The show has been open some 2 plus weeks as I write this & I’ve yet to truly find the words to adequately express he impact of the McQueen retrospective “Savage Beauty” currently on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York. While I was admittedly only a cursory follower of McQueen whilst he designed – & was predictably moved by his untimely & tragic end – it wasn’t until viewing this retrospective that I came to true terms with just what a monumental loss the aesthetic world suffered when this creative mega-genius took his life. Creative genius of this ilk is such a rare occurrence that when one is confronted with it, the effect is seismic in scope. I will never look at design with the same critical barometer. All else seems somehow diminished, somehow less inspired & seems to be originating from a less lofty creative foundation. In fact, as I left the show after the press showing, my initial tweet was: “If anyone interested in design leaves this show without feeling somewhat not worthy, they are simply deluding themselves.” I’ve been back two more times & the end result is no less humbling.
The show begins with two show stoppers, a red sparkling & feather plumed number & a striking spiked piece that is dramatic to exponential effect. Upon closer inspection, you realize that the red bodice is actually red glass medical specimen slides set off atop an ostrich plumed skirt & the spiked piece is a dress completely covered in razor clam shells as palettes. Thus the aesthetic rollercoaster ride begins. The next two pieces in the show are two pieces from McQueen’s graduate collection from Central St. Martin’s & it is immediately obvious that McQueen’s “look” wasn’t developed, but rather born from the beginning. These pieces were of a caliber that they could have been pulled from any of his collections from throughout his career versus from a college project. The details of the garments explain that the pieces are lined in human hair samples & the labels themselves consist of actual locks of McQueen’s hair, a practice he quickly abandoned as his collections began to sell. These first two pieces were from the private collection of the late Isabella Blow, who was McQueen’s earliest benefactor & personally purchased his entire graduate collection, thus launching his career.
The balance of the show was divided into thematic blocks ranging from Fetish to Medieval Tartans to Reptilian Aquatic themes. Each “theme” area included pieces from various seasons. The garments themselves, almost entirely on loan from the McQueen House Archives, while truly being the stars of this show were greatly enhanced by an installation that was world class & unrivaled by any installation that I’ve ever seen at any museum anywhere on any continent. The curatorial staff at The Met outdid themselves &, I feel it’s safe to say, have effectively set the new standard by which excellence in historical costume installations will be measured going forward. Each room was so meticulously detailed that the clothing looked even better. As an example, the “candle” stick sconces in the Medieval Tartan area had the flames randomly moving as if to simulate the flickering of a real flame. Attention to detail of this level deserves to be called out & is the museum equivalent to the couture being shown. Additionally, several of McQueen’s show “moods” were restaged in miniature to give the visitor a glimpse into what it was like to attend the shows themselves, which were consistent high points of the Paris show schedule. There was even a miniature model of the famous hologram show featuring Kate Moss as a ghostly figure being blown about in the middle of the room in a many layered chiffon gown.
In conclusion, run, as fast as you can, to The Met to see this show. Don’t wait until the end of the run for the crowds to diminish, for two reasons: 1) You’ll want to go again (I’ve already been 3 times) & 2) I suspect that the crowds aren’t going to diminish any time soon… also, rent the headset to accompany the show. It is packed full of anecdotal commentary by the curator, McQueen devotees & most notably by Sarah Burton, McQueen’s long-time 1st Assistant & now Creative Director who explains in detail how many of the pieces were created. It’s the perfect complement to perfection.
“Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” is on display @ The Metropolitan Museum until July 31st, 2011
-R. Scott French