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McQueen Madness at the Met Until Midnight August 7

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty

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Alexander McQueen - Dress, Sarabande, spring/summer 2007

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969-2010). Dress, Sarabande, spring/summer 2007. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

On view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 4 through August 7, 2011.

The wait could be as short as 15 minutes, but more often, as long as 2 hours. But wait they did (over 500,000 and counting) for the supreme pleasure of entering into the exhibition Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, curated by Andrew Bolton, whose previous Costume Institute shows Anglomania (2006), Superheroes (2009) and American Woman (2010) have been smash hits as well.

These lengthy waits are worth it. Each room features an exciting environment with clothes, accessories and architecturally intricate installations that astound the senses. Moreover, every fabric, every construction, and every detail prove to be more extraordinary in person than in photographs. Never has an exhibition in the history of the Costume Institute (now over 65 years old) equaled this combination of fashion and theater. One visit does not suffice. An adequate infusion of this ambrosia requires at least two or three visits, if not more.

Sadly, the McQueen show will close at midnight on August 7th. Given its immense popularity, it seems odd for the Met to close a blockbuster at the height of summer tourism in New York. But close it must.

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty - Gallery View – Romantic Gothic

Gallery View – Romantic Gothic. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

If you cannot go to Manhattan, please feast your eyes on the blogs, photographs and videos provided on the museum's website. This digital excursion through a wealth of information may cost you about two hours on its own, but please don't miss it. Whether you have attended, will attend or may never attend the show, the experience will take your breath away. Most of the videos capture moments from McQueen's theatrical runway extravaganzas: a chess game, a model splattered with paint by robots, a tribute to the film They Shoot Horses Don't They?, and a hologram of Kate Moss set to the theme of Shindler's List at the Met and a classical piece online, among many more. One viewing is not enough. You will want to play these videos over and over again.

The English designer, Alexander McQueen (March 17, 1960 - February 11, 2010) burst onto the fashion stage in the mid-1990s as a designer for Givenchy. The sixth and youngest child of two Scottish parents living in Lewisham, London, his father Ronald was a taxi driver and his mother Joyce was a social studies teacher. His real name was Lee Alexander McQueen.

McQueen left school at 16 to apprentice with Savile Row tailors Anderson and Sheppard, and then Gieves and Hawkes. He also worked briefly for theatrical designers Angels and Bermans. Four years later he studied with Japanese designer Koji Tatsuno in London and then he traveled to Italy to work for Romeo Gigli in Milan. These various situations helped him hone his skills and develop his well-deserved reputation for beautifully crafted garments.

When fashionista Isabella Blow discovered McQueen in the graduate program at Central St. Martin's School of Art and Design in 1991, she snapped up his thesis show for £5000. Then Blow mentored his career and persuaded him to use his middle name for his public persona. He graduated in 1992 and launched his own line of clothes. In 1996, McQueen joined Louis Vuitton's Givenchy and in 2000 he started to design under his own label for Gucci Company. He left Givenchy in 2001.

McQueen won the British Designer of the Year Award in 1996, 1997, 2001 and 2003. In 2003 he won the Council of Fashion Designers of America International Designer of the Year Award and Queen Elizabeth II conferred a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his contribution to the fashion industry. He won the Men's Wear Designer of the Year Award in 2004.

McQueen's concepts for clothing are a form of sculpture, equal to the very best three-dimensional works in any artistic media. His signature style integrated opposites: soft and hard; flow-y and stiff; camp and straight; bling and simplicity. Natural elements played a large role in his collections and presentations: exotic fabrics or animals parts on the dresses, on the head or in the staged-setting for the models. (Literally playing with fire, a model poses while a ring of flames flickers at her feet.) McQueen was fearless and insatiable. He took fashion into unexplored directions and exploited every possibility with his extraordinary imagination.

Alexander McQueen - Dress, autumn/winter 2010

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969-2010). Dress, autumn/winter 2010. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

At the Met, the different McQueen periods feel like sensory overload. Each room is chock 'o block full of unusual clothing and accessories: chic military, coy tartans (a tribute to his native Scotland), delicate Romantic ruffles and exquisite Asian-inspired embroidered satins. Hats, shoes, gloves and belts by McQueen, or other well-known designers, such as Phillip Treacy, augment the uncanny weirdness at every twist and turn. For art history buffs, quotations from Northern Renaissance images of the Crucifixion and scatological fantasies by Hieronymous Bosch (another "bad boy" of his era) provide an occasion to test the brain cells. These images belong to McQueen's Goth style.

Most startling of all, toward the end of show, a video from McQueen's runway show VOSS for the Spring/Summer 2001 collection features British writer Michelle Olley as the fleshy recumbent nude with breathing mask in Joel-Peter Witkin's eerie photograph entitled Sanitarium New Mexico, 1983. The pose in the Witkin and this McQueen also seems to reference Manet's Olympia (1863) lounging au natural on her settee, as well as Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs of sado-masochistic paraphernalia. (The latter references McQueen's openly gay lifestyle.)

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