the sense of anticipation about the exhibition that opened in New York a few days after the royal wedding. Alexander McQueen was the sponsor of the exhibition, but secrecy was somehow maintained untill the wedding day, despite rigorous questioning by Anna Wintour, Editor in Chief of Vogue. The romantic royal wedding gown was televised and web-streamed "live" across the globe, and newspapers and fashion magazines could not print enough photographs of it. Sadly, the designer was not there to witness it all - the adoring crowds, the glowing bride in his dress, the happy young couple, the spectacle in ancient Westminster Abbey.

Tragically, Alexander McQueen took his own life in 2010, at the age of 40, one week after the death of his mother Joyce.

Kate's dress was designed by Sara Bolton, McQueen's assistant for many years, and designated heir to The House of McQueen after the designer's death. The gown was exquisite - "proper" but not boring - befitting a future queen. It also bore one of McQueen's signature embellishments: fine embroidered lace, like the lace that graces silk cravats in traditional tartan ensembles that denote the tribes - or clans - that every Scotsman calls his own. One of the most memorable ensembles in the show transfered McQueen's tartan to the body of a woman - in trousers - in the installation entitled "Romantic Nationalism."


"The Widows of Culloden" dress    Detail

"Romantic Nationalism" installation: Left: Dress, "The Widows of Culloden," autumn/winter 2006-2007, ivory silk organza; Right: detail

McQueen never forgot his Scottish heritage, and never hesitated to let England and the world know that his homeland had received the "short straw" historically:

“The reason I’m patriotic about Scotland is because I think it’s been dealt a really hard hand. It’s marketed the world over as . . . haggis . . . bagpipes. But no one ever puts anything back into it.” The designer added expletives that cannot be included here!

However, always contradictory, his loyalty to Scotland did not stop McQueen embracing the world of British fashion, and he was deeply connected to England, especially London:

“London’s where I was brought up. It’s where my heart is and where I get my inspiration,” he said.

McQueen tartan

"Romantic Nationalism" installation: "Widows of Culodden," autumn/winter 2006-2007, McQueen tartan embroidered with jet beads; collar, cuffs and hem of cream silk tulle

McQueen's Scottishness was worn as a badge of honor - and defiance. He was a rebel, and his desire to shock and dislocate manifested in strategic challenges of the status quo. The titles of his collections were deliberately provocative, and he did not spare the fashion industry that had propelled him to fame and success. McQueen's collections were often autobiographical, and drew on his ancestral history. When he was asked once what his Scottish roots meant to him, the designer responded, “Everything.”

"The Girl Who Lived in a Tree" ensemble

"Romantic Nationalism" installation: Ensemble, "The Girl Who Lived in a Tree," autumn/winter 2008-2009, Coat of red silk, dress of ivory silk tulle embroidered with crystal beads

Two collections specifically reference McQueen’s national pride and Scotland's political history - Highland Rape (autumn/winter 1995–96) and Widows of Culloden (autumn/winter 2006–7). "Highland Rape" was based on the eighteenth-century Jacobite Risings and the nineteenth-century Highland Clearances, and was the first collection to introduce McQueen tartan. Shown on semi-naked, blood-spattered models on a runway strewn with heather and bracken, it was the designer's attempt to dispel romantic images of Scotland. A more wistful collection entitled "Widows of Culloden" was based on the final battle of the Jacobite Risings,and featured exaggerated silhouettes inspired by the 1880s. Controversial because it was misuderstood, "Highland Rape" alluded to England's rape of Scotland, not rape of women by men. Such explanations were not given at the time of the show, however, and as a result other interpretations were made. The red cloak illustrated above is a wildly romantic garment: "Beauty and the Beast" meets "The Scarlet Pimpernel" in the 21st century. Evocative of childhood fairytales, it is definitely not of our world and times.

