Savage Beauty: The Art of Alexander McQueen

by James F. Cooper

Alexander McQueen, “The Horn of Plenty,” Autumn/Winter 2009–10 Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

The exhibition “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” attracted almost 700,000 visitors during its brief run (May 4–August 7, 2011) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Considering the relatively small exhibition space, it may have been the most densely packed, highly attended, most lucrative exhibition in the 141-year history of one of the world’s great museums. Signs posted on brass stanchions alerted the torrent of excited visitors that wrapped through the corridors and galleries of the second floor from the Grand Staircase that there would be a waiting period of three hours before entering the exhibition. Later, as the exhibition neared the end of its run, the waiting period was extended to five hours. Only a handful of exhibitions hosted by the Met—among them “Treasures of Tutankhaman” and Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, one featuring art 3,000 years old, the other 500 years old—has attracted more visitors. The creations of British designer Alexander McQueen, who died last year by his own hand, were all made during a fourteen-year period, most recently dated 2010. But the most astounding fact, at least to this viewer, is the nature of the work. This was a fashion show.

I call McQueen an artist, because his work transcends fashion. Many people outside the industry have never heard of him, except perhaps to note that his firm designed Kate Middleton’s dress for her wedding to Prince William. Word of mouth attracted unprecedented crowds to the Met. There are many famous couturiers, whose designs for the most beautiful and famous women in the world adorn the glossy pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. But McQueen’s clothes stand on their own. As this exhibition proved, they don’t even require a human model. Powerful, imposing, aloof, evoking associations with ancient myth, spirituality and nature, as richly ornamented as a medieval reliquary, they require no justification for existence other than their own self-contained magic. A human figure almost seems an intrusion into this perfection of form, shapes, fabrics and materials. McQueen used anything and everything for inspiration—pop culture, the High Renaissance, motion pictures, music ranging from the eleventh-century chants of Hildegard von Bingham to Mozart and Madonna—to express his passion. Unlike other designers, instead of working out patterns on paper, he cut the material directly on the model. Despite the enormous risk, his cuts and designs are perfection. “My designing is done during the fittings. If I need to, I change the cut during the fitting,” he once explained.1

By the time the exhibition closed, the handsome hardcover catalogue, with its holograph portrait of the artist, had sold over 100,000 copies through the museum’s bookstore alone, and was listed as the number one-ranked art book on Amazon. What explains the vast crowds? Were they drawn to perceived tie-ins with themes from pop culture or to reproductions of Renaissance masterpieces and artifacts from ancient civilizations and religions? Many of those standing in line for hours were over forty years old, some in their sixties and seventies. The last of the ten collections on view, which the designer was working on at the time of his death, was influenced by Byzantine and Christian art. In the folds of a double duchesse satin on one mannequin could be glimpsed the infant Jesus from Jean Fouquet’s 1450 Virgin and the Child, digitally captured and engineered to fit the piece. On another mannequin, a red cape was cut to reveal a flowing blue robe of the Madonna, reflecting Botticelli’s Cestello Annunciation.

This was the first time the last of McQueen’s ten collections was being shown. The sixteen works were completed by his staff after his tragic death. But they all bear his indelible stamp: Mohawks of lacquered feathers, pleated and ruffled fabrics, tight crimson bodices, a pale silk gown sculpted as a Greek marble goddess, bearing faces of angels and the wings of doves. It was a spectacular eulogy.  

Many visitors, like me, came with little knowledge of the world of high fashion. The crowd’s reaction to the McQueen collection, during the several visits I paid to the exhibition, seemed comparable to encountering for the first time an exhibition of ancient basalt Egyptian sculpture, or a collection of Yoruba and Dogon artifacts from West Africa. One is unprepared emotionally for the strange power of the objects, created out of leather, feathers, metal and fabrics. The artist has created all these forms for women, despite the strong undercurrent of androgyny. The feral power, the feelings of fear and awe they evoke, cannot be denied. Like artifacts of alien civilizations, their ferocity pierces the veneer of our civilization. McQueen’s objective, from his earliest work, was to unveil and celebrate the human spirit, unencumbered by social mores or religious propriety. Indeed, some elements had both a religious and a sacrilegious edge. McQueen seems to echo the mystic St. John of the Cross: “The light shall shine in the darkness.”2 He explained: “I not only modify what is relevant today, but will be so tomorrow.”

Alexander McQueen, “The Girl Who Lived in the Tree,” Autumn/Winter 2008–9 Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

What makes McQueen’s work “art”? Why was it on display in one of America’s most important art museums? What makes it different from the silly, vacuous postmodern detritus that fills our modern museums? Indeed, what makes McQueen’s work so different from the attractive, expensive fashions created by the most successful designers? “I want to empower women, I want people to be afraid of the people I dress,” he once wrote.3 “I’ve never aspired to mass production.” Each piece is a handmade original. Some have animal horns; others use sea shells; one dress is composed of hundreds of black duck feathers flawlessly stitched together. His materials range from the most delicate satins and silks to animal skins and assorted remnants from fabric shops. Victoriana is his favorite genre. Lady Gaga’s concert apparitions are mere vulgar rip-offs in comparison. The difference is taste, moral passion and a highly refined sense of beauty and craft.   

