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Jun 1, 2011

Alexander McQueen show at the Met


Friends, I have neither the skill nor the familiarity with the subject to write a valid critique of Savage Beauty, the Alexander McQueen show at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I was fortunate enough to see yesterday.

I'm also not the right person.  Asking me to review the McQueen show is like sending Doris Day to review a Metallica concert.  (I actually had to ask Michael, who's sitting beside me at the moment, to give me the name of a heavy metal band, which only proves my point.)

Everybody has a dark side, I suppose, and Alexander McQueen's was apparently very dark.  He killed himself last year.  The Met cashes in on this, and the exhibit -- sponsored by the Alexander McQueen fashion house (owned by the Gucci Group), American Express, and Conde Nast (publishers of Vogue) -- has an exploitative, death-culty feel, though it certainly burnishes the brand.

Savage Beauty showcases approximately 100 of McQueens dresses -- mostly gowns -- and a wide array of accessories: hats, shoes, and jewelry, and many beyond categorization.  They are extraordinary costumes -- the types of outfits you see Lady Gaga wear in music videos. They are only distantly related to what I (most people?) would consider fashion, i.e, what people actually wear or how they aspire to dress. 

Clothing displayed in a museum exhibit is usually couture, which is custom-made for extremely wealthy clients -- red carpet stuff.  Opulence abounds.  And most runway shows these days are more about theater and garnering headlines than fashion. McQueen was a master of this kind of luxurious spectacle.

To me, the show is too big and, like a bad movie, hammers home its themes lest you miss the point: through much of it, macabre-sounding music plays in the background; the lighting is dark, the mood creepy.  Throw in some animatronic figures and row boats, and you'd be in the Pirates of the Caribbean or Haunted Mansion rides at Disneyland. 

And just like a Disney ride, you empty out directly into the gift shop, where you can buy the book, the T-shirt, or some postcards.  Ka-ching!

See the McQueen show for the extraordinary use of unusual materials, including duck feathers, human hair, and every sort of S&M leather fetish accessory.  Enjoy the spectacle.  Expect to rub elbows -- if not more --with hundreds of other somewhat dazzled (dazed?) tourists.  Wear comfortable shoes.

When you're done, treat yourself to a trip to the Central Park Zoo, an ice cream cone, or maybe a ride on the carousel.  You'll need it.

29 comments:

  1. I saw the exhibit last week with my daughter. There were a few garments with wearable details (like some of the jackets grouped at the start), but I agree with your overall assessment of McQueen's stuff as "spectacle." There were some really disturbing elements to the show; one of the rooms had a distinct bondage theme, accompanied by a lewd soundtrack and some pretty disturbing runway videos; was that really necessary?
    I did end up buying the catalog (only to see it for $20 less at the Strand... grr), mainly because there were a few details on the clothes that I found intriguing and wanted to take a stab at copying.

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  2. I think you are perfectly qualified to write such a critique and you have set the tone so brilliantly. That said, I am still quite jealous that you got the opportunity to go. Bit of a trek for me, but I'm sure there will be some eager opportunists ready and waiting to exploit in London soon! I'm a newbie to your blog and loving it already.

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  3. I saw the exhibit a few weeks ago. I wondered if he would have an exhibit there if he were still alive. I hope so because I felt that his work was more art than fashion. In the context of fashion as clothing McQueen's stuff is pointless, but as works of art it has an effect.

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  4. The over dramatic "mise en scene" of the exhibition may be questioned bit not the talent of L. A. MacQueen. The comments of Sarah Burton "I remember on the last collection he did, he actually—on a piece of felt with a piece of chalk—chalked out a frock coat by eye, cut it out, and pinned it on a dummy and it was a perfect fit. That’s how familiar he was with that piece of clothing." and "Louise Wilson: An architect doesn’t build the house for you; they employ the builders, whereas, Lee, in effect, built the house because he cut the patterns and he sewed the jackets. Basically, he didn’t need to depend on anybody. He didn’t have to employ a machinist. He didn’t have to employ a pattern-cutter at the very beginning. You know, if he had nothing he could still create." are very helpful to understand the uniqueness of the man. More on this on the MET site

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  5. Great points, Marie-Noelle!

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  6. We saw this exhibit a couple of weeks ago. Both Mr. Noile and I agree that the presentation and concept exploited McQueen's suicide, though the continuing crowds may owe more to the Cambridge wedding dress than to anything else.

    Certainly the designs themselves are over-the-top (in EVERY sense!) and the leather masks (not actually McQueen's) and corsets were cliché. In general, this collection is definitely, as Frankie Raincoat says above, "more art than fashion". And more S&M than mainstream.

    Far more interesting, to me, than the majority of the collection, were the jackets at the beginning of the show, which were tailored with exquisite curved lines, beautifully fitted, and potentially wearable.

    The exhibit, overall, though, was self-consciously macabre, just as you suggest, Peter. Other-worldly, and rather unpleasantly so. It's no accident that it's full of bones and materials from dead animals.

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  7. Peter, you mention of the unusual materials in McQueen's designs reminded me of the Project Runway with Chris March (my favourite). He used human hair in his final collection, and the judges were disgusted... Anyway, what would fashion be without these rare people who are willing to experiment, no?

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  8. I would have to agree with Noile about the jackets in the beginning and also loved the tartan room. He used classic historical tailoring and silhouettes and turned them on their head. Loved looking under the dresses to see what how things were working. I'm primarily a costume designer so it was very appealing. BTW he did create a number of Lady Gaga's looks.

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  9. I have neither the skill ...
    Ha! That was the clearest review of anything I've heard. Feel like I was there.

