Tim Blanks Looks Back At The Costume Institute’s Record-Breaking Alexander McQueen Show
On a Sunday night 20 years ago, Lee McQueen stood outside now-legendary gay London club night FF facing down Suzie Krueger, the doorperson who was quite as terrifying as her namesake Freddy. With his shaved head and his chunky frame shoe-horned into a Ben Sherman shirt (not to mention teeth that hadn’t seen brush or paste since the dawn of man), Lee looked like a right hard skinhead. Except Krueger didn’t believe he was gay. “Prove it,” she snarled. “Kiss that boy over there,” indicating a random punter in the queue. So what do you think Lee did next?
I know why that memory surfaced while I was wending my way through the Met’s McQueen exhibition on its last Saturday, one of the 661,509 visitors who made the show an unprecedented phenomenon. The image of lumbering Lee inflicting his lack of dental hygiene on a hapless stranger outside a long-gone London club underlined how equally unprecedented his two-decade arc was: from Saint Martins student to the stuff of legend, capable of galvanizing the same vast and indefinable cross section of the general public who would turn out for King Tut or the Mona Lisa. And for the same reason—they all offered windows into a mysterious, transcendent world where the act of creation defied mere human comprehension. The old saw—it’s just clothes—simply didn’t apply to McQueen (though there was one soul who insisted on querying the “wearability” of everything while I was walking round). I doubt that many of the Met’s visitors would have known much about Lee the Skinhead, but they might have recognized him in the questing iconoclasm of Alexander the Celebrated Designer, whose words throughout the show amounted to a manifesto in mesmerizing flux, right up to that bitter end. McQueen was a man at war with himself, and the battle was being waged right before our eyes in all the opulent, tattered, gilded, and tarnished surfaces of the show. That kind of Sturm und Drang has often made for record-breaking box office in everything from opera to celluloid epics. It was made even more persuasive here by the heart-breaking immediacy of McQueen’s own history. He was a boy, for God’s sake.
I thought curator Andrew Bolton captured the flux, the battle, and the boy brilliantly. The decision to focus on groups of outfits from single collections offered a more detailed insight into McQueen’s many states of mind over the years than the standard bit-of-everything overview. And the Met’s soaring salons were so successfully turned into physical projections of those states of mind—exactly what McQueen himself used to do with his shows—that my breath was well and truly taken, perhaps most of all by the room of rough-hewn wood where the Highland Rape collection was displayed. The gaping split in the floor had the tinge of ominous horror that McQueen himself was so partial to. And then, to pass from that to a miniature Kate Moss whirling in hologram like the faerie queene…
There have been many times when I’ve sat through a fashion show and marveled at the madness of so much time, effort, and money being expended on ten minutes for a small group of fashion industry professionals. It’s been a privilege to be part of that, but I’d always imagine some twenty-first-century Diaghilev making a mint by taking such a show on the road, granting the power to dream to a much wider audience. The Met just proved it’s possible. And if McQueen and his corps of collaborators (whose work here is exhibition-worthy in its own right) were a rare breed, there are certainly deserving others to whom the Bolton Template could be applied. Which might make this weekend’s never-ending queues snaking down Fifth and into Central Park a vision of a new kind of future for fashion.