From the beginning, McQueen attracted an assortment of powerful, influential sponsors. In 1991, the famous fashion editor Isabella Blow bought his first collection. She subsequently promoted his work and introduced him to British and French society. In an age when celebrities were pursued by the paparazzi and media, traveling around the world from one exotic place to another, while the world seemed to be sliding into the abyss of decadence and financial ruin, McQueen was part of the scene, but he never succumbed to the kitsch and cheapened sentiments that characterize much of postmodern culture. His influences were eclectic—Alfred Hitchcock movies, the music of Philip Glass and Dante’s Purgatorio. His earliest works featured titles like “Dante” and “Nihilism.” One black silk jacket was printed with a digitized reproduction of The Crucified Thief by the fifteenth-century Flemish artist Robert Campin.

“Savage Beauty” was composed of ten collections, dating back to the artist’s first professional show in 1996. Each one was presented in a specially designed, self-contained gallery. Each collection was differentiated from the others in terms of clothes, mannequins, fabrics, lighting, music, primal sounds and cultural references. An entire collection is devoted to his Scottish roots. “Highland Rape,” he wrote, “is about England’s rape of Scotland.”4 And yet, at the same time, he admitted, “Britain always leads the way in every field possible in the world from art to pop music.”5

Each gallery became a passageway, descending through interior levels of Hell. Narrow exits were portals that funneled the crowds into “lower” galleries, with new themes, new experiences. In one particularly dark, melancholic gallery, the visitor was subjected to recorded sounds of soft human sighs. Sometimes it sounded like a tremulous reed instrument, a woman crying or the wind blowing through tall grass. The walls were flanked by a series of towering glass showcase sarcophagi. At the back of one collection were elegant Victorian mirrors, tinted black with age, which reflected alternative sides of the steel and plastic mannequins. The mannequins were arranged facing different directions, offering a variety of views of the human figure. “I like to think of myself as a plastic surgeon…transform[ing] the mentalities more than the body,” wrote McQueen.6

Installations, meant to be experienced as well as viewed, have been part of the artworld since the 1950s. Prominently featured in exhibitions hosted by the Whitney, the Museum of Modern Art and other museums, they influenced local institutions and universities throughout the heartland. I’ve seen hundreds of them—with balloons hanging from ceilings, jars filled with urine, mounds of earth embedded in empty gallery floors. This is the first time I’ve seen an installation with such gravitas. Usually they are pretentious and sterile. Often accompanying such exhibitions are incomprehensible texts by a curator or museum director. McQueen’s work doesn’t require textual explanations, but it is ripe for psychological and cultural analysis. He has applied the highest craftsmanship to his garments, at a time when sloppiness and poor craftsmanship are all too common. There have been several high fashion shows hosted with great fanfare at the Met in the past decades, but few works, even by top designers, can compare with McQueen’s. Some of the dresses evoke comparison with the jeweled robes of saints in the medieval art of Memling and Byzantine mosaics. A series of works, in skin-tight molded leather, have a strong fetish quality. Chainlinks, hoops, wire and steel accessories add subtle sado-masochistic elements. Several mannequins are braced with spiny skeletal appendages made out of steel. Some body appendages resemble ancient armor. Hardly anything is more shocking than McQueen’s sculptured, beaded and fabric-encrusted shoes. They are certainly not for walking, with eight-inch heels and feet twisted into impossible angles. The combination of fetishitic African ritual dress, religious Christian iconography, pop cultural icons, Japanese samurai ceremonial armor and sexual fantasy attests to their modernist orientation. Their perfection in terms of craft, nevertheless, evokes intense religious associations, even though many would regard them as sacrilegious.

Even as a young student, McQueen was singled out for outstanding professionalism, quickly attracting a number of influential and powerful sponsors. By the time he was twenty-two, his career had taken off like a rocket. McQueen was born in 1969, in Lewisham, South London, amidst very humble environs. His father drove a cab and heartily disapproved of his son’s interest in fashion and drawing. At the age of sixteen, Alexander left school and took a job as an apprentice at a distinguished firm on Savile Row, where he quickly learned the intricacies of design and cutting fabrics. He wrote: “I don’t think you can become a good designer. You just are one. To know about color, proportion, shape, cut, balance, it’s in the genes.”7

At the age of twenty, confident he had learned what he needed to know and unhappy with the placid British market of the 1980s, Alexander took a plane to Milan with his portfolio and approached Romeo Gigli, a very successful fashion designer. Despite the fact that the young man had no appointment and was dressed in a t-shirt and patched jeans, he was hired on the spot. He subsequently worked for top designers such as Givenchy.

