“I never conform to any sort of fashion ideal. My ideal was to always show reality, even though I started at Savile Row and ended up a Givenchy in Paris, to depict the times I live in”
- Alexander McQueen, Harper’s Bazaar, September 2008
The death of Alexander McQueen in February 2010 at age 40 rocked the fashion world and elevated his too-brief 15 year career to mythic status. Savage Beauty is the book published in conjunction with the 2011 Metropolitan Museum of Art’s retrospective of his work and it’s a fine addition to a sewers library as a visual chronicle of the most unique couturier ever to work commercially in the modern fashion industry.
This book is all about his work, don‘t expect much insight into Lee Alexander McQueen as a person. Unlike Andy Warhol or Yves St. Laurent, both of whom had very public artistic careers that spanned decades, McQueen was clearly an artist who spoke through his work and for the most part eschewed the glitz of the fashion industry. The book recounts that instead of hanging around after his shows to speak with the media and press the flesh more often he would duck into a car and speed off, leaving his work to speak for itself. There is some biographical content but no new information or analysis of his tragic suicide other than to note that he ended his life just 9 days after his mother died from cancer. Like most fashion books the preface is several pages of bloviating fashion writing and the most interesting content is at the end, where Sarah Burton, who took over as creative director after his death, offers fascinating insights into the creative process behind his work.
And his work speaks volumes.
“Art is a man’s name” is a quote from Andy Warhol. Those 5 words, so simple, dismissive, ironic and astute, pretty much sums up our modern world were Art with a capital “A” has no real influence or meaning in the lives of most people. After Western fine art freed itself once and for all from the constraints of the church and cultural censorship by the end of the 20th century it had all been said, done and put out there and really for those of us alive today what is left of Art with a capital “A” that is transcendent and yet accessible? Well we still have fashion and fortunately someone like McQueen to show us what can be produced from the convergence of history, culture, painting, sculpture, performance, couture, technology and metaphor. Add to that mix a good dose of mystery and a willingness to embrace taboo like Diane Arbus or Robert Mapplethorpe and the end result is the most potent, provocative, frightening and beautiful fashion of the recent past. And just like Arbus and Mapplethorpe he was one of those rare and brave artists who had no persona in his work: what you saw was really him and he put it out there for the world to see without apology.
Savage Beauty does a good job of explaining the more obvious and easy to understand aspects of McQueen’s work and the book’s large format and numerous full length photos enable a reader (and especially a sewer) to linger over his astonishing technical skill in not only couture dressmaking but also bespoke tailoring. His facility with color and texture is amazing; there are gowns made from the shells of razor clams and mussels, gowns with animal skulls, horns and taxidermy birds rising from the shoulders. There are close ups of digitally printed fabrics that are milled in such a way that the pattern pieces must have been printed at the same time as the motifs and then the garment was hand draped before being sewn. In these same prints the motifs continue flawlessly from woven fabric still with its selvage fringe (I’m guessing) to a knit mesh with no interruption in the motifs. He worked in every conceivable type of fabric and material with equal skill whether it was wool, silk, lace, metal, leather, rubber, wood, hair, fur or boning. He also used just about every embellishment technique known to man, everything from beading to historical types of embroidery such as Stumpwork, used on the piece that is my absolute favorite in the book, a jacket made from grey and pink silk Birdseye. Stumpwork is three dimensional embroidery done with padding and wire; notice how the bird’s wings stand away from the surface. The Amaranthus in the hat look almost totally 3-D. Notice also the sleeves cross over the body like those of a strait jacket. I’m still trying to figure out what that means.
As with any art book the format is large and the binding is very nice. The paper is matte finished so every detail can be seen at once, and my only small complaint is that some the photos are heavily retouched in the details and this is especially notable in accessories like shoes. The front cover has one of those flat plastic lenticular lenses that we all know from childhood where the image changes depending on the angle you view it; a melting skull transforms into McQueen’s face. It makes me think of that Frances Bacon painting that interprets a Diego Velazquez painting of Pope Innocent X. The two seen together sum up, for me the approach that McQueen used. And the very last piece in the book is what his art is about in metaphor: it’s a wooden boot that is actually one piece from a pair of prosthetic legs carved from elm wood that legless athlete Aimee Mullins wore in his 1999 show with a knee length skirt made from lace and a leather corset. So many emotions come together in that one silent but fascinating object: craft, fashion, disability, norms, beauty and perception. Evidently fashion editors still request it for shoots thinking it’s merely a pair of boots.
This book is rich in meaning and one that repays me with with something new every time I open it. For Alexander McQueen “Art” was much more than a man’s name.