Style & Fashion


Genius of McQueen

The Times

May 1, 2011


Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Oh, wow,” I say, pointing to the dress snugly fitted to the mannequin: a mass of black feathers in the silhouette of a 1940s film siren. It looks like a magnificent, malevolent bird: Alexis Colby if she’d flown cawing through the air in Dynasty. “Ah, ‘the raven’,” says Andrew Bolton, curator of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, a blisteringly glamorous and engaging retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York devoted to the designer’s work.

“Actually,” Bolton adds quietly, “McQueen called it ‘the big black cock’, but this is the Met and we can’t really put that on the description card.”

This sexy, intelligent, rigorously curated show encompasses the span of McQueen’s 18-year career: from his first Central Saint Martins graduate collection in 1992, of jackets lined with human hair, and the bumster trousers of the mid-1990s, through the controversial Highland Rape tartan dresses ripped at the breasts and crotch, to the futuristic glitz of Lady Gaga’s Plato’s Atlantis dress of 2010 and impossibly high-heeled and awkward-looking armadillo shoes.

The cumulative effect of wandering through the show is not one of shock (at skin exposed, the love of fetish, the implication of sexual violence, the delicious impracticality of his clothes), but awe at McQueen’s design genius.

His early training on Savile Row meant that McQueen, who described himself as a “romantic schizophrenic”, could take an outfit apart as well as he could make it, Bolton says. The British curator has collected 100 full ensembles and, in a room called “the cabinet of curiosities”, 70 accessories, by McQueen’s favourite headwear and jewellery designers, Philip Treacy and Shaun Leane, including a dainty hat shaped like a peacock made of twigs, fringed red beaded masks and painful-looking facial jewellery. Sumptuously perverse masks for the show’s mannequins have been made by Guido Palau, another McQueen collaborator.

The most obvious question is why this blockbuster, which lovers of fashion will flock to and rhapsodise over, is in New York and not the UK. McQueen, who committed suicide in February 2010 at his London home, was the pre-eminent British designer of his generation. “This is the kind of show the Met can turn around very quickly,” Bolton says. “In Britain the schedules of galleries are too fixed.” There have been only two McQueen creations he couldn’t locate: a frock coat and a rainbow oyster dress.

Still, Savage Beauty features Lady Gaga’s futuristic metallic dress, a red and black ostrich dress, with a bodice of red medical slides once worn by Björk (pictured above), a tartan dress worn by Sarah Jessica Parker (who contributes a commentary to the audio guide, along with Naomi Campbell) and a version of Gwyneth Paltrow’s 2002 Oscars dress, widely hailed as the worst of that year because of unattractive crinkling around her breasts and midriff. After you have passed Björk’s dress and another made of clam shells, intended to evoke “light and dark, life and death, the opposites of his vision” according to Bolton, the first room (The Romantic Mind) is a re-creation of McQueen’s first Hoxton atelier.

Bolton admits that McQueen didn’t necessarily see his pieces as “wearable” in the traditional sense, although stars such as Björk wore them as performance pieces: “He was an extraordinary craftsman, and used his skills to expand the boundaries of what fashion was.” Bolton remembers McQueen as “intensely shy, with an astonishing eye”: when the designer came to the Met to see the outfits of his that it had chosen for its Anglomania show of British fashion five years ago, from “across the room [he] saw a pleat that needed to smoothed out: one pleat in sixty”.

The hard silhouettes of the dresses, combined with distressed tailoring, apparent in the next rooms (Romantic Gothic and Romantic Nationalism) present the wearer as “aggressor and victim, masochist and sadist”, Bolton says. McQueen said: “I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.” His dresses, he claimed, were “romantic, dealing with a dark side of personality”. For him beauty could “come from the strangest of places, even the most disgusting of places”. Fetish and propriety collide in a series of black dresses with bondage-themed bodices and leather straps, including a swaggering “highwayman” ensemble and a beautiful lace and gem-encrusted Victorian-style dress.

McQueen said that he was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, as well as the Victorian era’s “austerity, severity and melancholy”. In a lit cabinet are the last creations that McQueen was working on, which his staff finished, including the last mannequin he draped: an off-the-shoulder dress with gold feather skirt and religious iconography.

To break the run of clothes, the Met has installed a bewitching hologram of Kate Moss wearing one of McQueen’s dresses (a layered, billowing cloud of white ruffles) before a stunning set of dresses evoking his love of nature and fascination with decay feature in the final rooms, Romantic Exoticism, Romantic Primitivism and Romantic Naturalism.

The clothes here are ripped and distempered. A dress made of dried flowers sits alongside one made from pheasant feathers; another is made from yellow glass beads and horsehair.

McQueen’s last completed collection, Plato’s Atlantis, with metallic mannequins decked in silvery bodices and tight printed shift dresses, forms the exhibition’s denouement.

McQueen once said: “I’ve never aspired to mass production. Because of my training as a tailor, my work involves lots of love and care, which is why so many of my clothes are made by hand . . . Not to wow the crowd during a show, but because I love it.” Savage Beauty is a brilliant exposition of that passion and vision: suddenly the antlers beneath an apparent bridal veil, the torn tartan and navel- grazing trousers, the breast-revealing jackets and ridiculous, impractical shoes all make perfect — and moving — sense.