“I wanted to learn everything, everything. Give me everything.” This quote appears on a large screen, playing footage of a young Lee McQueen at work, adjusting a model’s hair.
It is a sentiment that permeates the National Gallery of Victoria’s Alexander McQueen: Mind, Mythos, Muse, which opens on 11 December. As well as being a Savile Row-trained tailor and highly skilled maker, McQueen was a voracious consumer of film, photography, art, music, technology and philosophy, as well as natural and human history.
All of this is on display in the exhibition, which contextualises more than 120 McQueen works alongside paintings, sculptures and historical objects. These act as a simulated reference library drawing on themes related to each garment.
“McQueen was all about research, he worked in a very particular manner and the research was very broad,” says Catherine Brickhill who was the first designer employed by McQueen, in 1996. “He was very much about books and films which often were completely unrelated to clothing.”
Approximately half the NGV’s display travelled to Australia from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma) where the exhibition first ran. For the Melbourne show 56 items have been added from the NGV’s archives, and curators worked closely with some of McQueen’s collaborators and peers, including Brickhill, to stage it.
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Robert Fairer documented McQueen’s runways both backstage and on the catwalk from the very beginning. “It sort of hit you right there in the chest,” Fairer says of McQueen’s graduate showcase at Central Saint Martins. “When the music came on and those first looks came out … It was just raw energy, it went straight through me and from that moment I was hooked.”
At the exhibition, Fairer’s photographs are stuck like posters on the wall of a sparse corridor that feels distinctly like being behind the scenes of a catwalk.
Brickhill recalls McQueen’s desire to push boundaries, and his insistence that fashion could make people feel something. Combining immense technical ability with piercing social and historical commentary made him both the fashion industry’s darling and its enfant terrible.
For instance, in the autumn/winter 2006-07 Widows of Culloden collection, McQueen memorialised the women left behind after the 1775 battle of Culloden, where the British army overwhelmed and massacred Jacobite forces. It is one of the best-represented collections in the NGV archive. McQueen drew inspiration from his Scottish heritage, revisiting themes from an earlier, controversial, collection called Highland Rape. A series of garments in earthy tartans, furs and leathers evolve to softer neutral tones and textures, all of which required extraordinary skill to construct.
Nafisa Tosh, a seamstress who worked with McQueen on the collection, recalls spending an entire weekend on a red tartan dress (made famous by Sarah Jessica Parker). “He gave me a roll of tartan to pleat up,” she says. “So I had to match it up vertically and horizontally to get that yellow line running straight.”
In order to create a grand ball gown made of ivory silk jacquard, Tosh and the team painstakingly matched up the patterns in a series of 20 panels, before creating pleats. This was a necessity – when the roll of fabric arrived it was only 36 inches wide – but the result is an extraordinary gown made from one continuous loop of fabric. Featuring a pattern of flowers, branches and birds, it sits off the shoulder, the heavy fabric ruched around the upper arms, with a series of very narrow box pleats running vertically through the torso.
“No designer I’ve ever worked for could think like this,” she says. “He knew the craft inside out. He knew how to pattern cut, he knew how to sew, how to drape, and if you weren’t getting it, he would jump on to the machine and show you what was possible.”
McQueen’s desire for mastery extended beyond the classic skills of dressmaking. He was also an early adopter of technology. More than 20 years before Coperni made headlines for spray painting Bella Hadid this year, McQueen had the model Shalom Harlow stand on a rotating platform in a white strapless dress while two robotic arms sprayed her with yellow and black paint.
The dress from that famous moment is not present in the exhibition, but the astonishing theatrics are displayed on screen. “He had this very open mind about everything,” Brickhill says. “He was always ahead of the curve.”
This fascination with technology, pushing boundaries and fashion as social commentary also underpinned McQueen’s last complete collection: Plato’s Atlantis. In the final room of the exhibition, several dresses featuring his pioneering screen prints are on display.
The collection was an exploration of rising sea levels, caused by global heating. In McQueen’s fantasy, this meant humans had to evolve into amphibious creatures, living partially underwater. At the NGV the dresses from the collection are juxtaposed with photographs by Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle that depict melting Antarctic ice caps.
“There’s a message in every single show that he’s done. Many messages still resonate today, possibly even more than they did at the time,” says Fairer.
Alexander McQueen: Mind, Mythos, Muse is on display at the NGV from 11 December 2022 to 16 April 2023