Best of 2011 – Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty
After the enormous hype, we were fully prepared to be disappointed. On a hot summer’s day we made the pilgrimage to the Met to see Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, the homage to Lee Alexander McQueen, a designer we have followed for years from his legendary graduation show at Central St. Martin’s, to his appointment at Givenchy, through the rise of his eponymous label, to his tragic suicide at the age of 40 in 2010. McQueen’s impeccable craftsmanship combined with his unconventional and sometimes extreme vision – romantic and gothic, beautiful and brutal – made him a contemporary designer of significance.
Savage Beauty assembled about 100 works ranging from tailored black suits to dramatic ball gowns, and explored the designer’s deep commitment to Romanticism, championing emotion (rather than reason) as an authentic and valid source of aesthetic experience. Like the Romantics before him, McQueen strove to evoke feelings such as awe, wonder and fear through his work. Organized thematically into sections such as ‘Romantic Nationalism’, ‘Romantic Exoticism’ and ‘Romantic Naturalism’ the show brought forth the varied inspirations for McQueen’s designs including Brother’s Grimm Fairy tales, his Scottish nationalism, and the natural world. McQueen famously trained on Saville Row before bucking its conservatism, but the precise tailoring which would have been de rigeur there was evident in his immaculately executed designs; the unbelievable craftsmanship involved is difficult to describe in words. The lace, embroidery, feathers and fabrics in his creations are so sumptuous that they look as though they belong in a Renaissance painting of royalty.
McQueen was known for his wildly imaginative fashion shows which were more performance than runway and this installation did his legacy justice by creating all-encompassing, immersive spaces whose intensity heightened the drama of the clothes they presented. One room featuring Romantic Gothic designs, many of which were inspired by Old Master paintings including the work of Hans Memling and Hieronymus Bosch, was mirrored and gilded like a Goth Versailles. Another area, focusing on McQueen’s imaginative collaborations with accessories designers like milliner Philip Treacy, displayed the works in a floor-to-ceiling blackened cabinet of curiosities so that surreal objects surrounded the viewer at every turn. Later in the show, a miniature hologram of Kate Moss in a diaphanous dress was so mesmerizing that the crowds huddled in to see. Knowing the young designer had died tragically just the year before made the gathering of his life’s work an intensely emotional, almost funereal experience. McQueen, who once said “I don’t’ want to do a cocktail party, I’d rather people left my shows and vomited. I prefer extreme reactions”, would have been proud.
As its end drew near, the line at the Met some days snaked 1500 people long, spilling out onto the street and into the scorching heat. Someone we know reported queuing 6 hours to see the show – and it was worth the wait. 650,000 people experienced Savage Beauty and it makes history as one of the Met’s top 10 most visited exhibitions ever. Rumours swirl that the show will travel to London, McQueen’s home, possibly at the Victoria & Albert Museum. If you missed it in New York, beg, borrow and steal to see it in London. It will blow you away.