[REVIEW] Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

“There is no way back for me now. I am going to take you on journeys you’ve never dreamed were possible,” said the late fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen, of his piece de resistance, Spring 2010’s Plato’s Atlantis.  The designer is being honored at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a retrospective exhibit Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. And what an exhilarating journey we experienced during his dazzling career  of creating some of the most romantic, jarring, sexy, daring, jaw dropping, alluring, sensual, emotional, dramatic and artistic collections ever to grace the runways of Paris.  McQueen was a true genius, often breaking stereotypes and boundaries, forcing the world to see beauty in what it would normally shun from or be repulsed by.  He saw the beauty in the ugly and made it acceptable and pleasing to the mind’s eye.

The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art feted McQueen at its annual gala last night and what a sight it was to behold.  Fashion giants, celebrities galore, models who donned McQueen’s art work (his clothing, shoes, jewelry and accessories indeed were works of art), his muses and his successor, Sarah Burton, paid homage to the visionary that was McQueen, by stepping onto the red carpet in style to preview the brilliant exhibit curated by Costume Institute curator Anthony Boltan.  Editors also had the opportunity to preview the exhibit in the hours leading up to the gala.  It became heart breakingly obvious that McQueen took a piece of the glamour, panache and excitement of fashion with when he left us on the first day of Fall 2010 fashion week as I walked through the exhibit.

Housed in the second-floor Cantor Galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and sourced from the Alexander McQueen Archive in London, the Givenchy Archive in Paris as well as private collections, the McQueen retrospective showcases “approximately 100 ensembles and 70 accessories from Mr. McQueen’s prolific 19-year career.”  It is curated into six galleries: “The Romantic Mind,” “Romantic Gothic,” Romantic Nationalism,” “Romantic Exoticism,” “Romantic Primitivism,” and “Romantic Naturalism.”

The Romantic Mind:

“I want to be the purveyor of a certain silhouette or a way of cutting, so that when I’m dead and gone people will know that the twenty-first century was started by Alexander McQueen,” Alexander McQueen.

This gallery begins with jackets from McQueen’s Central Saint Martins postgraduate collection, Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims, from the collection of Isabella Blow courtesy of the style maven Daphne Guinness.  The first gallery also includes pieces from Plato’s Atlantis, La Poupée, It’s a Jungle Out There, Highland Rape, Banshee, Dante and What a Merry-Go-Round.

Romantic Gothic:

“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,” Lee Alexander McQueen.

Alexander McQueen saw the beauty in and was inspired by themes of life and death.  In the second gallery, we see McQueen’s strong interest in the Victorian Gothic.

One of the defining features of Alexander McQueen’s collections was their historicism. While McQueen’s historical references were far-reaching, he was inspired particularly by the nineteenth century, drawing especially on the Victorian Gothic. “There’s something … kind of Edgar Allan Poe, kind of deep and kind of melancholic about [my] collections,” McQueen once observed. Indeed, the 7 “shadowy fancies” that Poe writes about in The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) are vividly present within the majority of McQueen’s collections, most notably Dante (autumn/winter 1996–97), Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (autumn/winter 2002–3), and his posthumous collection unofficially entitled Angels and Demons (autumn/winter 2010–11).

Romantic Nationalism:

“Highland Rape was a shout against English designers . . . doing flamboyant Scottish clothes. My father’s family originates from the Isle of Skye, and I’d studied the history of the Scottish upheavals and the Clearances. People were so unintelligent they thought this was about women being raped—yet Highland Rape was about England’s rape of Scotland,” Lee Alexander McQueen.

McQueen’s patriotic tartan series that pays homage to and showcases his Scottish heritage.

Alexander McQueen’s collections were fashioned around elaborate narratives that were profoundly autobiographical, often reflecting upon his ancestral history, specifically his Scottish heritage. Indeed, when he was asked once what his Scottish roots meant to him, the designer responded, “Everything.” McQueen’s national pride is most evident in Highland Rape (autumn/winter 1995–96) and Widows of Culloden (autumn/winter 2006–7). Both collections explored Scotland’s turbulent political history.  [McQueen Exhibit Brochure]

Romantic Exoticism:

“I want to be honest about the world that we live in, and sometimes my political persuasions come through in my work. Fashion can be really racist, looking at the clothes of other cultures as costumes. . . . That’s mundane and it’s old hat. Let’s break down some barriers.” Alexander McQueen

This gallery showcases McQueen’s interest in other cultures, particularly those of China and Japan.

Alexander McQueen’s romantic sensibilities expanded his imaginary horizons not only temporally but also spatially. As it had been for artists and writers of the Romantic Movement, the lure of the exotic was a central theme in McQueen’s collections. Like his historicism, McQueen’s exoticism was wide-ranging. India, China, Africa, and Turkey were all places that sparked the designer’s imagination. Japan was particularly significant to McQueen, both thematically and stylistically. The kimono, especially, was a garment that the designer endlessly reconfigured in his collections. [McQueen Exhibit Brochure]

Romantic Primitivism:

“[I try to] push the silhouette. To change the silhouette is to change the thinking of how we look. What I do is look at ancient African tribes, and the way they dress. The rituals of how they dress. . . . There’s a lot of tribalism in the collections,” Alexander McQueen

This gallery “captures McQueen’s engagement with the ideal of the ‘noble savage.'”

Throughout his career, Alexander McQueen frequently returned to the theme of primitivism, which drew upon the ideal of the noble savage living in harmony with the natural world. It was the focus of his first runway collection after graduating, entitled Nihilism (spring/summer 1994). Of the collection, McQueen commented “[It] was a reaction to designers romanticizing ethnic dressing, like a Masaiinspired dress made of materials the Masai could never afford.” Famously it included a latex dress with locusts, McQueen’s statement on famine. Many of the pieces were coated with mud, a conceit the designer repeated in Eshu (autumn/winter 2000–2001), a collection inspired by one of the most well-known deities of Yoruba mythology.  [McQueen Exhibit Brochure]

Romantic Naturalism:

“I have always loved the mechanics of nature and to a greater or lesser extent my work is always informed by that.” Alexander McQueen

This gallery showcases McQueen’s enduring interest in raw materials and forms from nature, which was vividly evident in his Plato’s Atlantis collection.

Nature was the greatest, or at least the most enduring, influence upon Alexander McQueen. It was also a central theme, if not the central theme of Romanticism. Many artists of the Romantic Movement presented nature itself as a work of art. McQueen both shared and promoted this view in his collections, which often 27 included fashions that took their forms and raw materials from the natural world. But for McQueen, as it was for the Romantics, nature was also a locus for ideas and concepts. This is most clearly reflected in Plato’s Atlantis (spring/summer 2010), the last fully-realized collection the designer presented before his death in February 2010. Inspired by Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), it presented a narrative that centered not on the evolution of humankind but on its devolution. [McQueen Exhibit Brochure]

There are several companion materials that complement the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty Exihibition, including an eponymous book written by curator Andrew Bolton. Guests can also take advantage of the audio guided tour with interviews and commentaries by 16 of McQueen’s collaborators including Sarah Burton, Naomi Campbell, Philip Treacy, Sarah Jessica Parker and Shaun Leane.  The American Express and Conde Naste sponsored exhibition is on view May 4 through July 31 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

ALL IMAGES BY MAKEDA SAGGAU-SACKEY (www.glamazondiaries.com) *Please credit the author and link back.