Thursday, May 5, 2011
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum
At the entrance to the show are 2 extraordinary mannequins. The first in red glass beads and a sea of scarlet ostrich feathers and the other a long, severe gown made completely of 8” long razor clam shells layered from neck to floor like an indigenous costume of some lost tribe. Immediately and jarringly I see that I’m in a world not even remotely of my making. The first room which shows his ground breaking graduate collection from London’s Central Saint Martin’s College is so conceptually complete and audacious that I’m standing and staring like a tourist who’s visiting the planet Earth for the first time. The adjoining wall has this written on it: “ You’ve got to know the rules to break them…” It’s abundantly clear that in the first moments of his life as a designer, McQueen learned the fine and complicated craft of tailoring and then spent the rest of his career undoing, redefining and subverting it to his own ends. Unlike many designers, his knowledge of the techniques of cutting, draping and tailoring cloth gave him the ability to leap from the highest peak and fly wherever he wished. Exquisite jackets, suits, tuxedos, and jumpsuits stand all around like specimens from another world. They begin as recognizable garments and then morph into something else. His quiet, masterful hands make it all look as though they were always this way. The patterns are all drafted and cut by his own hands… no army of assistants, yet, and still they’re precise, perfect. From there I hear a howling wind, baying wolves and a sense of foreboding rises in my stomach. This next room is a hall of mirrors, dark, antiqued, smoky mirrors that rise 15 feet overhead with what appears to be vitrines like the Victorian scientist’s Cabinets of Curiosities. The spirits of Poe, Darwin and yes, McQueen are loose in this disturbing space where the woman has devolved to resemble ravens, wraiths and ghosts. Black is the color of everything. Leather harnesses snake all over the bodice of a shredded gown with millions of ruffled layers. The harnesses, which could be described as sado-masochistic accessories, are more a cryptic form of lace with their intricate perforations and the sheer multiplicity of their number. Farther along the wall is a model with a pair of wings made of laser cut balsa wood attached to her body by a harness. It just stops you in your tracks. I wait for the guard to chase down another camera toting tourist and shoot it for posterity. There is yet another piece that makes me feel as though I’m in the presence of something divine. She’s a creature completely rendered in black duck feathers. Think the final scene of Black Swan and multiply that costume by 1000 and you begin to get the power of this creation. The room that is exceptional in its breadth of oddly, customized monitors showing segments of his shows, countless examples of shoes, jewels, head dresses, even a coral branch as a crown, armor, and other accessories was like something more akin to the Museum of Natural History. A group of artist collaborators, namely Philip Treacy, Shawn Leane whose cast silver crown of thorns and matching thorn bramble that climbed the full length of an arm, and Dai Rees Balsa wood wings and a skirt of the same material that was as circular fan all laser cut like lace was as intimidatingly profound as McQueen's clothing. There's simply way too much to try to share without going on forever. I admit that my feeling about McQueen was that he was a bit of a renegade with pretensions of being a couturier and suffering from some self indulgent bad mood for the sake of the press and stores who always think a designer has to have a gimmick to be taken seriously. I was wrong. The show goes on and on exploring his vision of the Romantics, his Scottish heritage and the direction his view of the world was going. Is his vision savage? I’d have to say yes. Is the work beautiful? Beyond question. I have a much greater respect for his commitment to his work and his passion for his dark muse. Though the skill involved in the expression of these ideas is cerebral in the extreme, mapping these deep, disturbing layers of the soul is something only very few have the courage to do. Alexander McQueen was an artist of the highest order. His contribution to the world of fashion will be remembered for many years to come and his loss is a hole that will never be filled. I walked away feeling that he said what he came here to say. He wasn’t cut off or cut short. His message has a clear beginning and end. Only the end is a clarion call to the rest of us to go forward with eyes more open and searching, ears to hear the sounds that disturb, and hearts that are willing to embrace the total experience of life. You need to see this show; it’s beautiful.