"The Girl Who Live in a Tree" jacket

Romantic Nationalism installation: Ensemble,"The Girl Who Lived in a Tree," Jacket of red velvet embroidered with gold bullion and trimmed with white shearling; dress of ivory silk tulle

Also in the "Romantic Nationalism" installation was the beguiling ensemble of tulle, velvet and luscious gold braiding and embroidery illustrated above, reflecting McQueen's deep interest in the history of England. From a collection entitled "The Girl Who Lived in a Tree" (autumn/winter 2008–9), it is a dreamy fairy tale inspired by an elm tree in the garden of McQueen’s country home near Fairlight Cove in East Sussex. Influenced by the British Empire, it was one of McQueen’s most romantically nationalistic collections, typically tinged with irony and ridicule. The streamlined, military cut of the jacket bears the influence of Savile Row, while the exquisite embellishments are softened versions of more robust military regalia, reflecting his time spent at Givenchy.

"La Poupee" jacket

"The Romantic Mind" installation: Left: Jacket, "La Poupee," Spring/autumn, 1997, black wool; Right: Jacket, "La Poupee," Spring/Summer 1997, black wool, courtesy of Trino Verkade

"Bumster trouser"

"The Romantic Mind" installation: "Bumster Trouser," from Highland Rape, Autumn/winter 1995-1996, black silk cotton, courtesy of Myra Chai Hyde

McQueen's rebelliousness stopped short at tailoring - a traditional and rigorous medium - at which he was a master-craftsman. As these images show, his finesse at tailoring was downright breathtaking, learned from the best when he was apprecticed to Anderson and Shepherd, and later Gieves and Hawkes (who specialized in military uniforms), both tailors in London's fabled Savile Row. It was here that the young designer learned to sew those famously contoured riding and military jackets, and other quintessentially British sports jackets that have been worn by royalty, robber barons, contemporary power brokers, and anyone who covets them. It is well known that these jackets are classics that can easily last several generations. In the introduction to the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, Susannah Frankel includes a quote by McQueen:

"I think that couture has complete relevance today. Designer fashion shouldn't be throwaway. I remember when I first started out. I used to walk past what was then Valentino in Bond Street, and just look in amazement at the way the clothes were finished. I was working in Savile Row at the time, it was about 1985, and it was miraculous, so inspiring. I think that during the nineties, care and attention to detail got lost somehow. This collection (Highland Rape) is about going back to that level of refinement. Every piece is unique and has emotional content. I want to create pieces that can be handed down, like an heirloom. I want people to get joy out of clothes again."

Referring to his early training on Savile Row in London, McQueen said: “Everything I do is based on tailoring.”

The designer worked first as an apprentice on Savile Row, and was later accepted at the prestigious St. Martins School of Art and Design on the basis of his portfolio and his incredible work experience that began at age 16. When McQueen went to see Bobby Hilson, founder of the post-graduate fashion course, he applied for a job teaching pattern cutting, but none was available. By then he had already worked for Romeo Gigli, the most famous designer at the time. He took a chance and bought a one-way ticket to Milan, without any pre-arranged meeting or interview with the designer, and was offered a job. None of this gumption was lost on St. Martins School of Art and Design. McQueen's degree collection was based on Jack the Ripper. He graduated in 1992.

"Oyster" dress, left, Irere dress, right

"Romantic Primitivism" installation: Left: "Oyster" Dress, Irere, Spring/summer 200s, ivory silk; Right: Dress, Irere, spring/summer 2003, beige silk

McQueen's approach to fashion was unique, combining the precision and traditions of tailoring and patternmaking with the spontaneity, creativity and improvisations of draping and dressmaking that became more refined after his tenure as creative director of Givenchy in Paris, an experience he treasured. Best known for dressing Audrey Hepburn in films like "Breakfast at Tiffany's," and First Lady Jackie Kennedy, Givenchy was one of the most highly regarded couture houses in Paris. 

In the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Sara Bolton says:

"Givenchy was an amazing experience for Lee (McQueen). He was a superb tailor anyway, and he could cut amazing dresses, but at Givenchy he learned all about couture, especially embroideries...."

