Conversation: McQueen’s ‘Savage Beauty’
An exhibition of the work of designer Alexander McQueen has just opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York City. It’s called Savage Beauty. McQueen was the son of a cab driver and a teacher who rose to become one of the best known and sometimes most controversial fashion designers in the world. He took his own life last year at the age 40. This is the first retrospective organized around his work.
Joining me by phone from New York is Andrew Bolton, curator of the exhibition:
JEFFREY BROWN: I want to just start with the basic question, especially for those of us who don’t follow the world of fashion regularly: Why Alexander McQueen for an exhibition at the Met? What made you want to do it?
ANDREW BOLTON: I think that after he died last year we wanted to stage an exhibition that focused on McQueen’s contributions to fashion and fashion history. McQueen was an extraordinary designer in that he was able marry the skills of his craft, as well as looking at fashion and using it as a vehicle to express rather complex ideas and concepts. So he was able to marry craftsmanship with conceptualism. We felt it was an ideal place to show his work in the museum.
JEFFREY BROWN: So when you organize an exhibition like this, you have to look at his development, I guess. What did you come to see as the key to organizing and understanding the work?
ANDREW BOLTON: As you mentioned earlier, he trained as a tailor on Saville Row in his youth, and every aspect of his work was informed by tailoring in one form or another. So we start the exhibition off with a gallery devoted to tailoring. But I think most interesting about McQueen in terms of his design process, is that he was able to marry the rigors of tailoring, or the disciplines of tailoring, with the more spontaneous aspects of dressmaking. So there is a lovely marriage between those two aspects of his work. And McQueen was known for infusing his work with contrasting opposites like man/machine, predator/prey. And the sort of passion or frisson of McQueen’s work often comes from the sort contrasting opposites so I felt that throughout the exhibition I wanted to sort of convey those sorts of dialectical relationships in his work.
JEFFREY BROWN: And an incredibly theatrical and dramatic vision as well, which I guess is often there in fashion design, but really comes in spades with him.
ANDREW BOLTON: I think what was extraordinary about McQueen is he infused all of his collections, both the runways shows, but the fashions themselves, with such emotion. He was such an emotional designer. I think that we wanted to sort capture the drama and the spectacle of his runway shows, but also the sort of effecting presence of his fashions. So we worked very closely with Sam Gainsbury and Joseph Bennett, who had produced McQueen’s runway shows almost from the beginning of his career, because I wanted the spirit of McQueen very much be channeled through the themography of the exhibition. And in a way I wanted the exhibition to unfold like a fairy tale, like a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. He was very dark, McQueen, and often looked at the darker side of the 19th century. So I wanted him, the sort of whole exhibition, to have this sort of Edgar Allen Poe sort of feel to it.
JEFFREY BROWN: Is there an example or a favorite that you have? We’re showing some of the work.
ANDREW BOLTON: I think that one of my favorite collections he did was a collection called “No. 13,” and it was the first one I actually saw when I was in London. And it was a show that was dedicated to the Arts and Crafts movement of the 19th century, but also looking at the contrasting opposites of man/machine, and ended with a model, Shalom Harlow, rotating on a turntable like a ballerina and two robots from the Fiat company spray painting her dress. So her dress was white, and these robots spray painted it acid green and black, almost like a Jackson Pollock sort of painting. To me, it sort of captured the sort of sublime aspects of McQueen’s work. McQueen was a deeply, deeply romantic in the sort of Byronic tradition, and often channeled the sublime in his work. And so, again, I was very keen to show how, when you went to a McQueen show, you weren’t quite sure when you left how you felt, whether you loved it or you hated it, or whether you were filled with awe or wonder. Very much associated with a concept of the sublime. So I wanted to also channel that through the exhibition as well.
JEFFREY BROWN: You mentioned the romantic aspect, and maybe it is Byronic, but of course there is also the bad boy side, the shock value and the over the top for some people— often discussed is the ‘Highland Rape’ collection, where he was on the receiving end of a lot of negative attention on that one. He said it was a commentary of the Brits and Scots, but critics saw it as misogynistic.
ANDREW BOLTON: Absolutely. I think you are you are right. He was a great provocateur, McQueen, and that particular collection you mentioned, ‘Highland Rape’, was one of the collections that featured the bumsters, which was a pair of trousers that sat so low on your hips, it showed your bottom. But I think that the styling and the presentation of that collection was very harsh, very angry, very aggressive. McQueen often channeled the anger of the streets in his collections, but I think that because he had the rape in the title, it was interpreted as the rape of women. And McQueen always argued that it was the rape of Scotland and referenced the Jacobite uprisings in the 18th century and the highland clearances of the 19th century. But I think by using the term ‘rape’ in a title, he was very much using the rape of women as a metaphor for the rape of Scotland.
JEFFREY BROWN: I am curious, as a curator in this field and putting together a show like this, when you are dealing with it as a commercial enterprise — and you are up front about you rely on the fashion house itself for some of the funding, and I imagine for a lot of the work itself, I guess — Does that present any limits or challenges to you in terms of the curatorial aspect or the scholarship?
ANDREW BOLTON: Not at all, we have complete curatorial autonomy. We did work closely with the McQueen Archive in London to actually obtain the material, but the actual choice was all down to the curators. We selected every garment and we also curated the exhibition in terms of the a narrative But working with the McQueen Archive was indispensable. They had the body of material from McQueen’s career, almost from the beginning to the end, and about 80 percent of the pieces on display are from the McQueen Archives. But in terms of the selectionb and in terms of the narrativeb we had absolute complete curatorial autonomy.
JEFFREY BROWN: And the McQueen brand, of course, survives his death, right?
ANDREW BOLTON: It does and Sarah Burton is now the creative director of McQueen and Sarah worked with McQueen for 14 years, eight of them being his head designer of women’s wear. And I think it’s extraordinary in what she is achieving there. I don’t think she’s just channeling the DNA. I think she really is a DNA of the McQueen house. There is a softer, sort of more feminine side to the collections, but still, she’s channeling the sort of major leitmotifs of McQueen’s career.
JEFFREY BROWN: Finally I’m always curious about how much the work of an Alexander McQueen affects the rest of us, you know? Who are not going to the runway shows or not buying the work that you are displaying there. I gather it’s already an extremely popular exhibition, so something taps in for people. How much are we impacted, if at all, by what he’s done?
ANDREW BOLTON: Certainly in terms of bumsters, that was an item of clothing that affected the High Street enormously, the low-slung pants that you see everywhere now, was very much launched by McQueen. But I think on a more philosophical level, I think McQueen— because he was such an emotional designer, and he channeled his emotions through his work, people are responding very much to that. When you walk through the exhibition, the objects almost have this incredible effecting presence, and people are responding enormously to that. And the fact that he was such a fantasist. He told such lovely stories through his fashions, so the storytelling aspect of his work is again something people are engaging with. And the fact that fashion isn’t just about wearability, it’s not just about pragmatics, fashion really is about identity, it’s about conveying ideas about class or religion, politics. And I think McQueen was a deeply political designer and I think in his work those concepts come through very clearly.
JEFFREY BROWN: Alright, Andrew Bolton is the curator of the show Savage Beauty on the work of designer Alexander McQueen. Thanks so much for talking with us.
ANDREW BOLTON: Thank you very much.
JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you for joining us again on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.