Recently, I had the chance to take an after-hours tour of the new Alexander McQueen exhibit, Savage Beauty presented by the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The tour was lead by the exhibition's dashing young curator, Andrew Bolton from the Costume Institute at the Met. Alexander McQueen retail store manager Sorel Thongvan was also in attendance and complimented Mr. Bolton's curatorial insights with some interesting stories about the history of the Alexander McQueen stores, including the breathtaking store on 14th. St.
Aside from the obvious thrill of seeing the Savage Beauty exhibit without being pressed and hurried through the exhibit spaces by the outsize crowds of people who have been flocking to see the exhibit since it opened on May 4th., I was absolutely giddy about the experience of being in the museum after dark, when the vast halls are nearly deserted. I have a child-like obsession with Night at the Museum and this experience came pretty close to fulfilling my fantasy.
Without question, Savage Beauty is one of the most extraordinary fashion and art exhibits I have ever seen or felt. There are so many aspects to the exhibit, the clothing, accessories, the exhibit design, stage craft and audio/visual elements that it truly is a significant, although delightful effort just to experience it. Conceivably one could prepare in advance to see Savage Beauty by reading extensively on Alexander McQueen's history, his influences, the composition and stories of his collections and the excerpts of his thoughts and feelings that have been recorded or written about. All this prep work would certainly be a valuable head start in comprehending the exceptionally large collection of work that is on display.
Alternatively, one could come to the exhibit with no prior knowledge of the existence of Mr. McQueen or his work and be subject to a purely visceral and sensory experience. Encountering Savage Beauty unfiltered by the editorial interpretations of others is an enviable experience. As an artist and designer, Mr. McQueen sought to communicate with people's emotions and instincts and strip away preconceptions by disrupting and agitating the consciousness. When viewing the Savage Beauty exhibit, at least initially, it's worthwhile to let your critical guard down and allow the work in the exhibit to affect you in the most direct way possible. On subsequent trips through the exhibit you can take a more analytical approach to viewing the works, but don't miss out on feeling the raw aesthetic power of the exhibit at least once.
My initial experience with Savage Beauty was both a studied admiration of work that I had seen in print but was now seeing firsthand as well as a strong, almost unexpected emotional reaction to the garments themselves. To see such a vast body of work, together in one place at one time magnifies the impact and perception of the inventiveness, daring and creativity that is evident, beyond any expectations, in Mr. McQueen's work and definitely requires you to pause for breath.
During his tour of the exhibit, Andrew Bolton detailed some of the challenges that he faced in choosing and placing the works that comprise the exhibit as well some of the design and construction innovations that were used in the exhibit stages. Alexander McQueen production designers Sam Gainsbury Joseph Bennett were responsible for the majority of set design and construction in the exhibit, including some amazing display cases with ornate and highly detailed workmanship (worth taking a closer look). Mr. Bolton was careful, and considerate in his descriptions of the works in the exhibit not to dictate to people how they should interpret or feel about any particular garments, leaving it up to us to building our own impressions.
Mr. Bolton also recounted anecdotes involving Mr. McQueen and the inspirations or creation of various garments. All of Mr. Bolton's anecdotes underscore Mr. McQueen's passion and dedication to his work as well as his exceptional skill as a tailor and craftsmen. One example is a story regarding the creation of a coat for the Dante collection for autumn/winter 1996-97. After many hours of frustratingly difficult work trying to build the coat, Mr. McQueen's staff gave up in exasperation and declared that it could not be done the way that McQueen had envisioned. Mr. McQueen persisted alone and the next morning his staff came in to find him asleep on the couch with the coat, exactly as he had wanted it, completed.
As a fashion design student, the primary lesson that I came away with from Savage Beauty is the importance of doing your homework. As obvious and simple as it sounds, one of the things that sets Mr. McQueen's work apart is how well informed and well executed his influences and references are. Mr. McQueen was a veritable sponge in terms of his ability to absorb and comprehend information and he was an excellent student of history, culture, art, music and the natural world. For example. Mr. McQueen's designs with military influences, both western and eastern as well as his kimono interpretations, show an attention to detail and historical accuracy that is a noticeable differentiator.
Favorite pieces from the exhibit
The following are some of my favorites from the exhibit. I did not take any pictures while going through the exhibit. Although others who were on the same tour did take pictures, I felt a little intimidated by the explicit instructions not to take pictures. All of the pictures used below are snapshots that I took from the exhibit catalogue. The works in the catalogue were beautifully photographed by Sølve Sundsbø.