Alexander McQueen: “Plato’s Atlantis,” Spring/Summer 2010, Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

A senior critic for The New York Times, Michael Kimmelman, observing the “mass hysteria” accompanying the Met exhibition, compares the phenomenon to “mindless medieval pilgrims praying before sculptural shrines.” Religious sculpture, wrote Kimmelman, “is too literal, too steeped in ceremony” to be art.8 Today’s critics and curators have replaced priests in attracting enormous crowds of devout worshipers to grasp what is “too complex for a historically amnesiac culture,” he opines. Critics such as Kimmelman—learned and scholarly as they are—ignore the simple act of seeing. They seem oblivious or pretend to be impervious to aesthetic beauty. For them, religious and classical sculpture can only be evaluated by the nature of its content. Beauty can appear in unexpected places. All it requires is a human, neurological response to objects—a sunset, a sonata by Mozart, a sculpture by Bernini, a garment by McQueen.

McQueen’s stated objective, to reconnect the Romantic past with the postmodern present, was not an easy task. Postmodern theory has dismissed beauty and craftsmanship as irrelevant to art and culture. Once in a great while, a cultural paradigm can transform the nature of civilization itself. The neoclassical art of Jacques Louis David was such a catalyst in France at the time of the Revolution. However radical the change might first appear (note the changes in art, literature, fashion and furniture during the Napoleonic era), stylistic shifts succeed when they are rooted in a rebirth of craftsmanship and beauty. How ironic that a fashion designer should re-infuse a spiritual, aesthetic quality into a modern movement that has languished for almost fifty years. McQueen has accomplished something that postmodern culture has largely failed to do, taking a deeper look at life and death at a time when Western civilization fills its museums and cinemas and national memorials with cartoons and meaningless scribble.

Artists are always outsiders. They see the world differently than most of us do. Sometimes, it is that difference, combined with an obsession for craft—in music, drawing, sculpture or poetry—that teaches a nation, a community, the world, a new language of communication. Today, it would seem the West has reached the end of something and is seeking a new path. Sometimes it is an old path that appears radically new, because it has been re-empowered with new vision and energy. True artists are shamans and mystics, but they pay a heavy personal price. Charlatans only appear successful.

McQueen’s bouts of melancholia provided the impetus for much of his work. But the loss of his mother and his closest mentor, Isabella Blow, overwhelmed him. Blow, who had been the editor of British Vogue, began her career as an assistant to Anna Wintour, the powerful editor of American Vogue. Blow’s background was very different from McQueen’s; she was born to upper-class luxury. In the summer of 2007, Isabella drank a bottle of Paraquat—the same poison her father-in-law used to kill himself. McQueen’s mother passed away in 2010. The deaths of those closest to him made his life increasingly difficult. On the runway of the last collection he hosted, he had installed a giant metal, light-encrusted sculpture of a winged Icarus—the boy from Greek legend who lost his life flying too close to the sun. During her last years, Isabella’s heavy drinking led the industry and many of her friends to abandon her. McQueen also distanced himself. In the winter of 2010, in the midst of working on his spring collection (which is included in the Met exhibition), McQueen, at the age of 41, hanged himself in his apartment after taking a bottle of sleeping pills. Newspaper columnists were quick to blame the heartlessness of the fashion industry. “How vile the fashion industry is,” declared India Knight in the London Times.9 To compare the suicides of McQueen and Blow to the suicide of many contemporary artists, sculptors and poets is perhaps stretching the comparison. After all, it’s only fashion, right?

The exhibition is over, and a foundation has been established to preserve McQueen’s work. Although his firm continues to flourish, I suggest those interested in his career and art obtain a copy of the 250-page catalogue. The text, written by the curator, Andrew Bolton, and Susannah Frankel, is sparse but contains useful insights and critiques. The focus of the catalogue, wisely, is the photographic record of the extraordinary oeuvre of Alexander McQueen. Bolton writes in his introduction: “Alexander McQueen believed that love has the power to transform something ugly into something beautiful because love is propelled by subjective perceptions of the individual, not by objective assessments of appearance.”10

At first glance, an avant-garde fashion designer might seem an unlikely subject for discussion here. But commitment to beauty and craft should always be recognized, and today’s new traditionalists could find much to admire in McQueen’s passion-driven knowledge of the past and his fearless imagination.

Notes

1. Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (Ney York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011), p. 39. 

2. St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul (New York: Image Books, Doubleday, 1990), p. 79.

3. McQueen, p. 60.

4. Ibid., p. 122.

5. Ibid,. p. 112.

6. Ibid., p. 44. 

7. Ibid., "Introduction" by Susannah Frankel. 

8. Michael Kimmelman, "Sculpture Now: Just Another Pretty Face?" The New York Times (August 10, 2011), p. C1.

9. Lauren Goldstein Crowe, Isabella Blow: A Life in Fashion (New York: St, Martin's Press, 2010), p. 245. 

10. Ibid., p. 12.
 

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2011, Volume 28, Number 4