"Lee" was McQueen's first name, used only by close friends and family.

When all these influences fused - the rigorous and impulsive, disciplined and unconstrained - the result was McQueen’s very own brand of uniqueness. His original "bumpster" trousers (illustrated) are impeccably tailored, but provocatively display the lower back and part of the "bum" - hence the name "bumster" - which McQueen felt was the most seductive part of the body.

Ripped, distressed and torn fabric were a signature motif in so many ensembles at this show, but no designer took "worn and torn" to such giddy heights of perfection as McQueen. I saw the "Oyster" Dress at an exhibition called "Goddess" at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2003, (reviewed on this site), and was amazed that McQueen had somehow achieved the "feeling" of a tumbled and tossed oyster shell, and even the undercurrents of the ocean, in fabric. 

In the review of that show I wrote:

"While the spare and elegant silhouette of the sleek classical 'sheath' predominate in 'Goddess' (in which the body is virtually poured into a tube of fabric and had better be in perfect shape), the most fascinating aspect of the show are the contemporary interpretations of a 'ballgown,' - presented with 'tongue in cheek' bravado - that a modern 'Botticelli Venus' might wear. Bearing labels like 'Oyster Dress' (Cream silk organza and chiffon by Alexander McQueen, Spring 2003), and aided by a strategically placed reproduction of Botticelli's 'Birth of Venus,' the link to classical antiquity is clearly defined...Unlike the idealized Botticelli Venus, however, Alexander McQueen's goddess has been tossed about in the waves and struggled to stay alive on her journey to the real world, as the elegant tatters on her gown suggest. The modern goddess of love is presented as a survivor of a tumultuous ocean: the idealized goddess fused with the amazon of antiquity. The tatters are decorative and symbolic and superbly rendered, and the generous flowing lines of the gown are unrestricting - the opposite of the tubular "sheath," which would prevent any goddess from swimming for her life. Despite the tatters, McQueen's gown is an affirmation of the high standards of hand-wrought couture still available today, despite our fast-paced, machine-dominated world. It offers an alternative 'tatter couture,' and like Tom Ford's hands-on classicism, it is seductive and approachable." 

This is a dress that evokes Mother Nature's protective and nurturing side, as well as her ferocity and ability to wreak havoc. It is hard to imagine the number of human hours it took to delicately hand-cut all those ruffles. Eye-witnesses say McQueen was a genius at cutting fabric directly on a mannequin.

"Platos Atlantis, Jellyfish Ensemble," "Jellyfish Armadillo"

"Romantic Naturalism" installation; all from "Platos Atlantis, spring/summer, 2010: Left: Dress, silk printed with jellyfish pattern and embroidered with blue enamel paillettes in a honeycomb pattern; Center: ""Jellyfish Ensemble: dress and leggings embroudered with iridescent enamel paillettes; Right: Dress, silk printed in a moth pattern with laser-cut leather; Right and center: "Jellyfish Armadillo" boot, resin with iridescent enamel paillettes

The installation entitled "Romantic Naturalism" was a powerhouse of some of McQueen's most famous designs, including the dazzling ensembles illustrated above, from the collection called "Plato's Atlantis." This includes the Armadillo shoes, worn by celebrities like Daphne Guinness, and most famously by Lady Gaga. Despite their obvious showiness, close inspection of these incredible ensembles revealed a level of artistry worthy of the most rigorous Renaissance workshops. A perfectionist, McQueen insisted that intricately silkscreened and digitally printed designs matched up exactly wherever pieces of fabric were joined together. If they did not, they had to be re-printed, re-cut and re-sewn. No compromise. The prints feature jellyfish, insects such as moths and other flaura and fauna in exquisite and sophisticated color combinations, once again inspired by art and nature.

Eshu dresses

"Romantic Primitivism" installation, autumn/winter 2000-2001: Left: Dress, Eshu, nude synthetic with mud and wooden beads painted ivory and yellow; Right: Dress, Eshu, yellow glass beads and black horsehair

McQueen's ensembles often portrayed humankind and Mother Nature at their most wild and sinister. 

