Most of us have never had the honor of seeing legendary, avant-garde designer Alexander McQueen’s haute couture creations in person. Thanks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, however, visitors could admire McQueen’s work first- hand in the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition (on display from May 4th to August 7th, 2011).
Typically, I expect a relaxing day of cultural indulgence at the Met amongst tourists, art students and other New Yorkers escaping the whirlwind of urban life. But as I made my way to the museum’s second floor Cantor galleries, the calm energy I was accustomed to was replaced by an undeniable excitement in the air. I was quickly directed into a crowded line where I immediately observed that instead of fanny-packs and sketchpads, my fellow museum visitors were equipped with Tory Burch handbags, Manolo stilettos and iPads. This was not your typical mid-week museum crowd, and people couldn’t have been less interested in the 19th century sculptures surrounding us as they chatted on cell-phones and sent emails during the 15-minute wait.
The marble floors and classic columns of the Met were amiss once entering the galleries, which housed approximately 100 ensembles and 70 accessories spanning McQueen’s 19-year career. Black lacquer platforms and Victorian Gothic mirrors transformed the space into something you would expect a members-only nightclub in the future to look like. There was an apparent intimacy created by relatively narrow walkways, and between McQueen’s sensual designs and subtly suggestive music I was surprised at how erotic a museum could be. This was no accident, of course, as creative director Sam Gainsbury and production designer Joseph Bennett were also production designers for McQueen’s shows, and this presentation brilliantly echoed the distinct sexuality that was always present in his designs.
Savage Beauty featured 6 of McQueen’s collections, including: Highland Rape (A/W ‘95-‘96), Number 13 (S/S ‘99), VOSS (S/S ’01), Irere (S/S ’03), Plato’sAtlantis (S/S ’10), Angels & Demons (A/W ’10-’11). Thankfully the ensembles were not displayed in some mundane chronological or collective order, however. Rather, they were organized into themes examining different concepts that carried through McQueen’s work. “The Romantic Mind” examined his technical ingenuity, while “Romantic Gothic” brought his obsession with historicism and life and death to the forefront. “Romantic Primitivism”, “Romantic Naturalism” and “Romantic Nationalism” each displayed McQueen’s work as influenced respectively through ideas of the noble savage, raw materials and nature, and patriotism. In “Romantic Exoticism,” the cultural influences of the Far East became apparent.
Perhaps my favorite stop on my journey to forever imprint every detail of McQueen’s work into my brain was the “Cabinet of Curiosities”. Not only did the “Cabinet” feature the fetishist accessories designed in collaboration with famed milliners Dai Rees and Philip Treacy, but it displayed iconic pieces from 10 of McQueen’s theatrical runway shows while videos of the shows themselves were projected directly above them. I watched as clothes and accessories were transformed from static objects on a screen to a tangible work of art and I believe that in that moment, whether McQueen obsessed or fashion-handicapped, one could truly appreciate the painstaking details and artistic genius of this iconic designer.
Unfortunately, McQueen’s tragic death has left a void in the fashion industry and we will no longer be able to catch a glimpse into this eccentric and brilliant mind. In Savage Beauty, however, the Met made his inspired creations accessible to the masses. In a presentation befitting such an exceptional career, we were able to once again reflect on and celebrate the artist that was Alexander McQueen.
Photos courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.