British couturier Alexander McQueen challenged common notions of beauty and fashion with runway collections as theatrical as they were shocking.
Lights flash as women in flowing, striped burqas fly over a strip of sharp nails. This is not a scene from a surreal arthouse film, but the finale of one of Alexander McQueen’s controversial fashion shows.
The political comment and sinister nature of his spring/summer 2000 show Eye was typical of McQueen: the clothes are just a part of the experience. The exclusive audience of his shows never knew what to expect: in the following years his shows featured spray-painting robots, models as chess pieces, holograms and a ring of fire.
Curator of the ‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’ exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute, Andrew Bolton, says that the late designer always started every collection with a concept for the runway presentations, rather than the fashion.
‘Every collection told a story. When you watched one of McQueen’s collections you were always having these feelings of awe, wonder, fear or terror. They were certainly a sublime experience, something that affected the audience. He always said that he didn’t care if you liked his collections or not, as long as you felt something.’
At age 16, Lee Alexander McQueen (1969-2010) started as an apprentice at Anderson & Sheppard Tailors in Savile Row, London, whose clients included Prince Charles. After working for various fashion houses, McQueen furthered his training at Central Saint Martins. Influential fashion stylist Isabella Blow bought his entire graduation collection in 1992 and within 10 years he was one of the most notorious and influential fashion designers in the world. As well as launching his own fashion brand, he was head designer at Givenchy from 1996-2001. Soon after his beloved mother died in 2010, the troubled McQueen committed suicide.
His challenging shows and avant garde collections made him known as a design maverick who influenced fashion greatly over his career. He was awarded a CBE in 2003, International Designer of the Year at the Council of Fashion Designer Awards in 2003 and the British Designer of the Year award four times.
‘Alexander McQueen was best known for his astonishing and extravagant runway presentations, which were given dramatic scenarios and narrative structures that suggested avant-garde installation and performance art,’ said Andrew Bolton. ‘His fashions were an outlet for his emotions, an expression of the deepest, often darkest, aspects of his imagination. He was a true romantic in the Byronic sense of the word—he channeled the sublime.’
From his Central Saint Martins postgraduate collection of 1992 to his final runway presentation, which took place after his death in February 2010, McQueen challenged and expanded the understanding of fashion beyond utility to a conceptual expression of culture, politics, and identity.
Although his influences were broad—drawing from history, art, film and music—his interest in the natural elements was his most enduring, seen in the barrage of elements endured by his catwalk models, who struggled with rain, wind, snow and fire on the runway.
His approach to fashion, though, combined traditional skills with revolutionary subversions of dressmaking, challenging common ideas of both beauty and clothing.
His materials went beyond leather and lace, catwalk creations leaning towards the sculptural including diverse materials such as microscope slides, clam shells, aluminum, horsehair, fiberglass and fresh flowers.
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As original as his creations were, his technical skills of tailoring and clothes construction are undeniable. He famously once said: ‘You’ve got to know the rules to break them. That’s what I’m here for, to demolish the rules but to keep the tradition.’
The Costume Institute exhibition (May 4 – August 7) celebrates the creativity of McQueen with one hundred ensembles and seventy accessories from McQueen’s prolific nineteen-year career. Drawn primarily from the Alexander McQueen Archive in London, along with pieces from the Givenchy Archive in Paris and private collections, signature designs including the ‘bumster’ trouser, the kimono jacket, and the three-point ‘origami’ frock coat will be on view.
Thomas P. Campbell, Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, said: ‘Alexander McQueen’s iconic designs constitute the work of an artist whose medium of expression was fashion.’
The galleries showcase recurring themes and concepts in McQueen’s work, which are reflected in the different sections’ names: The Romantic Mind, Romantic Gothic, Romantic Nationalism, Romantic Exoticism, Romantic Primitivism, Romantic Naturalism.
The exhibition’s title aptly reflects the contrasts McQueen displayed in his works: juxtapositions of the natural and the unnatural, man and machine, the traditional and the innovative. His imagination certainly had a savage beauty.