RTT Exclusive look > Alexander McQueen “Savage Beauty” at The Met Museum

Just standing right outside The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (a.k.a. The Met) at Fifth Avenue gave me goosebumps as I contained my excitement (and sanity) for the fashion “exhibition of the century”, quoted by Laila Lu, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty.

For all the Alexander McQueen fans out there, including myself, this exhibition has once again, reassured my firm stand that Alexander McQueen is and will always be my favourite designer of all time. And for the rest of the fashionatics, go for the exhibition (if not, continue reading) and you’ll totally get what I mean.

“I want to be the purveyor of a certain silhouette or a way of cutting, so that when I’m dead and gone, people will know that the twenty first century was started by a McQueen.” – Alexander Mcqueen.

The exhibition depicts the journey of McQueen’s fashion career. Numerous quotes by the designer adorned the space, and with mannequins dressed in the key pieces of his collections, easily transported the viewers into his world. There are six sections in the exhibition.

The Romantic Mind

Presenting McQueen’s graduation collection, Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victim in a concrete space, which is inspired by McQueen’s first atelier in Hoxton Square. The pieces portray his thought-to-execution process, how he harnesses his imagination into the actual construction of his garment, and also his fascination with Victorian culture. A significant piece in his collection is the coat (below), made of pink silk satin printed in thorn pattern lined in white silk with encapsulated human hair.

“I want to empower women. I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.”  – Alexander McQueen.

Romantic Gothic

Four collections,  Dante, AW 1996 (above left), Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, AW 2002 (above right) coat of black parachute silk; trouser of black synthetic and hat of black silk satin by Philip Treacy, Eclect Dissect, AW 1997 (below left) and, the unofficially entitled Angels and Demons, AW 2010, are shown with McQueen’s historical references of the Victorian Gothic. “There’s something . . . kind of Edgar Allan Poe, kind of deep and kind of melancholic about my collections,” McQueen noted.

Especially in the Angels and Demons collection, the dresses were the juxtaposition of old and new. Find out Sarah Burton’s, Creative Director or Alexander McQueen, account of the last look of his collection here.

“I design from the side; that way I get the worst angle of the body. You’ve got all the lumps and bumps, the S-bend of the back, the bum. That way I get a cut and proportion and silhouette that works all the way round the body.” – Alexander McQueen.

Cabinet of Curiosities

Alexander McQueen’s use of extraordinary accessories in his collections is simply mind-blowing. Here, we get to admire (and drool at) one-of-a-kind creations produced by McQueen in collaboration with accessory designers, including the milliners Dai Rees and Philip Treacy and the jewelers Shaun Leane, Erik Halley, and Sarah Harmarnee.

The ten most defining moments of McQueen’s showmanship are played in video recording, including the making of the dress from No.13 SS 1999 (below) spray painted by two robots, worn by model Shalom Harlow. Her account of the experience was described as ‘complete abandonment’ and ‘agressively sexual’, with no exchange of words between her and the designer at all to create spotaneity.

Metallic mouthpieces had a key influence on Alexander McQueen’s SS collections. The pieces shown are the product of the collaboration with Shaun Leane. Jaw bone mouthpiece, from Untitled, SS 1998 (above left), face disc and fan earrings for the Irere SS 2003 (below). Every creation surpassed the conventionality of design and is as intriguing as the other.

Sarah Harmarnee’s collaboration includes the armor (above left) of silver-plated metal for Joan, AW 1998-99, and more of Shaun Leane for Alexander McQueen are “Crown of Thorns” headpiece and “Thorn” armpiece for Dante, AW 1996.

“It is important to look at death because it is a part of life. It is a sad thing, melancholy but romantic at the same time. It is the end of a cycle – everything has to end. The cycle of life is positive because it gives room for new things.” – Alexander McQueen.

One of the most memorable headpieces by Philip Treacy for McQueen is the butterfly headpiece for La Dame Bleue, SS 2008, to commemorate style icon, Isabella Blow. It is made of turkey feathers painted and shaped like butterflies. “The model became 7 feet tall,” Treacy noted. McQueen never fails to create otherworldly looks that leave deep impressions in his audience.

Philip Treacy also shared his experience in the creation of bird headpiece (below) for The Girl Who Lived in the Tree AW 2008, made entirely of wood. For his account in search of the perfect wood piece, read here.

Another work of art by Phlip Treacy is the “Chinese Garden” hat for It’s Only a Game SS 2005, made of carved cork, worn by model, Gemma Ward.

The shoe (above) of tan leather is from Natural Dis-tinction Unnatural Selection SS 2009. Alexander McQueen took inspiration from the traditional clogs of the Japanese.

From Plato’s Atlantis SS 2010, we took a closer look at the making of the ‘alien’ shoe with the before-and-after looks, from its mould to the actual shoe itself, using modeling clay and white synthetic.

The special appearence of world-class Paralympic athlete, Aimee Mullins, wearing Ensemble from No.13 SS 1999 (below left) launched her career in modelling; she is the face of L’oreal cosmetics. The corset is made of brown leather, skirt of cream silk lace and prosthetic legs of carved elm wood. “Nobody knew they were prostetic legs,” Mullins said.

The dress (below right) is from the It’s Only a Game, SS 2005 collection; made of lilac leather and horsehair.

Worn by Caroline Trentini for In Memory of Elizabeth Howe Salem 1692 AW 2007-8, the bodysuit (above) of gold plastic with gold paillettes is inspired by “McQueen’s mother’s fascination with genealogy which led him to a relative who’d been hanged as a result of witch trials in Salem,” Tim Blanks noted.