The exhibit opens with two dresses from the VOSS collection for spring/summer 2001. The dress on the left is made of red and black ostrich feathers and glass medical slides painted red and the dress on the right is made of Razor-clam shells stripped (bleached) and varnished. Mr. Bolton stated that one of the most difficult decisions in curating the Savage Beauty exhibit was picking the pieces that would be the first thing viewers see when entering. Mr. Bolton chose these two dresses because he felt that they "ticked the most boxes" in terms of being quintessentially Alexander McQueen. Some of those ticked-boxes include the classic Alexander McQueen silhouette, the use of non-conventional materials in non-conventional ways and the powerful symbolism behind the works.
In the exhibit, the two dresses are displayed in a large all-black enclosure of side by side coffins. The display leaves it up to the viewer to interpret the meaning, the relationship between life and death, rebirth, renewal...all could be considered part of the symbolism. “There’s blood beneath every layer of skin.” - the powerful quote from Mr. McQueen about the inspiration behind the red painted microscope slides used in the red dress.
Left to right, VOSS, spring/summer 2001, dress made of red and black ostrich feathers and glass medical slides painted red and dress made of Razor-clam shells stripped (bleached) and varnished.
Mr. Bolton noted that the rarest and in some regards the most prized pieces in the exhibit were those from Mr. McQueen's 1992 MA graduate collection at Saint Martins College of Art & Design. It's remarkable to see these early pieces of work from Mr. McQueen next too his later work and take note of the consistency of his design principles over the span of his career, particularly his signature silhouette. Mr. McQueen's graduation collection was purchased in its entirely by Isabella Blow in 1995 for £5,000, paid in weekly installments of £100 and is now owned by Daphne Guinness who purchased Mrs. Blow's collection after her death in May 2007.
Coat, Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims (MA Graduation Collection), 1992 Pink silk satin printed in thorn pattern lined in white silk with encapsulated human hair. This coat was lent to the Met by Daphne Guinness, who purchased Isabella Blow's entire collection of Alexander McQueen garments and accessories after Blow's untimely death in May 2007.
Mr. McQueen is quoted as saying "Beauty can come from the strangest of places, even the most disgusting of places.". In an autumn/winter 1997-98 collection for Givenchy Haute Couture Mr. McQueen based his inspiration on a fictional fin de siècle surgeon and murderer who cut up women’s bodies and reassembled them. The showing of the collection, titled Eclect Dissect was held in a Paris medical school with medical specimens and blood red curtains decorating the stage set. The dress pictured below, constructed of lilac silk with black silk lace, jet beads, black leather and beige silk inserts depicting birds, was one of my favorites at the exhibit.
Historical references are important components of the design and story lines behind some of Mr. McQueen's garment designs. Equally significant is his fascination with the romantic and the juxtaposition of dark and light, good and evil, beauty and savagery. The following two pieces from the collections Highland Rape, autumn/winter 1995-96 and Dante autumn/winter 1996-97 are very interesting to me because of the collage of historical influence, romantic idealism and jaw-dropping skillful craftsmanship. The coat on the right from the Dante collection is the coat referenced in the anecdote that Mr. Bolton related about Mr. McQueen finishing a complex design on his own after his staff gave up in frustration.
Mr. McQueen referenced the history and landscape of his ancestral home of Scotland in many of his garments. He dealt with the history of the Highland Clearances where the English forcibly removed Scottish farmers from their lands in his Highland Rape collection for autumn/winter 1995-6 and drew upon the cold, windy, hardbitten aesthetic of the Scottish highlands in his Widows of Culloden collection for autumn/winter 2006-7. The ensemble pictured below is a fascinating combination of fabric, texture, draping and sillouhette that is faithful to tradition without the constraints of convention. Mr. McQueen's own words about the Widows of Culloden collection are “[This] collection is . . . romantic but melancholic and austere at the same time. It was gentle but you could still feel the bite of cold, the nip of the ice on the end of your nose. . . . With bustles and nipped waists, I was interested in the idea that there are no constraints on the silhouette. I wanted to exaggerate a woman’s form, almost along the lines of a classical statue.”
Ensemble Widows of Culloden, autumn/winter 2006–7, Dress of McQueen wool tartan; top of nude silk net appliquéd with black lace; underskirt of cream silk tulle.
While many of the topics and subjects that Mr. McQueen covered in his collections involve harsh contrasts and unexpected proximities, there were often elements of whimsy incorporated in differing portions. The whimsy in Mr. McQueen's collection The Girl Who Lived in the Tree for autumn/winter 2008-9 is delivered in a larger portion than in most of his other collections and gives the collection it's own unique characteristic. The dress depicted below is perhaps the softest piece in the collection and has an intriguing combination of influences that are inspire curiosity. Mr. McQueen describes the collection as the transformation of a feral woman who was living in a tree and then becomes princess when she decides to descend to the earth. A quote from Mr. McQueen about his inspiration reveals his historical reference points with "doomed" women of the past "like Catherine the Great, or Marie Antoinette". I feel that the collection, The Girl Who Lived in the Tree pulls back the covers on the fairy tale myth and shows the reality that everything, including beauty, comes at a price.