The installation that lingers long after the show is "Romantic Gothic," which featured McQueen at his very "darkest." Romantics have always had a hard time in the real world, and McQueen had his share of demons, among them drugs and alcohol. He was inspired by the writing and poetry of the great Romantics, like Lord Byron and Edgar Allen Poe, both exemplars of the finest romantic gothic literature. However, happy endings were not their greatest strength. McQueen collected art, including the macabre, brooding paintings of Francis Bacon - a genius. Like them, McQueen was at odds with the real world, and yet he somehow managed to reach the pinnacle of his chosen field.

In an interview with Sara Burton in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, Tim Blanks writes:

"Delicate lacework, the Celtic macabre, classic men’s suiting, the severe tailoring of the 1940s, and the films of Alfred Hitchcock - all added a sophisticated gloss to one of the most coherent, persuasive design vocabularies of the past two decades."

Two decades was all the time McQueen had to produce the body of work that made him famous. The mind boggles that he could have achieved all this in such a short a time.

McQueen hats

From "Cabinet of Curiosities" installation: Left: Philip Treacy for Alexander McQueen, Headpiece, "Widows of Cullodden," autumn/winter 2006-2007, woodcock wings, courtesy of Philip Treacy; Right: Shaun Leane and Philip Treacy for Alexander McQueen: Headpiece, "Widows of Cullodden," silver, swarovski gemstones, and full feathers, courtesy of Swarovski

McQueen loved birds. He said:

"Birds in flight fascinate me. I admire eagles and falcons. I'm inspired by a feather but also its color, its graphics, its weightlessness and its engineering. It's so elaborate. In fact I try and transpose the beauty of a bird to women."

Feathers feature prominently in McQueen's most striking gothic creations, including the incredible jacket of hand-painted gold feathers illustrated at the top of this story, and the fabulous red feather dress fit for a contemporary Firebird, illustrated below. These gowns produce awe and wonder in the viewer, they are utterly sublime, like the greatest creations of nature.

In the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, Susannah Frankel writes:

"In our dreams, flight represents release and freedom. It also evokes angels, at once mischievious, manipulative and dangerous, just, and true. To all those who knew him, Alexander McQueem was a more down-to-earth creature than that. But his imagination - dark and light, deeply troubled and profoundly optimistic - soared to brave and beautiful heights."


"Romantic Gothic" installation: Dress, "VOSS," spring/summer 2001, red and black ostrich feathers and glass medical slides painted red

"The Horn of Plenty" dress

"Romantic Gothic" installation: Dress, "The Horn of Plenty, autumn/winter 2010-2011, black duck feathers

The exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty," explored the concept of the sublime and its importance to McQueen. Andrew Bolton, who curated the show, writes in the preface to the catalogue accompanying the exhibition:

"Through his collections, the designer demonstrated how the sentiments associated with Romanticism continue to exercise a powerful influence in modern times. For McQueen, the Sublime provided a connection between Romanticism and Postmodernism, principally expressed through the spectacle of his runway presentations and their aspirations to a heightened, unrestrained emotionalism. But beyond the Sublime, McQueen engaged deeply with other ideological and philosophical abstractions of Romanticism, which are revealed in the dominant themes of his collections, and which, in turn, provide the themes of this exhibition and publication. The thematic sections are built around fashions selected from a variety of McQueen's collections - from his MA graduation collection in 1992, to his posthumous collection in 2010 - as well as featured collections that both illustrate and encapsulate each of the prevailing themes. What comes to light is a vision of fashion that aimed to reconstitute the Romantic past into the Postmodern present."

"Joan" arm armor

Sara Harmarnee for Alexander McQueen: Armor, "Joan," autumn/winter 1998-1999, silver plated metal

McQueen said he wanted people to fear women that wore his clothes. He did not want his clothes to project women as victims. Some of his more extreme ensembles could be menacing, like the armor clad lady illustrated below, with metal gloves, who is well equipped to defend herself.

