The line-up for the Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art stretches from 400 B.C. Roman sculptures through to 19th century paintings. It’s an eclectic group of people, ranging from Midwestern tourists clad in their traditional fanny pack garb to eager-eyed college students and elegant upper-east side couples. The funny thing is that no one is even glancing at the countless priceless pieces passed in the slow shuffle to the exhibit; they are a people possessed, and perhaps for good reason.
Like penguins packed body-to-body on an iceberg, we hobble into the darkness, electrified with anticipation. An insistent, unsettling hum creeps through the halls. Around the corner, a headless figure wears only a snaky steel spine clamped around its body by a set of knife-like ribs. Another mannequin is strapped into a full bondage suit of buckles, spikes, and leather, head included.
As I trail on through the crowd, the wrenching melody of Handel’s “Sarabande” fills the air. Dark wooden castle walls are adorned with ancient, crooked candelabras. The walls seem to close in; The Girl who Lived in the Tree collection echoes English monarchical decadence while being intensely claustrophobic, with undertones of torture and repression. The Union Jack print is a recurring theme, but it is ragged and decrepit. One mannequin wears an extravagant scarlet cape with white fur accents. A golden, jewel-encrusted crown that peaks into demonic horns turns the majestic figure into something sinister.
The Highland Rape is the collection with which Alexander McQueen established his name in the fashion world. Cottage-like wooden boards frame the pieces, but much of it is splintered and shattered. Proud of his Scottish heritage, McQueen said he was shocked that people were so stupid to think that it was about a woman’s rape; it’s about England’s rape of Scotland. The mannequins wear black leather masks marked by slashes of jeweled crimson. The dresses are ragged and worn, gaping to reveal the most sensitive areas of a woman’s body. The craftsmanship is, as always, impeccable. Alexander McQueen revisits the same theme in Widows of Culloden, but instead of demonstrating vulnerability and anguish, the pieces are proud, feminine and feral. Traditional Scottish patterns are re-adapted to regal forms with exaggerated shoulders. The most stunning piece is an exquisitely stitched dress in ivory. Rippling tiers of elegant fabric trail behind the mannequin, while massive antlers poke through a lace veil, draped around its head.
For me, the pièce de résistance is at the end. It’s the collection Alexander McQueen created just months before his untimely death in 2010: Plato’s Atlantis. The premise is that as the water level rises on earth, humanity will have to return to the sea to survive. But the collection speaks for itself. The mannequins are lined up in front of an obscured projection of a woman in a cobalt sea. The mannequin’s heads are like giant steel fins. The outfits are indescribably complex, all with little hips and giant pouf waists. Gold and emerald embellishments are reminiscent of algae-eaten treasure chests. Each figure looks like a sea goddess, freshly raised from the deep. The collection is truly a stunning work of art.
The Alexander McQueen brand initially commanded the public’s attention by pushing the boundaries of fashion and stirring up controversy. The brand’s signature “bumster trousers” were so low-cut that they revealed tufts of men’s pubic hair in the 2006 Killa runway show. But shock value isn’t the only reason the brand has achieved such wild success. Lee Alexander McQueen’s innovative, distinct perspective and meticulous craftsmanship led the brand to become synonymous with haute couture. Yet although the fashion world and general public have been enamored with McQueen’s work for many years, his tragic suicide left his legacy struggling with millions of dollars of debt. McQueen’s decision to sell 51% of the company to Gucci Group in 2000, a subsidiary of PPR, may have saved the brand after his death. Moreover, Sarah Burton was appointed creative director of the fashion house in May of 2010, and her designing Kate Middleton’s wedding dress was just the boost the brand needed to regain the world’s attention. Whether the brand will continue to thrive without its renowned founder remains to be seen. As for gkBRAND’s opinion, we remain optimistic. Managing partner Vásken Kalayjian commented, “Just as Versace prospered even after the death of Gianni Versace and Gucci survived parting ways with Tom Ford, I think the Alexander McQueen brand will be around for a long time to come.”
– Lana McCrea