Alexander McQueen exhibition becomes New York's latest blockbuster

British designer's show at Metropolitan Museum show attracts 661,409 visitors in just three months

In life, Alexander McQueen sometimes struggled to reconcile his extraordinary creativity with the commercial needs of business. In death the British designer, who killed himself last year a month shy of his 41st birthday, has officially achieved mass popularity with the news that the retrospective of his work at New York's Metropolitan Museum, which closed on Sunday, was one of the 10 most-visited exhibitions in the museum's 141-year history.

Since opening on 4 May, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty has attracted 661,409 visitors in just three months, ranking it alongside other Met blockbusters such as Mona Lisa (1963) and Treasures of Tutankhamun (1978.)

The show proved so popular, startling even the museum, that the exhibition was extended by a week and extra morning and night-time hours were added as well as special Monday openings – "Mondays with McQueen" – when the rest of the museum was shut.

Despite tickets costing $50 on the Mondays, 17,000 visitors happily paid the price and 100,000 copies of the exhibition's $45 catalogue were also sold, a giant hardbacked book with a memento mori-style hologram cover that morphs McQueen's face with that of a skull.

This has not been the only hit McQueen show this summer. In London, the Duchess of Cambridge's wedding dress, which was designed by Sarah Burton – McQueen's right-hand woman in life and the head designer of the McQueen label in death – has been Buckingham Palace's main attraction since opening last month.

"We knew [the Met exhibition] would do well, but we didn't know how well," Anna Wintour, editor of US Vogue and now elective trustee of the Metropolitan Museum's board, told the New York Times. "One of the mailroom guys told me yesterday how much he enjoyed the show. It just shows you how fashion now reaches so many different people."

Despite that statement's decided ring of Marie Antoinette, McQueen, possibly more than any other designer, would have loved the sentiment. McQueen, whose real first name was Lee, the youngest son of a taxi driver and teacher who grew up in a tower block in Stratford, remained extremely proud of his working-class East End roots.

They became as inextricably part of his identity as his rebelliousness, morbidity and homosexuality, all of which made up his outward and possibly inward self-image as the "outsider on the inside" that was an integral part of his work.

The Met's show captured all this sensitively. Its themed rooms showcased McQueen's skills in tailoring, couture, and dresses that were more sculptural than strictly fashion. It also featured the attention-grabbing fashion pieces that often, to McQueen's frustration, received more attention than his actual fashion, such as the spray-painted dress and S&M jewellery. All of these factors have contributed to the enormous, if tragically posthumous interest in McQueen: his clothes were neither fashion nor art but a previously unseen hybrid of both, unshackled at last from the constraining expectations and ultimately niche appeal of either.


Hadley Freeman in New York

The GuardianTramp

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