NEW YORK — When British designer Alexander McQueen took his own life in February 2010, he left an indelible void in the fashion world. Known for outlandish shows and shock-and-awe designs, McQueen established himself as both a fashion bad boy, and one of the industry’s most creative voices. His artistry is properly celebrated in the exhibition “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibit was recently extended through Aug. 7.
Dark and haunting, much like the man himself, the exhibit is a retrospective of some of McQueen’s most iconic designs, ranging from his postgraduate 1992 work through his final womenswear collection of 2010. The Andrew Bolton-curated show opens with rows of jacketed mannequins, celebrating McQueen’s passion for tailoring. Early pieces such as the military-inspired Dante coat, with its intricate gold bullion cord embroidery and exaggerated high collar, show McQueen’s meticulous attention to detail and flair for the dramatic.
Those traits only magnified over the course of his career, and the show captures that growth brilliantly. Set against a dark mirror backdrop designed by the McQueen production team of Joseph Bennett and Sam Gainsbury, gothic looks such as the “Horn of Plenty” dress made of black duck feathers with puffed sleeves that suggest wings and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” a billowing coat of black parachute silk blowing in a wind tunnel, paired with a black Zorro-masked hat, bring the drama.
The centerpiece is a cabinet of curiosities room, displaying outlandish accessories, many seemingly unwearable, along with pieces such as Dress No. 13, a white cotton dress splattered with black and yellow spray paint. Above the dress, a video screen plays the closing scene of McQueen’s 1999 spring/summer show, when model Shalom Harlow stood on a spinning platform in the garment, while two robots menacingly sprayed her and the dress with paint.
Other displays highlight McQueen’s social commentary, including his controversial “Highland Rape” dress, a delicate, tattered frock of cotton and synthetic lace in an almost mournful green and bronze palette. McQueen called the dress a symbolic representation of England’s rape of Scotland, his father’s homeland. That theme of Scottish pride is also evident in his famous tartan dresses from the Widows of Culloden 2006-2007 fall/winter collection, inspired by the final battle of the Jacobite Risings.
The rest of the show plays like an eye-candy buffet with pieces such as the regal “Girl Who Lived in a Tree” ensemble from the 2008-2009 fall/winter collection – a rich, crimson silk-satin long coat over an ivory silk chiffon dress glittering with red crystal beads. The “Sarabande” dress from spring/summer 2007 is covered almost entirely in fresh and silk flowers while the “Voss” dress from spring/summer 2001 features a bodice of glass medical slides painted red, leading into a long fluff of a skirt made of red and black ostrich feathers. A miniature version of the Kate Moss hologram from the 2006 Paris show plays near the Plato’s Atlantis “Jellyfish Armadillo” boots, which were worn by Lady Gaga in her “Bad Romance” video.
Many pieces in the collection belonged to McQueen’s close friend and muse Isabella Blow, who took her own life in 2007. They add another layer to the sadness that permeates the exhibition. Wandering through McQueen’s designs, one can’t help but think of him as an artist – whose medium just happened to be clothing – rather than merely a fashion designer. It’s a realization that makes his death all the more tragic, as it’s not hard to imagine all the art he had yet to create.