• July 30, 2011

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty

Renée Kurz, former vol­un­teer in India, now working as a fashion designer, anal­yses the exhi­bi­tion that unex­pect­edly turned out to be one of the most suc­cessful ever orga­nized at the MET: Alexander McQueen, Savage Beauty.

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.” — McQueen

We arrived at the Met before the doors opened on the morning of June 17th, putting our­selves in a thick queue to enter along with hun­dreds of others into the world of Alexander McQueen. This exhi­bi­tion turned fanatic sen­sa­tion show­cases this late designer’s immense con­tri­bu­tion to fashion over a 19-year career; a pro­lific yet all too short life that trag­i­cally ended in sui­cide last February in his London flat. And now over a hun­dred of McQueen’s works are on dis­play in New York, attracting unbe­liev­able crowds that rush past the per­ma­nent col­lec­tions of old mas­ters towards a 21st cen­tury master of fashion who sculpted the woman’s body with pre­ci­sion tai­loring and Grecian draping. I believe many of those run­ning to the Met have the same ques­tions as we: Who was Alexander McQueen? And why is this exhi­bi­tion that demands and exten­sion so pop­ular?

Those ques­tions began to be answered as we entered the dim lighting and haunting music of the roman­ti­cally themed, darkly auto­bi­o­graph­ical rooms. And the first two dresses set the tone: one of med­ical slides tinted red to resemble blood and another of white razor clam shells… two iconic pieces that demon­strate the origin of all of McQueen’s col­lec­tions: his obses­sion with oppo­sites within a gaze of nat­ural roman­ti­cism fueled by an intense imag­i­na­tion. He began as a tailor in the pres­ti­gious schools of London, and the first room of black sil­hou­ettes high­lights those honed skills and his drive for per­fec­tion. Redefined suits with empow­ering col­lars that seem to ele­vate the head along with slight curved and lifted shoul­ders, two com­po­nents of a sig­na­ture McQueen look. Each piece emits an integrity of line and a cer­ti­fied inten­tion of shape, along with a bold state­ment of strength deeming that anyone who sees a woman in one of these suits should be afraid.

“I spent a long time learning how to con­struct clothes, which is impor­tant to do before you can decon­struct them,” states McQueen. From the striking suits which seemed to rep­re­sent his foun­da­tional struc­ture, we entered his paradigm of horror and romance… fur­ther demon­strating his well-known efforts of bal­ancing strength and sen­su­ality. Here we entered the dark­ness of McQueen’s imag­i­na­tion and his capacity to trans­late such visions into cou­ture works of art. They are not just stag­nant pieces of orig­i­nality, but char­ac­ters within a nar­ra­tive that pos­sess a per­son­ality and emo­tion, each chal­lenging our con­cept of beau­ty—ex­actly what McQueen wanted to do. From gothic black horse hair and studs to ethe­real feathers and gauze… angels and demons to Joan of Arc and nation­al­istic gore. He was also fas­ci­nated with acces­sories such as shoes, neck­laces, and head pieces, for which he col­lab­o­rated with other designers for very sur­re­al­istic looks such as a swarm of hand made red but­ter­flies. The videos playing in his room of curiosi­ties dis­played McQueen’s per­for­mance art aes­thetic of runway events such as a vogue game of chess inspired by Harry Potter or a model on a turntable whose white dress is being spray painted by two robots.

McQueen’s main con­cern was about pushing the bound­aries of his imag­i­na­tion… per­haps even living more guided by his imag­i­na­tion than by reality. For him it was about cre­ating other worlds often which were inspired by the nat­ural world or even speaking out as an alter­na­tive to the ordered world. His last col­lec­tion was titled Plato’s Atlantis and was inspired by the writ­ings of Charles Darwin, but McQueen took the oppo­site approach of evo­lu­tion and imag­ined devo­lu­tion. The prints of jel­ly­fish aqua grays, snake skin and scales enforce the idea of man returning to the ocean and results in an overall science fic­tion look. In his own words, “I try and modify fashion like a sci­en­tist by offering what is rel­e­vant to today and what will con­tinue to be so tomorrow. I do this to trans­form men­tal­i­ties more than the body.” His themes of predator and prey, light­ness and dark­ness, life and death are time­less opposed dichotomies that charge all cre­ative expres­sion and human ten­sion. His work def­i­nitely opens us up to worlds beyond; espe­cially in his more exotic col­lec­tions span­ning the world from Africa to Japan, as he brings us into his own search for meaning… a search that is more dark than light.

I left the exhi­bi­tion filled with many thoughts and ques­tions regarding my own craft as a designer and seam­stress… pushing me to go deeper into my own phi­los­ophy of fashion; answering fur­ther for myself why I feel called, and simply love, to make clothes. And though on many levels I was dis­turbed and pro­voked by McQueen’s fash­ions, looking objec­tively at his work, you can not deny that he was a cre­ative genius and an expert craftsman that changed the face of the fashion world in many ways. This change hap­pened namely in being com­mitted to his unique expres­sion as an artist and upholding the integrity of exquisitely sewn gar­ments. It is clearly seen that there was no room for com­pro­mise or medi­ocrity in the work ini­ti­ated by his hands and skill­fully passed on to loyal assis­tants. He would go to what­ever lengths to follow through on an idea… such as for the “oyster” dress which is made of hun­dreds and hun­dreds of silk organza cir­cles, showing off his softer side.

Many admire McQueen’s deep com­mit­ment to craft and his revi­tal­iza­tion of the work of arti­sans in a cul­ture that has lost regard for the artisan. This aspect inspired me greatly to go fur­ther with my own work; to improve my skills in an effort to better express my own cre­ative ideas and to also work towards reviving the role of the artisan in society. Art and fashion is a barom­eter of a cul­ture and I believe McQueen made that barom­eter vibrate. He brought art to the runway/stage in a very rad­ical and orig­inal way, and the tra­di­tion of dress making was main­tained in the crafts­man­ship of each unique piece. McQueen became an icon of orig­i­nality that cor­re­sponded with many artists and celebri­ties who looked to him as an exem­plar of indi­vid­u­al­istic expres­sion.

Maybe many are flocking to the exhi­bi­tion because of his celebrity status and the tragedy of his life, but my hope is that once they are face to face with his work they are led beyond the often super­fi­ciality of the fashion world. That they walk away with a dif­ferent gaze on fashion; that it is not just a com­modity that fuel’s a cap­i­talist con­sumer economy, but also, and more so, that it is regarded as art that expresses the sub­lime and the fury of the human soul. To realize, as with most artists, that to express our­selves is a neces­sity to sur­vive. Though it is not the end all be all, as it clearly wasn’t for McQueen. We are called to see more within Alexander McQueen than the glimmer of what meets the eye. We are called to see his tire­less work and rest­less soul; his beau­tiful and pas­sionate heart which beheld so much, maybe too much. We are called to have com­pas­sion on an artist that could trans­late his imag­i­na­tion as vividly as reality in a very con­crete way with very simple mate­rials, yet suffer within its limits. We cel­e­brate Alexander McQueen’s con­tri­bu­tions to the world, and mourn that the world could not recip­ro­cate.

Renee K.

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