At the entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, visitors were cautioned as to the length of the line – it could be an hour, perhaps three! Undaunted, whether it was because of Alexander McQueen’s unique vision of couture or simply the fairytale Royal Wedding dress, they were here. ‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’, has topped out as the eighth-most popular exhibition in the Met’s 141-year history, closely following such imposing and iconic shows as the Mona Lisa, shown in 1963, ‘The Treasures of Tutankhamun’, in 1978 and Picasso in 2010. From London’s East End to New York’s Museum Mile, the boy, as they say, done good.
The exhibition featured more than 100 ensembles and 70 accessories from McQueen’s prolific 19-year career. Assembled primarily from the Alexander McQueen Archive in London, the show features his signature low-slung ‘bumster’ trousers, the outré silhouette that accentuated the valley of the buttock; his supreme tailoring of the three-point origami frock coat; and the impossible Armadillo shoes, which force the wearer to stand permanently en pointe. From his apprenticeship on Savile Row, through stylist and muse Isabella Blow’s inspired purchase of his Central Saint Martins degree show, to being appointed head designer at Givenchy in 1996 and his partnership with the Gucci Group in 2000, by the end of his life, McQueen had boutiques in London, New York, Los Angeles, Milan and Las Vegas.
In the first room, titled ‘Romantic Mind’, we were introduced to the structural tailoring and drape-and-cut improvisation that were consistent throughout McQueen’s career, establishing the fact that – unlike the preceding anti-craft punk period, notably Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s early work – McQueen was first and foremost a tailor. A series of mannequins bore testament to this fact: the curve of the lower spine exquisitely framed in black silk, or a bodice buttoned dramatically from waist to throat. The ‘romantic mind’, it seems, is one that encompasses flirtatious gesture and guarded flesh – a sassy combination. Nice frocks aside, what continually hit home was the fact of McQueen’s artfulness, the conceptually minded steps he moved through to achieve his yearned-for emotional response in the viewer. A piece from his lauded graduation show, titled ‘Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims’ (1992), printed with a bloodied thorn pattern, reveals a small translucent pocket at the nape of the neck containing human hair: McQueen’s own. His collegiate statement for the collection traced his genealogy back to that of the Victorian serial killer. This is a feint and play that reminds one of McQueen’s connections to the love, life and death themes of the yBas, the raw tell-all of a generation that chose to metaphorically and literally bear witness to the facts of flesh and bone, from Tracey Emin to Damien Hirst – their shared symbol, the skull, a blunt reminder of the inevitable. (This is employed to surreal effect on the cover of the exhibition publication, which features a portrait of McQueen that morphs into a liquid death mask.) As Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli was dramatically inspired by her collaborators, Salvador Dalí and Alberto Giacometti, and Westwood and McLaren withthose that gathered at their boutique, Sex, on the King’s Road in London, McQueen’s vision stemmed from the same do-it-yourself mantra and the recession creativity of London in the 1980s.
At the heart of ‘Savage Beauty’, a blackened wood-panelled room, was a breathtaking collection of accessories: towering headpieces constructed from a flurry of scarlet butterflies; skeletal silver corsets; gold figurine-heeled footwear. Sat amongst this cabinet of curiosities was a delirious series of catwalk videos. As Andrew Bolton, the exhibition’s curator, suggests, McQueen was best known for his ‘extravagant runway presentations, which were given dramatic scenarios and narrative structures that suggested avant-garde installation and performance art’. It is here that the imagination of McQueen is most strongly felt, rivalling in breadth of expression and image the strongest visual arts performance spectacle. In one such video, tradition and technology combine as a model wearing a pristine white dress stands between two robotic arms; they circle the body, the stage revolves and a stream of black and luminous yellow dye stains white silk. In other videos, the catwalk show is transfigured as a chess game or as a fairground carousel populated by grinning clowns. In another, the catwalk is hit by a torrential storm. For McQueen the catwalk was theatre, the impetus for his design dramaturgy.
His most contentious of collections, ‘Highland Rape’ (1995–6) – seen here in a wooden hall ripped apart from floor to ceiling – consists of deconstructed and slashed garments. Misread in some quarters as misogynistic, it was for McQueen a reflection of his Scottish heritage and the violent invasion of the English into the Highlands. In a section titled ‘Romantic Gothic’, the female figure was presented bound and upright, a towering form of leather and buckles, a mixture of perverse domination and sadomasochism. The femme fatale – the preserve of men who are nervous of female sexuality from Eve to Cleopatra to Salome – is clearly celebrated. One of the numerous quotes by McQueen that adorned the walls read: ‘I want to empower women. I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.’ I’d have to agree. For the many commentators on the audio-guide it also seemed that to be clad in McQueen was to feel ‘powerful’, ‘sharp’ and ‘sophisticated’.
McQueen was a one-man Aesthetic Movement; from clothes to catwalk, all bore his imprimatur and cult of sublime beauty. He simply did what he wanted, and did it very well, with a British sensibility steeped in melancholy, sexual mores and agile wit. Beyond the familiar British media line of ‘bad boy made good’, McQueen left a body of work that speaks of the authority of imagination and a vision removed from the desire to answer market demands.