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Alexander McQueen and the art of contrasts

Alexander McQueen and the art of contrasts
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First Published: Thu, Aug 04 2011. 09 16 PM IST

I am not the only lady gaga over McQueen—there are thousands of people in the queue, waiting an average of 2 hours to enter the spectacular retrospective Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, which is in its last week at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) in New York. Its 4 May opening pulled a crowd of 5,100, the highest first-day traffic the Met has had since the Vincent van Gogh show in 2005. Nearly half a million visitors have already seen the exhibition, a tribute to the genius designer who tragically ended his life last year, at the age of 41. Viewing time has been extended to accommodate more pilgrims to this unlikely mecca of fashion—the show opens at 8.30am for members (an hour before the rest of the museum) and the Met’s holiday on Mondays has been suspended for McQueen. Inside, the crowd moves in orderly lines, but it is packed three deep—it is like trying to view the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, you never quite make it up close, but it is still worth it.
In fact, it is breathtaking. Quite literally so, as you suck in your breath and gasp as you are subjected to a series of delight-shocks, and just when you think there can’t be anything to top the exhibit in front of you, you gasp again. At the end of the show, emotionally wrung out like a piece of laundry, I pause to think—what is it about McQueen’s work that generates such an emotional wow? I have admired clothes of exquisite beauty from many designers, but what is that extra magic potion that McQueen pours into his creations?
You realize pretty quickly that these aren’t just pretty frocks, they are exceptional pieces of art, and McQueen isn’t just a fashion designer but an artist of phenomenal talent. His chosen canvas happens to be the female form, his medium fabric, leather, metal, wood, indeed found objects as diverse and curious as clam shells, impala horns and human hair. What do you call a dress of ostrich feathers and glass medical slides, all dyed red to cue blood? Mixed-media artwork? (VOSS, 2001.) What do you call a coiled corset (think elongated African spiral necklaces) constructed of aluminium? Sculpture? (The Overlook, 1999-2000.) What do you call a short film showing a woman morphing into a sea creature? Video art? (Plato’s Atlantis, 2010.) What do you call a mirrored glass box with a plump naked woman reclining on a sofa, surrounded by thousands of moths that fly out as the glass walls crash down? Installation art? (VOSS, 2001.) What do you call a hologram of Kate Moss twirling ghost-like in a wispy flowing dress? Digital art? (Widows of Culloden, 2008-09.)
His fashion shows too weren’t the usual strut down the catwalk, they were stunning pieces of performance art. Who can forget the mesmerizing power of two robots (very Star Wars attack mode) spraying fresh paint on the model’s pristine white muslin dress, and as she goes round and round, you see a yellow and black pattern of sublime beauty created in front of your eyes (No. 13, 1999.) And like all McQueen works, there are multiple layers of meaning here—machine vs man, aggression vs surrender, calculated design vs random improvisation—prodding you to think deeper. The point is McQueen may have operated within the confines of the fashion world, but the Met retrospective—which showcases 100 of his finest works, starting from his college graduating collection Jack the Ripper right up to the posthumously finished Angels and Demons—convinces me that in time he will not just be compared with contemporary designers such as John Galliano and Marc Jacobs, but also contemporary artists of significant stature such as Damien Hirst and Anish Kapoor.
Like all great art, McQueen’s work is not just visually arresting, but also provocative food for thought. His collections had a serious conceptual spine, and he often went out on a limb to make a political comment. For example, Highland Rape, as also Widows of Culloden, is a comment on Scotland’s violent history at the hands of the British—and the collection of brutally slashed dresses generated ample controversy. In VOSS, the naked woman on the sofa, obviously overweight, was a way of thumbing his nose at fashion’s insistence on super-skinny models. In the same show, he fitted double amputee Aimee Mullins—the paralympic champion who walked the ramp for him—with beautiful carved wooden prosthetic legs, again shaking up the very notion of beauty and the fashion world’s politics of exclusion. The wooden legs, incidentally, were called in for shoots by many magazine editors, who thought they were boots!
But ultimately, I think it is the “tension of opposites” that makes McQueen’s work spellbinding. He has a knack for juxtaposing two contradictory forces—romance and brutality, nature and technology, sexuality and elegance, medievalism and modernity, primitive and futuristic, pristine and ragged, death and life—and making them tango together with crackling tension. For example, he brings nature and technology together in his last collection Plato’s Atlantis, which is based on the notion that as ice caps melt and sea levels rise, the human species will adapt and evolve into sea creatures—a reverse take on Darwin’s The Origin of Species. The clothes that follow are utterly riveting—hi-tech engineered prints that suggest snakes, spreading out like symmetrical Rorschach images, cut into futuristic clothes that exaggerate the hips. Lady Gaga wore the Jellyfish outfit from this collection, as also the amazing Armadillo shoes, for her Bad Romance video—in fact, she launched the video at the end of his fashion show, triggering such a stampede that the show’s live-stream website crashed.
McQueen knew how to translate his extravagant ideas from the ramp to wearable clothes in the store. When he died, I went and paid my own homage by buying a dress from his last collection. I am no slim model, but the dress fits like a glove, as if it was made for me. And that was part of his genius—he understood a woman’s body and how to make her feel beautiful.
Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult of the Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair with Luxury.
Write to Radha at luxurycult@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Aug 04 2011. 09 16 PM IST