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.