Saturday, August 27, 2011

Watching from afar

This is one of those moments when I wish I were still in New York. The Met put up an Alexander McQueen retrospective, featuring 100 ensembles and 70 accessories from his two decades of work in fashion. Now I am on the other side of the pond, all I can do is to buy the catalogue and read from the press, watching from afar...

(All images are from the Metropolitan Museum website. Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø)

Titled "Savage Beauty," the exhibition showcased McQueen's wild imagination and dark romanticism. Maybe it's because he started his career from tailoring, I always find his design very architectural, paying close attention to the tectonic aspects of the garments.


Many of McQueen's forms were based on the construction/deconstruction principles of tailoring. "My designing is done mainly during fittings. I change the cut," he once explained. "I spent a long time learning how to construct clothes, which is important to do before you can deconstruct them." A simple jacket became brilliant after a light touch of alteration. A dress in Plato's Atlantis, his last collection in 2010 before he died, showed the hybrid and juxtaposition of different fabrics morphing together with an organic curved cut.

Jacket, Joan, autumn/winter 1998–99
Dress, Plato’s Atlantis, spring/summer 2010

McQueen designed from the side, the angle that he believed to be the worse where you have all the lumps and bumps. "That way I get a cut and proportion and silhouette that works all the way round the body," he said. He worked with the body, and at the same time he wanted to push the silhouette. "To change the silhouette is to change the thinking of how we look." Does it really fit? could be the question many people ask when they saw the "Jellyfish" ensemble.
“Jellyfish” Ensemble, Plato’s Atlantis, spring/summer 2010

When McQueen wanted to fit the body, he went all the way. Inspired by the coiled necklaces of the Ndebele people of southern Africa, the "Coiled" corset carefully traced the female form with aluminum coils. Jeweler Shaun Leane made the coils one by one according to a concrete cast of the model's torso. Architects, do we have the same attitude towards our building sites?
“Coiled” Corset, The Overlook, autumn/winter 1999–2000


McQueen always had bold ideas about what could go on a dress. He loved feathers. He was inspired by their colors, graphics, weightlessness, and "engineering." He tried to transpose the beauty of birds to women, both the elegance and the dark side.

Dress, The Horn of Plenty, autumn/winter 2009–10
Dress, Widows of Culloden, autumn/winter 2006–7

McQueen's use of natural raw materials became shocking when he made an entire dress out of razor-clam shells in the 2001 VOSS collection. There were also oyster shells in the same series. Later in the 2003 collection, he tried to achieve the soft oyster texture through hundreds and hundreds of circles of silk organza. Again, we could see the skills of a tailor through the use of draping and lightness.
Dress, VOSS, spring/summer 2001
Ensemble, VOSS, spring/summer 2001
“Oyster” Dress, Irere, spring/summer 2003

One of the reasons McQueen used shells was to emphasize the ephemeral nature of fashion. He also used fresh flowers mixed with silk ones in the Sarabande collection. "Things rot... I used flowers because they die." This reflected perfectly his unique sense of dark romanticism.
Dress, Sarabande, spring/summer 2007

Hair was another "crazy" raw material on McQueen's dresses. There was synthetic hair and horsehair in the Eshu collection. In his graduation collection, he encapsulate human hair, and some of his own hair, in the coat.
Coat, Eshu, autumn/winter 2000–2001
Dress, Eshu, autumn/winter 2000–2001
Detail of Coat,
 Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims, MA Graduation Collection 1992


McQueen's graduation collection Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims was based on a London serial killer in 1888. His fascination with Victorian culture and death was also shown in a corset in the Dante collection featuring jet beading and lilac color which were symbols of mourning in the Victorian era. He once told Vogue in an interview, "I believe in history." It was no surprise to see many historic references in his work, including an English-Queen-style crimson coat and a crinoline of metal wire half exposed underneath a beige leather dress.

Corset, Dante, autumn/winter 1996–97
Ensemble, The Girl Who Lived in the Tree, autumn/winter 2008–9
Ensemble, Eshu, autumn/winter 2000–2001

As a Scotsman, McQueen was quite patriotic about Scotland. He used McQueen wool tartan in the Widows of Culloden collection, which referenced a battle in the struggles between England and Scotland.
Ensemble, Widows of Culloden, autumn/winter 2006–7


Like the use of tartan, pattern for McQueen was never random decoration. It was another layer to the special type of beauty, the story, or the process of construction. In another Scotland-related collection Highland Rape, McQueen did his signature torn lace for the first time to convey a broken look. The way he did it was to cut around each flower to give a very delicate, torn appearance that reflected the modular assembly of the pattern.

Dress, Highland Rape, autumn/winter 1995–96

For the finale of the 1999 runway show, McQueen had two robot arms spray-painting a dress on stage. The model Shalom Harlow revolved on a turntable. Her movement and that of the robots co-authored the pattern. But was it all accidental? McQueen told us, “It was really carefully choreographed. It took a week to program the robots.”
Dress, No. 13, spring/summer 1999
The making of the No. 13 dress during the runway show

The McQueen exhibition is over now and it ended up among the Met's top 10 popular shows. (A friend told me it was 6-hour wait to get in on the last day.) I wish the exhibition would travel to Europe so that I could see the pieces with my own eyes. Maybe Lee should go home to London, perhaps V&A?

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