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Alexander McQueen opens at the Met

May 2, 2011 |  1:30 pm

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"We're experiencing a McQueen moment," Thomas P. Campbell said Monday morning in New York during a preview of the exhibition "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

That's for sure. Opening Wednesday, the exhibition comes on the heels of McQueen successor Sarah Burton dressing Kate Middleton for the royal wedding last week.

Burton has certainly brought a softer sensibility to the brand since taking over after McQueen's suicide last year. But this is a show about McQueen himself, in all his dark and stormy glory.

Running through July 31, "Savage Beauty" features more than 100 ensembles and 70 accessories covering his 16-year career, from the majestic to the macabre. Clothing spans from his 1992 Central St. Martins postgraduate collection based on Jack The Ripper (a red-and-white, thorn-print silk coat lined with real human hair), to the final runway collection, "Angels and Demons,"  presentated after his death in February 2010, and steeped in religious imagery (a gilded feather shroud).

With haunting background music and darkened galleries, "Savage Beauty" mimics the "uneasy pleasure" of experiencing one of McQueen's runway extravaganzas, which Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton likens to "avant garde installations" and "performance art."

Some of the exhibition's many treats are films of McQueen shows, including "It's Only A Game" (spring-summer 2005), which cast models as chess pieces in a battle of East vs. West, and "No. 13," (spring-summer 1999), which featured a model being spray-painted by two robots.

Bolton compares McQueen's tortured genius to that of the Romantic-era poets and painters in that the designer appreciated beauty through the lens of emotion.

"He reconstituted the romantic past for the post-modern future," Bolton said.

Illustrating the point are several ensembles from McQueen's final, fully realized runway collection, "Plato's Atlantis" (spring-summer 2010), about the devolution of the species. The strangely beautiful sculpted dresses and "Armadillo boots" made the models appear as if they were morphing from humans back into underwater beings.

PHOTOS: View ensembles from the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the Met

McQueen webcast the show live (he was one of the earliest designers to use new technology to do so), as a way of trying to involve the consumer with the artistic process. In this case, technology was McQueen's expression of the Romantic concept of the sublime and his vision of the future of fashion, Bolton explained.

12 The exhibition is organized thematically around the isms that informed McQueen's work: naturalism, nationalism, exoticism and historicism -- particularly the Victorian Gothic, and the dichotomy of life and death. One of the most memorable pieces is a gown from the spring/summer 2007 "Sarabande" collection, covered in fresh flowers, now dried and decaying with age, an effect inspired by the dead fruit in contemporary artist Sam Taylor Wood's work.

It is also thrilling to see the "Cabinet of Curiosities" room, with runway accessories designed by such talents as Shaune Leane and Philip Treacy. Take for example, Treacy's "Chinese Garden" carved cork headpiece, and his "Butterfly Hat" swarming with orange winged creatures fashioned out of turkey feathers. Then there's the "Armadillo boot" made famous by Lady Gaga, and the anatomically-correct, silver "Spine corset" designed by Leane.

Another room is fitted with mirrored cases displaying dresses like jewels. The setting allows an appreciation for the details in the clothing, such as the surgical slides layered like paillettes on a gown, the floral embroidery on a corseted jute dress, and the oyster shells sewn onto a skirt in a silk print after a 19th century Japanese silk screen.

It is particularly illuminating to read McQueen's quotes posted throughout the collection, in which he seems to hint at his legacy. "It is important to look at death because it is part of life," he said in 2010. "It's a sad thing, melancholy and romantic at the same time. It's the end of a cycle -- everything has to end. The cycle of life is positive because it gives room for new things."

One wonders if he had this moment planned all along.

-- Booth Moore, reporting from New York

RELATED:

Royal Wedding Dress: Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen

Paris Fashion Week: At Alexander McQueen dresses fit for a queen

Fashion Diary: Alexander McQueen, an appreciation

Photo: Dress shown at the exhibition from the fall/winter 2010 collection. Credit: Solve Sundsbo / Metropolitan Museum of Art

Photo bottom: Sarabande, from the spring/summer 2010 collection. Credit: Solve Sundsbo / Metropolitan Museum of Art

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