"Supercalifragliisticexpialidocious" dress

"Romantic Gothic" installation: Ensemble, "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," autumn/winter 2002-2003, coat of black silk, trouser of black synthetic, hat of black silk; Hat by Philip Treacy for Alexander McQueen courtesy of Alister Mackie

The contemporary gothic ensemble inspired by pirates (illustrated above) was brought to life in the exhibition by a fan that made the cape soar, like wings. McQueen's soulfull brand of romanticism was often tinged with sadness. His creations remind us that the things we love most - youth, beauty, butterflies and flowers - don't last. They decay, or grow old and eventually perish. McQueen liked things that make many of us uncomfortable - like decaying flowers, skulls, and coats lined with human hair. They did not trouble him:

"I find beauty in the grotesque, like most artists. I have to force people to look at things," said McQueen.

McQueen' contradictory nature is captured best in the exquisitely beautiful hologram of Kate Moss wearing one of his most ethereal gowns. Fine as gossamer, fluid as water, it is given life in movement by a beautiful young woman in the prime of her life. She is full of promise, like a contemporary Botticelli Venus emerging from her shell. It is a sublime vision of womanhood and of life, however fleeting. Originally it was hoped the entire show would be holograms, but creating them is a lengthy process, and many of the gowns were not ready in time.

Joan dress

Dress: "Joan," autumn/winter, 1998-99, red bugle beads

McQueen's legacy endures as much for his moving romanticism as his classical adherance to the meticulous rules of fine tailoring. The attention to detail is old world, yet deploying cutting edge, contemporary design sensibilities. It is the finest hand-tailored, embroidered, silk-screened, digitally printed and embellished "haute couture" available. McQueen would have relished the challenge of designing ensembles for The Sun King, Kublai Khan or Henry VIII. He would have met their expectations. Today, his ensembles are worn by icons like Lady Gaga - a huge talent discovered on the internet, known to hundreds of millions of music fans across the globe that connect with her music and also pay attention to what she wears.

There is a timelessness to McQueen's finest work, but what is "modern" about it is the soul - and the heart - in his creations, which trigger the emotions of the viewer. Suddenly, the we are transported to another realm, the unfettered landscape of the imagination, the place the designer was probably happiest. At heart, McQueen was a loner who loved to take his dogs for a quiet walk on the beach near his weekend home. The real world was often alien territory for him, as it is for most artists.

In the preface to the beautiful catalogue with photographs by Solve Sandsbo that accompied the exhibition, Andrew Bolton writes:

"For McQueen, love was the most exalted of human emotions. Once asked in an interview what makes his heart miss a beat, the designer responded emphatically and without hesitation, 'Falling in love.' Fashion provided McQueen with a conduit for the conceptual expression of love - both its agonies and its ecstaciesc..."

Musician entertains visitors at museum

A musician entertains visitors outside The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where long lines extended around both sides of the museum

The lines of visitors to "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" snaked around The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for the duration of the show, reaching epic proportions in the final days. Most of them were young people, who felt a deep connection to McQueen's work. In a grand finale tribute to the designer, the Museum remained open untill midnight on the last few nights to allow as many people as possible to view the show one last time. The crowds that swelled within the galleries from May to July were among the highest ever recorded - for any show - at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. It also out-performed the previous year's "Superheroes," the Museum's highest attended Costume Institute show.

Lee Alexander McQueen will be sorely missed by those that valued his gutsy, original approach to that ephemeral and mystical thing called fashion, which he finessed, imagined and elevated to something else altogether.

Unafraid to tell it like it is or lay bare his soul, McQueen said:

“I oscillate between life and death, happiness and sadness, good and evil.”
“It is important to look at death because it is a part of life. It is a sad thing,
melancholy but romantic at the same time. It is the end of a cycle - everything has
to end. The cycle of life is positive because it gives room for new things.”

Alexander McQueen


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