NEW YORK — When Alexander McQueen committed suicide at the age of 40 in his London home 14 months ago, there was a collective sense in the fashion community that it had lost an extraordinary talent far too soon. Though the brand carries on under the sure hand of his former assistant, Sarah Burton, who designed Kate Middleton’s wedding dress, “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,” a powerful and moving retrospective of McQueen’s work at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, magnifies that sentiment.
The presentation, which opens to the public on Wednesday, spans work from the designer’s postgraduate collection in 1992 to his final womenswear collection last year. The exhibit shows his profound creativity, his deft cutting skills and his darkly romantic voice. His clothes overflowed with historical references — such as the Salem witch trials (after he learned an ancestor was a victim), medieval England and Victoriana — yet they were among the most modern on the runways. They were certainly the most astonishing, and each time he presented a new collection — usually in a complex, performance-art-like production in a big hall in Paris — there was a sense that what had just happened was something monumental.
That was because McQueen didn’t simply design clothes that you and I might want to wear. He used fashion as a tool to express something far deeper and intellectually complicated. Many designers pretend to be artists; McQueen actually was. “I’m making points about my time, about the times we live in,” he once said. “My work is a social document about the world today.”
McQueen was born on St. Patrick’s Day in 1969 in London, the youngest of six to a London cabdriver and a homemaker, and grew up in the rough East End section of the city. Early on, he realized he had a love for fashion but was lousy in school, so at 16 he dropped out and got a job as an apprentice tailor on Savile Row. After a few years there and a brief stint at a theatrical costume company, he went to work for established fashion designers Koji Tatsuno in Paris and Romeo Gigli in Milan. In 1991, he returned to London and entered Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design’s master’s program in fashion design.
His graduation collection in 1992, entitled “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims,” introduced some of what would become his signature designs, such as the three-point “origami” frock coat. Among those in the audience was a young, eccentric British fashion editor named Isabella Blow. Enthralled, she bought the entire set — to wear, as well as for her fashion collection — paying in installments. In Blow, McQueen found a muse, consultant and unwavering supporter.
With Blow’s encouragement, McQueen set up his own company, and for his first show, “Taxi Driver,” he introduced his “bumster” pants: hip-huggers so low they revealed the top of one’s derriere. At the time, pant waistlines in fashion were up around the navel. In response to McQueen’s bumsters, waistlines began dropping and have remained low on the hip for nearly two decades now.
In 1995, McQueen established his reputation both as a bad boy and true force in fashion with a show titled “Highland Rape,” based on the 18th-century Jacobite Risings and the 19th-century Highland Clearances. The models staggered down the runway in torn tartan dresses, splattered with blood. In response, some fashion writers charged that McQueen was a misogynist, an accusation McQueen rejected as utterly wrong. In fact, Andrew Bolton, curator for both the Costume Institute and the exhibit, explains in the show’s equally stunning catalogue that “Highland Rape” was “a powerful and heartfelt declaration of McQueen’s [Scottish] national identity.”
McQueen went on to stupefy fashion with his languid gowns and razor-sharp suits and dresses, and Blow continued to serve as his inspiration and cheerleader. “He is the only hope of British fashion,” she told one editor.
A mere three years after he began his career, McQueen was hired by the global luxury conglomerate LVMH as the creative director for Givenchy. He was 27. The ever-supportive Blow longed to work with him in an official capacity, but in a flash of his dark side, he chose not to bring her along. Their relationship was tenuous ever after.
McQueen’s Givenchy debut, of gold and white Grecian gowns wrapped with garlands of gilded ivy leaves, was dismissed by the press and clients as distasteful. One critic described it as “rejects from a remake of ‘Jason and the Argonauts.’ ” McQueen himself later admitted in Vogue that the collection was “crap.” Working with the Givenchy atelier, however, was like a master class for McQueen: He began to reach for heights in design no one else contemplated. Several of his Givenchy creations, including a black leather corset shift with a red pheasant-feather high-neck collar and a red-beaked resin vulture skull on each shoulder, are on display.
In late 2000, Blow — by then the fashion director of the Sunday Times of London and a style icon — suggested to then-Gucci designer Tom Ford that Gucci Group buy a majority stake in McQueen’s long-struggling eponymous company. The deal was signed in December, and McQueen left Givenchy to focus on his own brand. Again, he did not hire Blow. Again, she felt betrayed and was devastated.
While his work soared, his personal life was plagued by drug addiction and heartbreak: He married then split from one boyfriend, then reportedly took up with a porn star and an East End gangster. When Blow, a manic depressive, committed suicide in 2007 by drinking weed poison, McQueen spiraled into his own depression. The death of his long-supportive mother in February 2010 appeared to be more than he could handle. He took his own life 10 days later, hanging himself in his bedroom closet.
Within weeks of McQueen’s death, the Costume Institute announced the retrospective. While the show is dedicated to McQueen’s work, Blow’s influence is apparent, too — along with several pieces from Blow’s personal collection, there is the breathtaking hat of a cloud of red butterflies that another Blow “discovery,” the Irish milliner Philip Treacy, made with McQueen for McQueen’s tribute collection following her death.
“My collections have always been autobiographical . . . like exorcising my ghosts,” he once said. “They were to do with my childhood, the way I think about life and the way I was brought up to think about life.” Sadly, as this show proves, that life was too short.
Thomas is a freelance writer.