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While much of the world now associates the Alexander McQueen name with a demure lace gown that the line's creative director Sarah Burton designed for a certain high profile British wedding, any newly hatched fans are in for quite a shock if they visit the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute's McQueen retrospective, Savage Beauty. McQueen's own work could be described as many things—striking, scary, romantic, ugly, beautiful, edgy, controversial, sexy, shocking, sublime and yes, savage—but never demure. The exhibition's breathtakingly brilliant designs and its thoughtful curation make for the most impressive museum fashion exhibition we've ever seen. The show is so dramatic that at the press preview, we overheard a jaded, burly, macho cameraman say, "Wow."
The extraordinarily large exhibition spans the history of the designer's 19-year career, including his fashion school graduation collection, "Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims," his time at Givenchy, and all of his own company's collections up to and including the unofficially titled "Angels and Demons," which Burton finished after his death.
The show is divided into six sections. The Romantic Mind examines McQueen's technical skills, focusing on dramatic jackets and dresses. Romantic Gothic highlights the designer's love of the Victorian era, which he often re-imagined with a bondage flair. Romantic Nationalism focuses on McQueen's Scottish heritage and fascination with British history—it includes many gorgeous tartans, some from his "Highland Rape" collection. Romantic Exoticism explores the influence of other cultures, especially Asian ones, on McQueen's design aesthetic. And finally Romantic Primitivism and Romantic Naturalism respectively look at the designer's interests in the "noble savage" and his using of raw materials from nature.
It's hard to say what the standouts in this show are, because it is a show of standouts. "The Widows of Culloden" wedding-style dress, complete with antlers, leaves Kate Middleton's wedding dress a distant memory. A coat made from black synthetic hair, a dress of flowers, a tartan jumpsuit, a dress of gold-painted feathers, wooden and metal bodices, even a metal crown of thorns—almost every item would be the starring piece of any other designer's exhibit.
Film clips from McQueen's legendary runway shows are sprinkled throughout the exhibition, including one of Dress No. 13, from the Spring/Summer '99 collection, where robots shot spray paint at a model in a muslin dress as her body was spun around in circles on a runway. A hologram of Kate Moss, from another runway show, is also on display in the exhibition.
Fashion like this could only come from a brilliant yet dark mind. It's tragic that Alexander McQueen ended his life and career so soon. But his work will still be on the cutting edge for many years to come. While Kate Middleton's wedding gown will undoubtedly become the most famous work associated with the designer's name, it will never be the most impressive.
· The Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute [Official Site]
· All Met Ball posts [Racked NY]