It used to be called the fashion party of the year, but somewhere along the line the sartorial modifier got axed. The Costume Institute gala at the Met has become New York’s party of the year, period — no modifiers needed. Yet this time around it seems appropriate to revive the adjective. This was a fashion party like no other. Recent gala exhibitions have focused on a distant genius (Poiret) or examined fashion at a particular intersection with the larger culture (“The Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion”; “American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity”). “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” celebrates pure creation, the brilliant work of one brilliant man who lived not in the hallowed recesses of history but right now, up until a year ago, the currency of his work only deepening the awe it inspires.
Yet currency is a funny concept in relation to McQueen, not because he knew history so well and referenced it liberally and often, but because his work had more to do with his responses to internal rather than external, societal stimuli. Which does not suggest that McQueen acted imperviously to the world around him. His last three shows were about humanity’s wanton disregard for the environment and a subsequent imaginary evolutionary process. In the lyrical Sarabande collection, he took an anti-elitist (read: curves are OK) stance regarding body types. But whatever societal occurrences registered in his psyche, his responses were neither clinical nor coldly pragmatic. Emotion was the root of it all, an emotion funneled through a romantic sensibility that swung wildly from terrifyingly dark to places of great light. Quotes throughout the galleries offer brief insights into the psyche. “There’s blood beneath every layer of skin,” reads one. And another, “Things rot.…I used flowers because they die.”
A McQueen show was always a magical experience. Even when you didn’t love it, it awed. Walking through Andrew Bolton’s evocative installation on Monday night, those guests privileged enough to have experienced the clothes regularly the first time around — retailers, models, editors, fashion writers — felt the resurgent memories, not merely of dazzling visual spectacles but of the emotions thus evoked: the heroic desolation of Shipwreck; the tense, high-consequence gamesmanship of the Human Chess Game; the struggle between determination and despair of They Shoot Horses.
Those guests were reminded, or should have been, of how privileged we are to witness the development of designers, especially those of rare and special talent. Everything in this show, from the bumsters to the Widows of Culloden tartan series to a number of what can, without overstatement, be called masterpieces, represents a less-than-20-year window, and merits its museum-quality distinction despite having been produced on fashion’s unforgiving, relentless treadmill of a schedule.
“There’s a difference between those of us who are commercial designers and those few who are artists,” said Tom Ford, who with Domenico De Sole brought Lee McQueen into the Gucci Group fold back when. “That’s design,” said Donna Karan, on the arm of her date Calvin Klein. “That’s art.” “You just can’t compare it to anything,” offered Mary-Kate Olsen. “I mean, it’s art. It speaks for itself.”
Certainly it speaks to the notion that in this most egalitarian of eras, when celebrities dress for the masses and political correctness (along with good-looking clothes) demands celebration of cheap-and-chic, all fashion is most decidedly not created equal. Rather, fashion has many varied, valid points of view, created by different kinds of designers and embraced by different types of consumers. This show pulses with the reality that some fashion exists on a higher plane, that a degree of elitism — not only of price but of thought process, of emotion and, ultimately, of the design itself — is more than OK. It’s essential.
McQueen’s particular brilliance involved a rare confluence of gifts: creativity, craft, storytelling and showmanship, all present in outsize denominations. As a result, and given its exquisite staging, “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” holds up remarkably to the grandeur of the Met. In so doing, it plays into the long-held — and inaccurate — notion that McQueen was not a designer of real clothes for real women. He designed beautiful real clothes, as does his successor, Sarah Burton. But when it came to his runway shows, his need to tell a story trumped whatever overt merch-pushing inclinations he may have harbored. Those who love fashion should be grateful for that. Fashion plays many roles, one of which is to transport us from the ordinary, and only a very few designers have the creative-technical-emotional skill set to command that ship. One such rara avis is being celebrated through July 31 at the Met.
“There is no way back for me now,” McQueen’s quote, said to WWD in 2009, leaps from the exhibit baseboard. “I am going to take you on journeys you’ve never dreamed were possible.”