Taking in McQueen’s “Savage Beauty”

July 20th, 2011

Metropolitan Museum of Art photos
Romantic Nationalism was a recurring theme in Alexander McQueen’s work. He drew on his Scottish heritage and its relationship to the British empire.

NEW YORK — As great as it would seem to live in the city that never sleeps and have access to every cultural phenomenon, the reality is there’s never enough time to see/do all. I saw a handful of fashion-oriented Hawaiites who moved there in the last couple of years, and surprised to hear various individuals had not yet checked out Brooklyn Flea, hadn’t heard of the much buzzed about High Line, and hadn’t yet visited the “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The exhibition opened May 4 and will close Aug. 7. Those who want to see the show have been asking me if it’s worthwhile going. I would have to say yes, with a caveat. McQueen, who committed suicide last February, was a fashion genius, and the show traces his evolution from his From his Central Saint Martins postgraduate collection of 1992 to his final runway presentation that took place shortly after his death.

His school collection continues to inspire designers and influence what we are seeing on retail floors today, nearly 20 years later! So yes, to see his genius on display in one place is amazing.

The part that makes it a bummer is it’s summer, and  the city and museum are overflowing with tourists who get in the way of enjoying the experience. At first, I thought, “Wow, it’s great that so many people are interested in fashion. I must be covering the right field.”

Then the cynic in me thought, these people are not really into fashion. They just came for macabre reasons, to gawk at the “weirdness” of a guy who killed himself. Even so, I got the feeling people left spellbound by the power of what they saw.

Nadine Kam photo
At the entrance to the exhibit, we were stopped at the rope, so I took a picture on my iPhone to Tweet it and was told by security, “No pictures.” So I didn’t take any in the exhibition, but there were a lot of other people sneaking photos. They really can’t prevent it unless they confiscate cameras at the entrance, and that would be more time-consuming than it already is.

I was lucky to have run into Cameron Maheras of Fendi while we were waiting to catch the same flight from Honolulu on June 20. She was en route to Italy for the European shows. She said she had been to the McQueen exhibit twice, and warned me about the crowds and the importance of getting there early. She also told me not to miss the hologram of Kate Moss, which had been presented as the finale to McQueen’s 2006-’07 “Widows of Culloden” fall/winter collection. In the video—one of several that can be viewed at the Met URL highlighted at top—Kate, an ethereal apparition dressed in a billowy creation by McQueen, and bathed in white light, slowly recedes into the distance, a bright spark that soon fades to black. Maheras said she got emotional watching it, as it reminded her of McQueen’s all-too-brief life.

The museum opens at 9:30 a.m., and I got there at about 10 a.m. At that time, the line to get in the exhibit was short, and after one stop at the rope just outside the exhibit entry, I was able to get in. If you do get there late, it’s suggested you become a museum member to bypass the entrance line, but that doesn’t help you once you’re within the exhibition space. There were probably about 500 people ahead of me in the exhibition space, shuffling past the displays. It’s impossible to really take in the details, because there are too many people in front of you and behind you, waiting for their couple of seconds to study a particular ensemble.

Metropolitan Museum of Art photos
Another aspect of the display, titled Romantic Exoticism, showed McQueen’s fascination with Asian textiles and embroidery.

The exhibit has the feel of a house of horrors with its dark interior and McQueen’s insistence on finding the beauty in death, violence, decomposition and all that most people consider ugly and horrifying. His resulting exquisite creations gave the show its name.

Toward the end of the exhibit, there is a display that has the audience peering into a glass box, that was part of his 2001 “VOSS” spring/summer presentation. When the box opens, viewers are confronted by a view of a flabby, nude woman. At the end it’s revealed that we are peering through a two-way mirror, and ends with the audience, staring—not at models—but at the reality of their own image.

See it if you can, but if you can’t, the Met website offers a great primer to McQueen’s legacy.

“Dress No. 13,” spring/summer 1999 of white cotton muslin with underskirt of white synthetic tulle, was spray-painted black and yellow by robots during the course of the fashion show. The video, with model Shalom Harlow, is screened above the display, and can be viewed at the Met website.

The “Plato’s Atlantis” collection, spring/summer 2010, was McQueen’s last fully realized collection before his death last February. It is the one that introduced the otherworldly 10-inch, curved armadillo shoe. Below is his “Jellyfish” ensemble from the collection.

It’s worth noting that the masks and head treatments that lend the finishing touch to a majority of the ensembles were created for the exhibition by McQueen collaborator, hair stylist Guido Palau.

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