The fashion designer Alexander McQueen once said: “If you want to know me, just look at my work.” Australians will soon have the opportunity to do just that, with a major exhibition exploring his designs and influences set to open at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in December.
Sixty garments and accessories will travel from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma) to Melbourne for Alexander McQueen: Mind, Mythos, Muse, with another 50 designs coming from the NGV’s archive.
Katie Somerville, the NGV’s senior curator of fashion and textiles, described the museum’s existing McQueen collection as “a real strength” – so much so, the NGV exhibition will be almost twice the size of what was shown in LA.
The NGV first began procuring McQueen designs in 1995, just three years after he founded his eponymous label in London, and its collection also includes pieces from McQueen’s tenure at the French house Givenchy, where he worked between 1996 and 2001. Even after his death in 2010, the gallery has continued to acquire McQueen designs, with the fashion house currently headed by the creative director Sarah Burton.
Clarissa Esguerra, the associate curator of costume and textiles at Lacma, said it was an exciting moment “when we first began discussions with our colleagues at the NGV and realised they have donors like ours and could expand the show and make it something really special”.
McQueen was known for his intensely dramatic runway shows, often as grotesque as they were beautiful, and for his designs that incorporated natural history, mythology, sex, death and violence. The upcoming exhibition will juxtapose his designs with more than 70 historical artworks from the artistic movements that inspired him.
“We can’t know every time if [McQueen] was inspired by the exact works” in the show, Esguerra acknowledged, but said the curators hoped to create “more of a conversation” around his influences.
The exhibition will be divided into four themes – mythos, fashioned narratives, evolution and existence, and technical innovation – that reflect who McQueen was as a designer: equal parts creative genius and enfant terrible.
McQueen began his career as a student of tailors on Savile Row, where he honed his immense technical skills. At age 20 he moved to Milan, with no money or ability to speak Italian, and apprenticed for Romeo Gigli, before returning to London to attend Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. He rapidly became one of Britain’s most famous designers, before he killed himself at the age of 40 in 2010, the day before the funeral of his mother, Joyce.
His last complete collection, Plato’s Atlantis, was presented at Paris Fashion Week in 2009.
McQueen was fascinated by the power of narratives, said Michaela Hansen, the curatorial assistant in costume and textiles at Lacma. This saw him tackle controversial themes and ideas like his fourth runway show, titled Highland Rape Autumn Winter 1995. Intended as a commentary on colonialism and the Highland clearances of Scotland, reviewers criticised his decision to send models down the runway in ripped and bloody clothing as misogynistic. Several pieces from this collection will be displayed at the NGV.
The accusations of misogyny were a misreading of McQueen, Somerville said, adding that he championed women and made them the centre of his personal life and creative world. One was the socialite Isabella Blow, who became his muse and a patron upon seeing his graduate collection from Central Saint Martins and buying every piece. Garments originally owned by Blow and fellow muse Annabelle Neilson will also be on display at the NGV.
Somerville credited McQueen as being “able to break rules and fuel your imagination”, and said the NGV exhibition would be “full of challenge and delight and beauty … [a] wonderful opportunity for our audiences to consider his work”.
Alexander McQueen: Mind, Mythos, Muse will open at the National Gallery of Victoria on 11 December 2022.
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