Savage Beauty: A Look at Alexander McQueen’s Best Moments

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On May 4th, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opens Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, a new exhibit at the Costume Institute featuring the work of the late fashion designer. McQueen’s shows have featured an insane asylum theme, women wrapped in plastic, and fake electrocutions. His “Highland Rape” show featured disheveled models in ripped clothes. In another show, a double amputee model with custom carved wooden legs strutted down the catwalk. Because of his predilection for dark and controversial subject matter, McQueen has been known alternately as the hooligan of English fashion and l’enfant terrible. But while he thrived on being provocative, McQueen was also a shrewd businessman who transformed catwalk shows into blockbuster events with heavy social and political undertones. In homage to the show at the Costume Institute, following is a selection of our favorite moments from his career.

Spring/Summer 1996

McQueen was known for his impeccable tailoring. He dropped out of school at age 16 to apprentice at Savile Row, where his clients included Prince Charles and Mikhail Gorbachev. And he startled audiences in his break-out show in 1992 with obstreperously low-cut pants called the “bumster trouser.” His Spring/Summer 1996 collection, shown above, featured his signature intrepid tailoring with equally surprising results. In 1996 McQueen was appointed chief designer at Givenchy, succeeding John Galliano. Although he remained there for five years, the relationship with the fashion house was strained as he never felt he had the creative freedom he desired.

1997, Cover of Homogenic

When Icelandic pop star Björk sought out McQueen to help her create the cover of her album, Homogenic, it initiated what would be an enduring friendship and years of artistic collaboration. McQueen directed the video for “Alarm Call,” on that album. Björk sang at McQueen’s funeral. Bjork has contributed a new song to a short film on McQueen, To Lee, With Love, Nick, by photographer Nick Knight.

Spring/Summer 1998

With typical McQueen mischief, this show, which sprayed the models with water, was called “Golden Shower.”

Spring/Summer 1999

McQueen caused controversy in autumn 1998 when he sent double-amputee model Aime Mullins down the runway on hand-carved wooden legs to open his collection entitled “No. 13.” The collection showcased a large amount of wooden material used in sculptural neck pieces, chest plates, and Mullins’ prosthetic legs. (Incidentally, Mullins is the same model featured in Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 3, wearing prosthetic legs made of glass).

Spring/Summer 1999

For his Spring/Summer 1999 collection, McQueen ended his show by putting model Shalom Harlow in a white dress on a rotating platform, being spray painted by robotic arms obtained from a car factory. It was an extraordinary and menacing moment that was redolent of the ties between fashion and mass production.

Spring/Summer 2001

The audience was seated around a large mirrored box before the show started for McQueen’s Spring/Summer 2001 collection (perhaps in an attempt to make members of the fashion community uncomfortable). When the show began, the box became transparent, revealing a set designed as a “padded cell” mental asylum. Models, including Kate Moss, walked inside the box wearing the extraordinary clothes, which had a strong avian theme.

Fall/Winter 2002

Staged in the Conciergerie, the Paris jail famed for holding Marie Antoinette, the fashion show featured over-the-top silhouettes and canine props. It was a surreal take on Little Red Riding Hood, except the women were tightly corseted and walked with wolves on chains. “There were guards everywhere,” said one attendee. “Half of the audience was terrified.”

Fall/Winter 2003

For Fall/Winter 2003, McQueen placed his models in a wind tunnel, which accentuated the qualities of the chiffon and silk pieces as they billowed in the wind.

Spring/Summer 2005

For McQueen’s romantic and playful Edwardian collection, every model was placed on a checkered floor. Models walked against each other as if they were chess pieces.

Fall/Winter 2006

McQueen’s reputation as a meticulous designer and outstanding showman reached its climax with this holographic life-size image of Kate Moss within a transparent pyramid at the center of the runway.

Fall/Winter 2009

Fashion trendsetter Isabella Blow reportedly discovered Alexander McQueen. They became close friends. When she committed suicide in May 2007 after a long bout with cancer. His designs in 2009 seemed to reference Blow’s penchant for wild hats, bright lips, and a structured, feminine silhouette. For this collection, McQueen commented on societal excess by setting the stage with scrap debris from past shows. This show happened after the economic collapse and it was apparently McQueen’s way of saying we all have too much, and want too much. Many of the models wore garbage bags on their heads.

Spring/Summer 2010

After Lady Gaga danced in a pair of McQueen’s gold armadillo-shaped shoes (that were featured in the last show during McQueen’s lifetime, Spring/Summer 2010) with 10-inch heels in the video for her single “Bad Romance,” she became an instant favorite of his. They were inspired by Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species.

Fall/Winter 2010: McQueen’s Last Collection

At the time of Alexander McQueen’s death, sixteen outfits were nearly complete and were finished by his design team. The clothes looked to Byzantine art. Models wore skullcaps of bandages and black boots with heels sculpted with gold angels and in one case a carving of a broken skull. Seven tiny presentations were held that served simultaneously as a memorial service, only four weeks after his death.