Challenging conventional ideas about what is beautiful was a one of Mr. McQueen's greatest talents and one of his lasting contributions to fashion. The VOSS collection from spring/summer 2001 dealt squarely with this topic and yielded some of Mr. McQueen's most interesting work. The ensemble pictured below is one of my favorite because it combines conventionally ugly shapes (box, straight lines) with conventionally ugly visualizations (moss on a rock) and adds extraordinarily beautiful and intricate embroidery, colors and materials to the mix - disrupting the senses.
Ensemble, VOSS, spring/summer 2001, Jacket of pink and gray wool bird’s-eye embroidered with silk thread; trouser of pink and gray wool bird’s-eye; hat of pink and gray wool bird’s-eye embroidered with silk thread and decorated with Amaranthus.
Mr. McQueen's historical knowledge and respect for tradition shows through in all of his work. The dress pictured below (close-up view) from the collection titled Scanners for autumn/winter 2003-4, is not only an exceptional example of skilled, detailed workmanship, but is respectfully accurate in its use of the traditional construction techniques used by the Japanese in their warrior outfits.
Mr. McQueen's inventiveness and eclectic inspirations result in unusual and thought provoking presentations. The collection It's Only a Game for spring/summer 2005 drew upon the chess game scene from the Harry Potter movie Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to create a scenario placing different types of women on the same plane facing off against each other. The ensemble pictured below, depicting an American footballer was worn in the showing of the collection by a model playing the role of King on the chess board.
Ensemble, It’s Only a Game, spring/summer 2005, Bodysuit and obi-style sash of lilac silk satin and chiffon embroidered with silk thread; shoulder pads and helmet of fiberglass painted with acrylics.
Video exerpt of the It's Only a Game spring/summer 2005 runway show featuring the chessboard theme.
The concept of a simple silhouette and straight forward design that, upon magnification becomes increasingly complex and intricate is a technique that Mr. McQueen mastered. The close-up shot of a dress seen below, from the Eshu collection for autumn/winter 2000-2001 has clean and elegant lines and a color transition from yellow to brown that looks to be simple and straight forward when seen on a woman in full view, however upon closer examination the glass bead embroidery intertwined with brown horse hair reveals an exquisite and complex texture, described by Mr. Bolton as a "tour de force of the couture."
Dress, Eshu, autumn/winter 2000–2001, Yellow glass beads and brown horsehair.
The time consuming and labor intensive technique of torn lace, where individual pieces of lace are cut into pieces and reassembled was pioneered by Mr. McQueen in his Highland Rape collection for autumn/winter 1995-6. The dress pictured below from this collection is a gorgeous example of how the tedious work involved in cutting and reassembling the lace pays dividends in the look of the finished product. The technique of torn lace was used again in other dresses designed by Mr. McQueen and the expertise in handling lace developed by the house of McQueen was on brilliant display in the ivory silk Chantilly lace-appliquéd bodice of Kate Middleton's wedding dress.
Dress, Highland Rape, autumn/winter 1995–96, Green and bronze cotton/synthetic lace.
The exhibit concludes with a miniature recreation of the runway stage for Mr. McQueen's Widows of Culloden collection for autumn/winter 2006-2007. On the recreated miniature stage is a fully working version of the pepper's ghost 3D hologram featuring Kate Moss that was the finale to the actual runway show. The 3D hologram is projected by the extraordinary Musion Eyeliner 3D projection system. The scene with Kate Moss moving eloquently in an ivory silk organza dress is accompanied by the beautiful and heart wrenching theme from Schindler's List. Overall I feel that Savage Beauty is an exhibit that is best appreciated alone, with no distractions and all the time in the world to absorb it's subtleties - this is especially true when viewing the final piece featuring the Widows of Culloden hologram.
Video excerpt of the finale from the Widows of Culloden runway show for Alexander McQueen's autumn/winter 2006-2007 collection.
Presentation of selected garments from the collection of Daphne Guinness
Following Andrew Bolton's tour of the Savage Beauty exhibit there was a short presentation by Kate Nobelius and Daphne Guinness where Daphne discussed her long standing relationship with Mr. McQueen as both a patron and a collaborator. Mrs. Guinness showed a small selection of pieces from her collection of Alexander McQueen garments, including some that she acquired when she purchased Isabella Blow's collection. In her presentation Mrs. Guinness offered several touching stories about Mr. McQueen's kind and caring personality as well as his passion for his work and his loyalty to those who were close to him. Mrs. Guinness recounted her first meeting with Mr. McQueen, which was a happen stance occurrence that she was unprepared for. The sensation of this first meeting and the impression that Mr. McQueen left on her is a moment that Mrs. Guinness stated has remained clear and vivid in her memory to this day.