The savage beauty of the art/fashion world
Here is a piece I wrote recently for the Magazine in The Irish Times. It’s a little tricky to find on the website so, being an arrogant sort, I thought I would reproduce it here with a few images. There are rumours that the McQueen show is coming to the UK – here’s hoping.
Clothes shouldn’t intimidate a person – but if the clothes in question are those designed by the late Alexander McQueen, then chances are they will intimidate, thrill, confuse and intrigue in equal measure.
McQueen’s work is the subject of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and the show’s catalogue has been packaged together with a preface by curator Andrew Bolton, an introduction by journalist Susannah Frankel, and an interview with Sarah Burton, now creative director of the house of McQueen. The show and book, Savage Beauty, offer plenty of ammunition to the charge that the fashion and art world will never see the like of Alexander McQueen again.
McQueen’s work inhabits a space somewhere between fashion and art. He frequently said that he wanted people to have a visceral reaction to his pieces, in much the same way as a great piece of art should immediately provoke a strong reaction – horror, joy, delight or despair. In his preface, Andrew Bolton quotes McQueen on his attitude to fashion shows: “I don’t want to do a cocktail party, I’d rather people left my shows and vomited. I prefer extreme reactions.” And what shows: in one, a model spun on a revolving disc, marionette-like, while two robots, borrowed from a car factory, spattered her white dress with paint; in another, Kate Moss appeared as a hologram, floating spectrally above the crowd; then there was the imaginary chess match between the US and Japan, with the models taking their places on an oversized board.
The level of detail in McQueen’s pieces is overwhelming. He was a superb tailor, who worked with speed and absolute conviction. In the book, Frankel describes a collaboration between McQueen and prima ballerina Sylvie Guillem for Eonnagata, a lavish dance show. She quotes Guillem as saying: “Alexander was doing a costume for [choreographer] Russell [Maliphant], and Alexander said: ‘It’s not sinister enough . . . Give me some fabric, give me some scissors,’ and right in front of our eyes, he cut another costume. It took about three minutes. It was just so fast – and so completely right.”
Many of McQueen’s quotes in this book (which is about the size of a laptop and twice as heavy) are technical observations: “[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.” His more general statements could as easily refer to visual art as fashion; what comes across is that his pieces aren’t items of clothing; they are fragments of an overriding narrative, characters within story arcs. McQueen wasn’t satisfied with rewriting the rules of fashion; he was also intent on making aggressive statements. His collection Highland Rape, for example, established him as a force to be reckoned with and he was appalled by simplistic readings of it, insisting it was a patriotic response to England’s historical treatment of his Scottish homeland.
In the end, writes Susannah Frankel, McQueen became “less open to the outside world, both personally and professionally”. In February 2010 he killed himself, nine days after the death of his mother. He had completed 80 per cent of a new collection, which was shown in an 18th-century Parisian hôtel particulier to audiences of no more than 10 at a time.
McQueen’s work, as illustrated in this book, asks as many questions as it answers, and that seems to be the mark of great art. In decades to come, perhaps historians will still be arguing about the meaning of McQueen’s work, in much the same way they discuss Rothko or Picasso.
Savage Beauty is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until July 31st. The book is published by Yale Books, £30