Romantic Nationalism

Alexander McQueen’s patriotism was of great influence to his collections, especially so in Highlane Rape AW 1995, Widows of Culloden AW 2006 and The Girl Who Lived in the Tree AW 2008. Despite his Scottish roots, McQueen was also very closely bonded to the English history. This gallery depicts the contrast between his designs inspired by Scottish and English histories and cultures.

“London’s where I was brought up. It’s where my heart is and where I get my inspiration,” McQueen said.

A particular dress that Sarah Jessica Parker wore a variation of for the Anglomania Met Ball in 2006, is the dress (above) of McQueen wool tartan; top of nude silk net appliquéd with black lace; underskirt of cream silk tulle, from Widows of Culloden AW 2006.

SJP’s experience with Alexander McQueen as a date for the Met Ball can be found here.

“There is no way back for me now. I am going to take you on journeys you’ve never dreamed were possible.” – Alexander McQueen.

The Hologram

As a group of people surrounded the dark space, I decided to take a peek and when Kate Moss appeared in the hologram, finale of Widows of Culloden AW 2006, I gasped and stared in awe.

The original idea was to do the whole show as a hologram, but due to time constraint, given that the collection would have to be completed so far in advance to be ready to film, it being just for the finale was equally incredible.

Romantic Exoticism

This part of the gallery showcases collections that inspired Alexander McQueen especially the cultures of China and Japan. According to curator, Andrew Bolton, “We wanted very much to give the idea of a music box. So we used mirrors to give an idea of infinity, and also rotating turntables.”Admiring his creations in all angles, particularly the embroidery work, was a great satisfaction.

Alexander McQueen’s reconfiguration of tradition costumes in It’s Only a Game, SS 2005 collection explained the his attraction to significant features of the clothing such as the kimono collar, high-waisted belt, and flower and cranes embroidery. Each ensemble corresponded to a particular chess piece representing the idea of a chess match between America and Japan.

Supermodel, Naomi Campbell recalled that “fittings were quick” and his shows were the “most terrifying but after, the most fun” as “you got to push yourself to perform something special.”

The other collection that emphasized a lot on exotic garments was VOSS, SS 2001. In the space was a huge mirror box with three main looks (above) focused on patchwork of Japanese influence, like that of the show and then it turned into the video footage of the finale where the small box within the larger box had walls crashing down, revealing a naked lady with moths fluttering around her. Alexander McQueen was inspired by a photograph by Joel-Peter Witkin entitled Sanitarium.

The naked lady was journalist, Michelle Olly and she shares her experience here.

Romantic Primitivism

Mcqueen constantly “drew on noble savage living in harmony with the natural world, tipping the moral balance in favour of natural man.” One of his showcases of the play with animals and reptiles was a bodysuit (above left) from It’s a Jungle Out There, AW 1997 made of brown leather with bleached denim and taxidermy crocodile heads.

“Animals… fascinate me because you can find a force, an energy, a fear that also exists in sex.” – Alexander McQueen.

Another key piece was a dress of beige leather; crinoline of metal wire (above left) from Eshu, AW 2000 collection. Also in the collection, McQueen uses black synthetic hair to create a heavily textured coat (below left).

“Sometimes it wasn’t as complicated as a big special effects and a finale. And I think what Lee felt was that he had found this big empty location that was very raw; the collection was very raw,” Sam Gainsbury noted, fashion show producer of Eshu.

The highlight of the gallery is the “Oyster” dress from Irere SS 2003.

“The skirt is made out of hundreds and hundreds of circles of organza. Then, with a pen, what Lee did was he drew organic lines. And then all these circles were cut, joined together, and then applied in these lines along the skirt. So you created this organic, oyster-like effect, ” Sarah Burton shared.

One of my favourite ensembles is the dress (above right) from Widows of Culloden, AW 2006 made of pheasant feathers. Using raw materials like fresh flowers, clams, mussels and feathers and turning them into stunning work of art, is a natural talent that very few fashion designers possess.

“Birds in flight fascinate me. I admire eagles and falcons. I’m inspired by a feather but also its color, its graphics, its weightlessness and its engineering. It’s so elaborate. In fact I try and transpose the beauty of a bird to women.” – Alexander McQueen.

Romantic Naturalism

The end of the exhibition presented Plato’s Atlantis, SS 2010, which was also McQueen’s last collection. It was the first ever collection of the fashion house to be live-streamed online “in an attempt to make fashion into an interactive dialogue with the audience.”

“It was the idea of sort of the reversal of evolution, how life would evolve back into the water if the ice caps melted and we were being reclaimed by nature. We had all these engineered prints that he’d developed, sort of looking at the morphing of species, natural camouflages, and aerial views of the land,” Sarah Burton noted.

Most of the pieces in the collection are made of silk jacquard in patterns of reptiles like snakes (below left), and landscapes such as glaciers, embroidered with various colours of enamel paillettes. The futuristic look created by incorporating various aspects of the natural world, instead of robots and machinery, presented a unique contrast.

An important piece to end with was the “Jellyfish” ensemble from the collection, where the dress, leggings, and the infamous “Armadillo” boots are embroidered with iridescent enamel paillettes.

The entire experience was both thrilling and emotional. Being mesmerised by his creations, with the occasional thought of his departure, almost put me down into tears. Alexander McQueen was such an inspiration to the fashion world, an extraordinary individual and one of the few designers who had the vision to bridge through conventional standards of design.

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty ends on 7 August 2011 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. For more detail information (including runway videos) about the exhibition, go to The Met Blog.

Runway images from Style.com and two wide-angled overview images from The Met Blog.