Savage Beauty: A Tribute
by Sara Thobe, AAS Fashion Marketing
The exhibit Alexander McQueen “Savage Beauty” is the current hit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Organized by the Costume Institute, it is on view from May 4-July 31. Spectators are treated to the full breadth of British fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s work, spanning from his graduate show at St. Martin’s College where he earned his Master’s degree, to his last runway show posthumously shown following his tragic suicide in February 2010.
At 16, McQueen left school and began apprenticing with tailors Anderson and Shephard, and then later at Gieves and Hawkings, both known to be masters at clothing construction. From there he worked for costumiers where he learned to construct costumes from the 16th century to the futuristic. These were often quite melodramatic and often brutally edgy. Drawing inspiration from history continued to be a trademark of his, examples of which are scattered throughout the exhibit.
At 20, McQueen worked for Japanese designer Koji Tatsuno, who also had strong British tailoring skills. He then went to Milan to work as Romeo Gigli’s design assistant. In the early 90’s he was admitted on the spot to St Martin’s College of Art and Design where he earned his Masters Degree in fashion design. Every piece of his masters collection, (some featured in the show), was bought by Isabella Blow, an English editor and international style icon. He was then hired at an unusually young age to a top role at Givenchy where he stayed on as creative director until his death.
McQueen’s eccentric design and theatrical runway shows earned him a reputation as the British bad boy of fashion. Much of his work is characterized by the juxtaposition of contrasting elements; fragility and strength, feminine and masculine, traditional and modern, etc. There is a definite Gothic streak in McQueen, his aesthetic can be emotionally–almost violently– raw, and whimsical at the same time. His clothes are alike objects of art and his presentations of them alike performance art.
His runway show antics were known to shock the fashion industry. McQueen was not afraid to express himself, and he did so boldly. In 1992, he used human hair and crushed beetles in a fashion show. Another year, he staged a show in an insane asylum. He dressed models in chadors and hoisted them in the air where they did somersaults and pirouettes until they finally mimed their own execution.
More than once he poked fun at the fashion industry itself. In one particular show, the lights went on to reveal nothing but a box of mirrors, so that on each side of the stage the participants could actually see themselves. This went on for over an hour. The irony of this was that most of the fashionista audience did not really understand what he was doing. More recently, he had his models wear heavy absurd clownlike make-up; full of attitude, they stomped around a pile of trash boldly showing off their huge lips and gigantic hats. This show was addressing the theme of reinvention; the absurdity of the speed of creation and discarding of the new that is one of the biggest recent developments among fashion retailers (ex. UK’s Top Shop).
A recurring theme in McQueen’s womenswear design is the depiction of the femme fatale. Depicting women of fierce strength is something he liked to do. As he has said, “I design clothes because I don’t want women to look all innocent and naive, because I know what can happen to them. I want women to look stronger.” One reason he felt like this is that he grew up with sisters. He says, “I don’t like women to be taken advantage of. I disagree with that most of all. I don’t like men whistling at women in the street, I think they deserve more respect.” He also said, “I like men to keep their distance from women, I like men to be stunned by an entrance. I like people to be afraid of the women I dress.” His femme fatale both attracts and repulses. He often dressed his models to look dangerous, almost feral. He essentially changed the image of the femme fatale from one of an image of fear to one of a frightening subject. Their highly sexualized appearance is a defiance, in a way a form of an attack designed to frighten his audience.
McQueen also had a deep fascination with lesbian ‘decadence’. As he stated, “I am not saying I design my clothes for lesbians, but a lot of my best friends are strong lesbians and I design with them in mind….” He frequently used lesbian models, in fact they were often the majority.
What speaks to many about McQueen is that he said something through his work. He put passion and meaning into his creations, always thinking about the wearer and the context in which the clothes would be worn. He responded to the cruelty of the world and the foolish frivolity of much of the fashion industry and the fashion media. Through his work he addressed issues that are real and helped to change or challenge the way people think of attractive dress. He was thoughtful, bold and poignantly witty.
The Met has done a commendable job at placing his works in theatrically engaging environs as McQueen would have probably wished. They have gathered here an excellent cross-section of his work so that both the fashion novice and industry veteran can get a very full spectrum of the work of this great man. There will never be another designer like him, and to most devotees the current McQueen label lacks the angst, the soul, the heart that it once had. All the more reason to visit The Met and savor the work of this genius while you still can.
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