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© Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty

The late Brit designer gets a major retrospective set up in his honour at New York's Costume Institute

“Life to me is a bit of a Brothers Grimm fairytale” once remarked Lee Alexander McQueen. Sadly for him, it turned out to be a particularly dark and tragic one that ended on Feb 11, 2010 with his suicide in his Mayfair flat. A year on from the tragedy, McQueen has received the ultimate posthumous accolade – a retrospective at the Costume Institute in New York – becoming only the second designer (after Gianni Versace in 1997) to be honoured so soon after his death. 'Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty', which opens on May 4, traces the evolution of the designer from his Jack the Ripper-inspired 1992 MA collection right through to the wondrously tender collection based on the art of Hieronymous Bosch that was to be his finale.

With unparalleled access to the McQueen archive, sets designed by Sam Gainsbury (whose company Gainsbury & Whiting was responsible for the ground-breaking, sense shattering runway shows McQueen staged over the years) and access to the memories and recollections of McQueen’s closest confidantes, including his trusted lieutenant of 14 years (and now creative director) Sarah Burton, the exhibition promises to be a fascinating insight into the mind of one of Britain’s most influential designers. Dazed spoke to curator of the exhibition, Andrew Bolton.

Dazed Digital: What was your reaction to the first McQueen show you saw?
Andrew Bolton: The first show I saw was “Number 13” with Shalom Harlow where she is rotating on a dais and being sprayed by robots. It was one of those incredible moments where you weren’t sure what was happening. The whole show was extraordinary – it was based on the 19th century Arts-and-Crafts movement and had this handcraft feel and then to end the show with these robots – he had upended that whole aspect of the show and it became about man and machines.  The power of McQueen’s work lies in the frisson and contrast of complete opposites.

DD: You write a beautiful thing in the catalogue where you say of McQueen, “for him, love is the most exalted of human emotions”. How did you see that translated to his work?
Andrew Bolton: I came to that conclusion quite late in the exhibition honestly. I was able to read every article published on McQueen and he would talk about love and his search for love. His shows would really reflect his state of mind when he did them. For example, in “The Girl Who Lived in a Tree”, he’d just come back from India and had a spiritual experience there. So it was a very gentle, very soft, very whimsical collection. Not a lot of anger like in his early collections – the anger dissipated as he matured even though it was always there. He was a very emotional designer and the rawness of his emotions was often reflected in his clothing.

DD: More than any other fashion designer in recent memory, his work was intensely autobiographical. How do you think he took elements of his own history and made it resonate so widely with people?
Andrew Bolton: A really good example of that was the witches collection – “In Memory of Elizabeth How” – at the time it seemed so removed from contemporary culture. It was deeply autobiographical because it was about one of his relatives who was burnt at the stake at the Salem witch trials. But the way he talks about it, it wasn’t just about his relatives but that at any particular moment, it was about any minorities who had been persecuted, be it gays, Muslims or blacks. So it became this continuation of his thoughts from his autobiography into history and into contemporary culture.

DD: Why was now the right time to stage a retrospective on McQueen?
Andrew Bolton: When he first passed away, there was all this speculation about what was to happen to the archive. From my perspective, I was nervous that I didn’t want it to be left too long. I also didn’t know what was going to happen to the team: Sarah Burton who worked with him for 14 years, Trino Verkade, Sam Gainsbury. I really wanted to tap into their memories of him. I felt by collaborating with them, I could  understand his design process better. I thought it would have more truth and integrity to it. It’s a very personal exhibition actually – you really get a sense of him when you look at these clothes that were so beautifully crafted, but it was also through clothing that he could express quite complex views and concepts.

DD: Considering a lot of his early work was sold to friends and patrons, with not a lot of photographic evidence of it, how did you go about sourcing pieces for the exhibition?
Andrew Bolton: We were very lucky in terms of the team being still intact, so we were able to approach people who were around during that time. There’s no ‘bumsters’ in the McQueen archive but it is such an important silhouette he instigated. Through the McQueen network, we were able to find an original pair of bumsters from a woman who was McQueen’s flatmate for a while. Not only was it an original pair but it had the piss stains from the “Highland Rape” collection. Daphne Guinness gave us access to the MA graduation collection that she bought from Isabella Blow’s estate.

To me they are the rarest pieces in the collection – I never thought we’d get anything from there. One of which is the 3-point origami frock coat which he continued to develop over his career. He was such a confident and assured designer and he established these silhouettes and motifs really early in his career and just evolved them. What I was blown away by was the fact that his tailoring was extraordinary – how he married the rigors of tailoring with the playfulness of dressmaking.

DD: You worked very closely with McQueen’s loyal band of contributors for the exhibition – from Sam Gainsbury on sets and of course Trino Verkade and Sarah Burton for the McQueen archive. What insights did you gain from them?
Andrew Bolton: Talking to Sarah was really fascinating - like learning how he had to come up with a concept of the collection before focusing on the actual fashions itself. He took inspiration from everywhere.  It was a real eye-opener to find out how deeply autobiographical his work was.

DD: What sense did you get of the man in the course of curating the exhibition?
Andrew Bolton: The overriding feeling was that he was so deeply romantic. The more I read about him and heard his voice in interviews, I got the sense he was incredibly romantic and very brave to talk about his feelings so openly and put his emotions on public display. I really respected that.

'Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty'; The Costume Institute, 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, 
New York, New York 10028-0198, May 4 - July 31, 2011