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style + fashion

the art of getting dressed.

A Savage Beauty - Alexander McQueen Retrospective

Caitlin Surakitbanharn

i had the honor and privilege of attending the Metropolitan Museum of Art this morning and experiencing the awe-inspiring, emotional, and humbling exhibit & career retrospective - Alexander McQueen: A Savage Beauty (curated by Andrew Bolton).  the exhibit itself is a triumph of artistry, tribute, honor, and mourning all while showcasing one of the most brilliant couturiers to ever share his gift.
dress, VOSS, ss 01 - "there's blood beneath every layer of skin." - Lee McQueen

six separate rooms showed off different adventures that Lee McQueen took us, his most devoted fans, on, but the recurring theme was romanticism, and how his brilliant mind found romance in even the darkest and ugliest of places.  McQueen was obsessed with the raw violence of nature, the beauty of what was considered conventionally ugly, hypocrisy, creating perfection, and most of all, Lee was obsessed with giving us a show.

this exhibit - his final, most brilliant, most incredible show - brought together everything that Lee admired and loved.  craftsmanship, sadomasochistic references, powerful music, incredible structure, and deep showmanship.  it was a deeply moving, emotional experience, and rare look at some of his earliest, most personal, and most spectacular work.

jacket, Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims, 1992, on loan from the collection of Isabella Blow courtesy of Daphne Guinness - McQueen's first collection ever, bought entirely by Isabella Blow.  the picture, and no picture, could do this justice.  the razor sharp lapels, the bustle done with corsetry wire... a mere glimpse at the genius to come.

jacket, Nihilism, ss1994, courtesy of Tiina Laakkonen - the strong shoulder and nipped waist that McQueen loved so much.  many of his collections had military bloodlines running through them, and his jackets often reflected a strong militant theme with embroidery, buttons, and razor sharp tailoring.

coat, Dante, aw 97, on loan from the collection of Isabella Blow, courtesy of Daphne Guinness - i can imagine Issy in this coat, smoking a cigarette over tea, looking as if she stepped out of a nineteenth century dream.  as seen here, Lee's ability to drape fabric is truly unparalleled, even in today's fashion landscape.  

dress,  The Horn of Plenty, aw 09, courtesy of McQueen - this collection was very heavily based in refernce to 1950's haute couture and Dior's New Look, once again showcasing the extreme shoulder and nipped waist that Lee loved so much.  this dress, constructed of duck feathers dyed black, evokes strong emotional response when viewed in person.. it is incredibly provacative and macabre yet has the most unreal sense of beauty and romance.  it's as if Lee found the beauty in the swan queen and her death without losing the pain of it.  Lee was also incredibly obsessed with birds, and feathers were a constant in many of his collections - this dress perhaps being one of his finest works in the medium.

dress, aw 2011, courtesy of McQueen - a piece from the last collection Lee worked on before his death & finished by Sarah Burton, this cape-backed gown in Lee's latest material discovery, silk with center printed art, shows his ever evolving and unbelievably deft hand at mixing fashion, art, and technology.  this collection showed strongly of armor-like shapes, as Lee always found clothes to be a sort of armor for women, and his structure often represented that.  "It's almost like putting armor on a woman.  It's a very psychological way of dressing." -Lee McQueen

coiled corset, The Overlook, aw 99, Shaun Leane for Alexander McQueen  : "I especially like the accessory for its sadomasochistic aspect." - Lee McQueen

dress, It's Only a Game, ss 05, courtesy of McQueen  - Lee often worked with this molded, painted leather for the bodices of his dresses, which he then combined seamlessly with a softer, more romantic skirt of horsehair or chiffon.  he loved to focus on the dichotomy of nature...the hard and the soft together.  and he particularly loved animals and the use of animals (although he never harmed an animal for the sake of his clothes, he was always clear on that.) "Animals....fascinate me because you can find a force, an energy, a fear that also exists in sex." - Lee McQueen

dress, Highland Rape, aw 95, courtesy of McQueen - his ability to manipulate the most delicate of fabrics into something tortured and violent, yet incredibly beautiful....

dress, Sarabande, ss11, courtesy of McQueen - here again, inspired by the violent nature of beauty, he said he used fresh flowers in this collection for the precise reason that they die.  Lee always saw the cycle of life and death as a natural and beautiful process to be revered and honored, not feared. however, he was incredibly aware that his shows, which often focused on the dark and grotesque, often frightened and disgusted people.  it was all the same to him, as he didn't care what kind of reaction he got from his audience, as long as it was a severe one.

dress, Widows of Cullodren, aw06, courtesy of McQueen - "When we put the antlers on the model and then draped over it the lace embroidery that we had made, we had to poke them through a £2000 piece of work.  But then it worked because it looks like she's rammed the piece of lace with her antlers.  There's always spontaneity.  You've got to allow for that in my shows." - Lee McQueen

i found that the most telling piece of who Lee was, as a designer, was on one small plaque in the first room of the exhibit, showcasing his earliest works.  it simply read...

"I want to empower women.  I want people to be afraid of the woman I dress."

and indeed, Lee's work was always incredibly dark, complex, at times frightening, but always, always so beautiful.  Lee's love of couturier craftsmanship, his intense training from Savile Row, and his dark, sometimes twisted mind echoed in every pieces of clothing he crafted, but i found that in observing his life's work, it was his love of nature that infused so much beauty.  the wind catching the chiffon, water twisting the dress around the model's arms and legs, pure natural human movement... that's what gave Lee his beauty.  a Savage Beauty, yes, but one of the most incredibly and moving beauties of our generation.

A Savage Beauty is on exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until July 31, 2011.  All photographs are courtesy of Stilettos on Sullivan and/or The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  No copyright fraud intended whatsoever.