Savage Beauty, the lush, theatrically presented retrospective of Alexander McQueen’s couture design in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Contemporary Art Wing, feels heavy with mourning. “One of the greatest talents of his generation,” according to Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, McQueen killed himself at age 40, days after his beloved mother died early in 2010. In the exhibition, the raw fact of the British designer’s untimely death pulses like a black light, illuminating the phosphorescent sadness infusing his work. Throughout his career, an undercurrent of sorrow can be detected beneath the ideas fueling his designs; from his 1992 graduate school collection, Jack The Ripper Stalked his Victims; to his notorious mid-career collection, Highland Rape; to his final, posthumously shown collection about dystopia, Plato’s Atlantis.

Dress, autumn/winter 2010. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce
Dress, autumn/winter 2010. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

Melancholy serves to define the stunning elegance of McQueen’s work—the lines of his silhouettes nearly universally highlight a perfectly proportioned waist. This commonality reads as a self-imposed restraint, dually serving the women who wore his clothing and framing the designer’s own powerfully expressive needs. Contained within McQueen’s opus are narrative themes inspired by tragic works in literature, art, and film; events of violent oppression in Scottish history; and the increasing fragility of the natural world. The designer’s emotional response to these themes surges perceptibly through his use of such materials as razor clam shells, glass medical slides, bird feathers and skulls, leather, carved wood, metal, butterflies, and dried flowers, yet, are gracefully anchored by his balanced outlines and refined, masterful use of traditional materials including lace, beads, gemstones, and fine silk and wool fabrics. McQueen’s flattering designs show a sympathetic identification with the female libido. His sensibility coincides with a global portrait of women today—a passionately creative potential constrained by tragically limiting forces of inequity and violence.

The generosity and sympathy infused in McQueen’s work plays out in a revealing contrast of collaborations between couture designers and pop star divas. Twenty-one years ago, Madonna and Jean Paul Gaultier famously worked together for her “Blond Ambition” tour. Looking back, the Material Girl’s groundbreaking career ultimately reveals a focus on accumulation for the enrichment of the self. As a counterpart to Madonna’s aloof allure, Gaultier’s menswear styled designs inserted exaggerated female forms such as the gold cone bra and trite burlesque lingerie, touches borne of the male gaze. McQueen joined forces with today’s current pop sensation, Lady Gaga, for his Spring/Summer 2010 runway show, where her hit song “Bad Romance” was played. For her performance in the music video for the song, Gaga wore a cinched gold mini-dress from McQueen’s collection and several shoes of his design. Unlike Madonna, who fueled her fame by distancing herself from her audience, Gaga acknowledges that her power and inspiration grow from a direct exchange with her community of fans. Implying their connection goes deeper, Gaga discusses her most recent tour “Born This Way”: “I think [McQueen] planned the whole thing: right after he died, I wrote ‘Born This Way.’ I think he’s up in heaven with fashion strings in his hands, marionetting away, planning this whole thing.” Gaga claims that McQueen’s aesthetic is infused in her tour’s theme of self-acceptance.

Since it opened in May, the exhibition of Alexander McQueen’s collections at the Met has become a blockbuster. The museum has not only extended the show to the first week of August, but has opened its doors an extra day each week for more than double the price. The exhibition’s elaborate staging includes unique architectural finishes and soundtracks for each room. Despite the opportunity the exhibit provides its audience to see the work in person, the limitations that lifeless mannequins and museum hours impose don’t give McQueen’s work full justice. The Met tries to overcome these obstacles with a vivid hologram and large scale videos from the designer’s runway shows. Next-generation fashion designer Alena Gandy observes that McQueen’s true accomplishment was not the attention his clothing received, but the way a woman wearing his clothes would be enhanced: “He was known for creating looks that made a woman look incredible and challenged the viewer to want to know more about the person… to spark an interest in her.” It’s possible that actually wearing one of his garments is the only way to truly experience and understand the power of his work.


JUL-AUG 2011

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