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  10. I haven't seen the exhibit yet but I've been stalking the website. The interviews on the site give a real insight into his process. His clothes are more than fashion. Most of his work is very dark but it has a romantic side.I think that while his clothes aren't something most would wear; we can all admire his excellent craftsmanship and creative vision.

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  11. Very good review Peter. Could be a career for you.

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  12. I happened to buy American Vogue to read on a long train journey and saw an article about the exhibit. No one but a model or Lady Gaga could get away with wearing the costumes and the staging may be designed to shock but it does accentuate the truly innovative talent of the man. I'd love to see it!

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  13. Poppycock! You are entirely qualified!!

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  14. Excellent review, Peter. It is hard for me to think of macabre themes and fashion in the same moment--why can't more couture work be about joyful sunlight? I know, the Artiste must be gloomy to be serious, but it sickens me as I look to artists to show us the future. I may check out the Web site, as it sounds like it offers a lot of insight without the cost and travel to the exhibit. For those of us who live far outside NYC, thanks for the insights. Kristina in Ohio

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  15. A refreshingly honest review Peter!

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  16. Great review, but I still wish I could be in New York to see it!

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  17. What you said -- the show is "spectacular," with an emphasis on "spectacle." But what an incredibly talented designer he was.

    I recommend you go see the Sonia Delaunay show at the Cooper-Hewitt as an antidote to all the darkness!

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  18. Thanks, Peter. This is the most honest and thoughtful description of the experience I've read. I'd go to the exhibit in a heartbeat if I was in New York, and he made lots of gowns I'd have worn in another life, where I wasn't a short, dumpy pleb.

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  19. You're pretty honest and thoughtful yourself, Mae! ;)

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  20. It seems to me that a little background information is missing on McQueen's life. Death, darkness, and I guess, disconnect? are themes that run through his shows throughout his career (and were obviously themes that ran through his personal life as well). Speaking of dark sides, I'm disappointed that you jump to the conclusion that this exhibit capitalizes on his death. To many people his death was an incredibly tragic event, and I see this gallery as a tribute to him, and an opportunity for people like myself to connect with his work who would not otherwise be able to. Galleries like these cost money - and as much as I love to think and believe the Met is a purely house of art, the Met, Alexander McQueen's label, Conde Nast, and Gucci Group are all businesses that must run profitably each year.

    For a sewing blog, I'm a bit surprised that there was no background on his time on Savile Row or craftsmanship in addition to his abilities with unusual materials.

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  21. My favorite designer, and I've been thinking about whether to go to NY just to see this. Thank you for your frank review--and personally I think it's okay to question content along with the the skill--you don't need to be qualified to understand a mood! The macabre part was the more sensationalized side of his work, which is unfortunate--when I think of him I don't think of his shadows or what haunted him, but the light, of which he had some great moments and which I'm sure he is swimming in now. Then again, I feel that way about many suicided artists--I want to know what they were reaching for, not what they fell into.

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  22. Beautifully expressed, Amy.

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  23. I think one might only 'get' McQueen stuff if one is into fetish and part of the fetish community. The kind of 'macabre' described here (and indeed that which is exploited by lady gaga in her videos) is only what you will find in any fetish club, certainly in London if not anywhere else. As for aforementioned pop star, I've seen acts and girls dressing like gaga in clubs for years, certainly when the only 'gaga' associated with pop music was a song by Queen. It's nothing new. That said, I do think that McQueen was an absolute one of a kind genius who stood head and shoulders above his peers.

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  24. Thanks for your review of this exhibit, Peter. Noile's comments are also particularly interesting. I was sorry to be missing this exhibit, but maybe now, not so much. One day, perhaps a more comprehensive exhibit of his work will make it closer to San Francisco. When I think of his death and what must have led up to it, it saddens me.

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  25. Peter -
    You are well qualified to critique the A. McQueen show. Though I will not see the show being here on the Left Coast - I felt I saw the show vicariously and am quite happy I missed it. (Contrary to popular opinion, angst and darkness are not signs of brilliance, they are signs of a penchant for poor choices.)
    I enjoy MPB as much for your take on the universe as your fashion fabulous-ness and enviable sewing artistry. Carry on !
    Thank you for your contribution to my day.

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  26. I was fortunate enought o see this while vacationing in New York! I managed to sneak one picture. :) What an incredible tribute to his work.

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  27. Lucky me my dear hubby invited me to NY (lovely city, people and weather) and I agree 100% with you. After feeling depressed I went to see the exhibit " A room with a view" and my happy spirit came back to me.

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  28. Oh man, where to begin. Firstly, one doesn't need to be a dark goth to "get" the show. Much of it is dictated by the Victorians who were the original goths, and had a tremendous dark side. The pervading S&M theme isn't just about sex, but also about desctuction and ownership; control. To get it, read Knowles, The Story of O, Venus in Furs. Look at some Heironymous Bosch. Then it will be gotten. As for the museum banking on this kind of show, GOOD. It's about time a museum made some cash these days. How is looking at art a bad thing?

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  29. Kristin: The Met is not a "business" that must run profitably every year. It runs in spite of profit, with no profit, in the red, etc.

    Peter, I think this review did a disservice to some of your readers. You have several people here who say they were "glad" they didn't see the show. This is one of the most unique and remarkable exhibitions I've ever experienced there (and I've worked there for 10 years). I knew practically nothing about McQueen before this, and now I realize what a true artist he was and mourn the fact that we will never see a new creation of his. To make people feel it's just as well they didn't go is really too bad.

    For anyone who sees this in the next 10 days: go see the show, if you can. You won't regret it.

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