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Like many Americans of my generation, I came to be a fan of Alexander McQueen through his work for Givenchy in the late '90s. I had been following the designer long before his death - and then the royal wedding gown designed by his successor Sarah Burton - made him a household name. So I have seen many a retrospective at many stages of his career. My interest reached a fever pitch with his participation in the Anglomania exhibit at the Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2006. None of this prepared me for "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" now on view at The Costume Institute.

The first pieces you are confronted with in the dark, intense exhibit space are from the Spring 2001 Voss collection, a collection very focused on beauty and perhaps less sinister than much of McQueen's work. A red ostrich-feather dress and a sculptural white razor clam shell piece give the viewer an idea of the world-class craftsmanship they are about to witness at arm's length.


The first gallery is entitled "The Romantic Mind" and focuses on McQueen's exquisite tailoring and, to a fashion fan, his influence on mainstream trends. Music from the 2003 "Scanners" collection sets an eerie, intense vibe. "Bumster" pants and skirts from his "Highland Rape" collection in 1995 show clearly how the trend for low-rise jeans started at a high end atelier only to filter down to saturate the mainstream market for years (for better or worse). He was also a pioneer of the modern statement shoulder as we now know it, and we begin to see this immediately in pieces from his graduate collection. It's rare that a designer so skilled at tailoring uses this talent in such a visionary way to not only perfect traditional silhouettes but to create dynamic and provocative new shapes.

Throughout the exhibit background information and quotes from McQueen are printed on the walls, explaining the basics of his philosophy to someone unfamiliar with the designer and revealing new facets of his psyche and technique to even the most avid acolyte. Perhaps most revelatory is the information on the controversially titled "Highland Rape" collection. It was easy when one learned the collection referenced the rape of the Scottish land by England to assume the meaning was less personal than an initial impression implied. But on the contrary, seeing McQueen's devotion to his Scottish heritage emphasized throughout and the way he spoke of the Jacobite Risings shows how very personal this collection was.

Savage_Beauty_3.jpgWe are quickly ushered into the darker, masochistic facets of McQueen's personality and design as we explore the Romantic Gothic room and the Cabinet of Curiousities. In one quote McQueen talks about how people view some of his more violent work, his bondage and fetish influences come to mind. He explains that to him these phenomenon are not aggressive but romantic. He also explores the romance in the Victorian Cult of Death and figures like vampires and highwaymen.

The Cabinet of Curiosities is one of the most intense experiences of the exhibit. Video from "No. 13," the man vs. machine collection, and the difficult to watch "La Poupee" are as provocative now as they were at their staging. It seems every iconic objet from McQueen's career is here - from the armadillo heel to the wooden prosthetic legs worn by a paraplegic Olympian on the runway.


Perhaps my personal favorite collection, aesthetically, is Widows of Culloden, which gets poignant treatment in this exhibit. In the audio tour, Sarah Jessica Parker talks about wearing a variation of "Ensemble" in McQueen's clan tartan to the Anglomania opening gala. This collection (and exhibit) really highlighted the designer's ability to combine seemingly disparate ideas and aesthetics in a meaningful way. He at once referenced his country's history, more recent pop-culture phenomenon and a femininity and delicacy it is difficult to tap into when working with such weighty materials, both figurative and literal.


The poignant end to the original Widows of Culloden presentation also makes a fitting end to this exhibit. Along with pieces from the last collection Lee Alexander McQueen lived to show the public, the slowly revealing hologram of an ethereal Kate Moss dances and writhes in the display, and in your mind as you leave the space. It is a bit emotional. Even for those whose hearts are not heavy, I believe minds will be. As in life, McQueen is nothing if not thought provoking and will challenge your ideas of fashion, your ideas of art and your ideas of sexuality.


The exhibit is on display through August 4, expertly and lovingly curated by Andrew Bolton.

[Images: Getty; additional research from The Metropolitan Museum of Art's rich Web treatment of the exhibit, seen here.]