The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is currently holding a retrospective of British fashion designer Alexander McQueen. The lines of people waiting to get in to see the exhibition, Savage Beauty, far exceeds those for any other the Met has hosted, with hundreds constantly on line, and waiting time running to 30 minutes on weekends. And although the McQueen exhibition is free (with cover donation into the Met itself) on any other day, in July the special Monday tours will go up from $25 to $50 per person – an extraordinary amount for a museum exhibit.
Such sustained excitement about a fashion designer might seem a little bizarre. Fashion floats across our horizon every day, especially in big cities like New York. But McQueen was more than fashion. And the Met has done everything to make this more than an exhibit. The rooms holding the retrospective have been outfitted to reflect McQueen’s often extraordinary fashion shows: holograms, video installation, large, Gothic mirrors, black walls, and a wallpaper of sketch-like drawings of skulls, roses, and dolls. The effect is slightly eerie; rather like stepping into a painting by the recently deceased surrealist painter Leonora Carrington, or perhaps into a dark fairy tale.
McQueen himself appeared to plumb the depths of the psyche – perhaps especially his own – often going into its darker regions. His influences ranged from Scottish to Japanese culture, but a certain existential angst pervaded his work. This was especially the case when he drew from culture with which he identified. His early 90s “Highland Rape” collection was largely panned by critics (the first and last to receive such negative attention), but, the examples from the collection hold up as well as any fashion design of the period. And the long black dress with gold damask print at the top, trailing off in long drips toward the bottom, and a long, lace dress in light turquoise and gold rust hint at McQueen’s later, more elaborate work.
Savage Beauty spans McQueen’s career, from the early 1990s right up until his death in early 2010. Throughout, the influence of different cultures is apparent: a gray coat, hat and pants, decorated with silk embroidery, pay homage to classical Chinese robe (the shenyi) and the Japanese kimono. A dress and coat of embroidered round, gold, red and black chrysanthemums – revealing the wearer through the spaces between them – likewise shows McQueen’s fascination with classical Japanese design. But McQueen was eclectic, and as inspired by the modern, as by the classical, as is illustrated by his drawing, playfully, on the American football uniform.
There are also Victorian-type dresses that utilize layers of lace, or an abundance of applique flowers. A hat of floating red butterflies and a dress made of overlapping razor shells (reminiscent of the early work of Japanese fashion designer Koji Tatsuni), reveals McQueen’s love of nature and his ability to work with materials that most other designers would leave alone.
As the Met retrospective illustrates, McQueen was one of fashion’s most creative designers. But he was also one of the most subtle and skilled, and in the Met’s very intense and theatrical exhibit this side of McQueen may get a little overshadowed.
In contrast to his flamboyant shows, McQueen was an unpretentious figure. He dressed casually – even unfashionably – especially in his early years of stardom, and, even as he was beginning to turn up regularly in the British press, was known as “Lee” by friends and acquaintances.
I met him socially a few times, and visited two of his London studios. My second visit left me with my most lucid memory of him. He had been asked by his backer, Isabella, to create a dress for some important function (I forget what exactly). McQueen had put off making it for ages, and this was his last chance before the event.
Design is a process – normally: sketches, followed by the garment’s pattern pieces transcribed, from measurements, onto paper, then cut out. Then the toile. Then refinements. Then perhaps the garment is reproduced in better material. Then more refining. Etc.
McQueen took a meter rule, drew out the pattern pieces on the actual fabric (from her measurements, not pattern pieces), asked his assistant to cut it and sew the dress, then left for the evening – before she had even made the first cut of the fabric. The dress had sleeves (that were part of the body, not separate) – always a difficult design feature. I thought that it would never fit, and that he was crazy. The next time I saw him, he was smiling, telling me how much his backer “loved” the dress. McQueen had serious talent. He was confident in his craft, not arrogant.
Looking back at the careers of other creative and experimental fashion designers, their work always seem somehow dated. Dresses or outfits that once struck the public as completely original or futuristic now look as much a part of their era as anything else. They are museum pieces. In contrast, even McQueen’s early work looks as contemporary as any that is in the stores today.
It is not the shock-value or the surreal nature of some of his creations that keep them from looking dated. It is the fact that if McQueen explored the psyche as a realm of potential and mystery, he understood the body and its limitations, and made tailoring, and flattering the body, the basis of his craft.
The Savage Beauty exhibition runs until August 7, 2011. For more information visit The Met Museum.
All images from the Met Museum blog.