The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has opened its doors, at long last, to one of its most highly anticipated exhibitions: "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty." Even in its first few weeks, this show has broken attendance records. Organized by curator Andrew Bolton, the retrospective celebrates one of the fashion industry's most important designers, the late Lee McQueen, founder and creative director of the label Alexander McQueen. His unprecedented designs marked a critical shift not only in fashion design, but in the reception of fashion as a form of installation, performance, and art.
Nearly 200 items are featured in the exhibition, which spans the 19 years of McQueen's career that was cut short in February of last year by his suicide. Rarities from his graduate collection at Central St. Martins are displayed alongside work from the unfinished final collection of 2010, his swan song. while "Savage Beauty," on view through July 31, showcases the designs within the context of the label, it is clearly homage to the man himself, and the creative intuition that produced one of the most innovative visions of contemporary fashion.
despite the commercial aspirations of the show — "Savage Beauty" was funded almost entirely by the label whose clothing it features — it is nevertheless difficult to look at a single one of the designs without being mesmerized, intrigued, or provoked into some response, oftentimes confusion. no designer has better embodied Yves Saint Laurent‘s incisive dictum that while fashion is not exactly art, it requires the creativity of an artist in order to exist. McQueen's originality and genius derived from the fact that his tremendous talent as a designer was matched by his capacity as an artist.
His technical training as a tailor's apprentice on Savile Row formed the basis for the attention to craftsmanship and expert tailoring that have become synonymous with the label's aesthetic. At the same time, fashion served him as a medium to explore complex ideas. despite his background as a tailor, he was able to see beyond the garment itself and its construction, and as a result his understanding of fashion extended far beyond clothing. each piece had an individuality about it, but was nonetheless part of a sustained vision that governed the aesthetic of a collection as well as that of the final runway presentation.
His Spring/Summer 2001 collection, for example, was based on avian imagery (which he revisited frequently) and the gothic aesthetics of a mental institution, with garments including extraordinary pieces such as a dress with taxidermy eagles protruding from the shoulders as though in flight, as well as head bandages and embellished, asymmetrical jackets that were vaguely reminiscent of nurses' uniforms. Models paced around inside of a boxed, mirrored room clawing at the glass walls as though trying to escape from their asylum-like runway. In the final moments of the presentation, the walls of another box within the faux psychiatric ward collapsed to reveal a startling tableau vivant inspired by the Joel-Peter Witkin photograph "Sanitarium": a reclining, masked nude breathing through a tube and surrounded by fluttering moths.
Other presentations included snarling wolves, life-sized chess boards, and rain pouring down over models as they walked the runway. The famous showing of his Spring/Summer 1999 collection featured two automated robots who shot a model clad in white with sprays of green and black paint.
The artistry of McQueen's artistry vision is also seen in his love of an idea over (or at least as much as) its product. many of his designs had little or nothing to do with fashion, and their translation into clothing design was far was from obvious or literal. Plato‘s account of Atlantis, Darwin‘s "Theory of Evolution," Lucien Freud‘s paintings, films such as "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?," and elements of 19th-century Victorianism (McQueen would refer to himself as the Edgar Allen Poe of fashion) were incorporated into his designs. Historical events were of great influence as well, and one of his early collections, "Highland Rape," was based on what McQueen called the "rape of Scotland" by the British Empire during the Jacobite Risings and the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Another source of inspiration that McQueen drew heavily on throughout his career was Medieval and Renaissance art, specifically Flemish painting. His last collection, presented posthumously, was unofficially titled "Angels and Demons," and the references to the work of Botticelli, Hieronymous Bosch, Jean Fouquet, and Hans Memling were clear both materially and in concept. New textile technologies were used to photograph the paintings and weave their images into jacquard fabrics and embroideries that were cut into highly tailored garments. Moreover, the collection mirrored a theme present in the works McQueen was focusing on: death and the afterlife. In a way, it is this set of source images for his last collection that best illustrate McQueen's view of fashion. Major characteristics of Flemish painting include highly detailed imagery, sumptuous colors, and fantastical narratives that often focus on the grotesque, and McQueen's work offers an aesthetic that values and masterfully combines all of these aspects.
The innumerable tributes to the designer since his death aim both at commemorating his contributions to fashion and securing his legacy. It is somewhat difficult as a result to keep sight of the man beneath the weight of so many accolades — commercial as well as critical — and in a sense, there is little need for these displays of recognition; Lee McQueen's legacy was ensured long before his death. One of the most important aspects of this legacy was the nature of his vision, which related fashion to art in a way that few designers, or artists, have been able to do. McQueen created a new class of designer, and in so doing expanded the field for those to come.
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