McQueen works his magic on New York as Met unveils exhibition

Tribute to late designer from city's Metropolitan Museum of Art follows royal wedding dress commission

In life, Alexander McQueen was the risqué rebel of fashion, a designer who occasionally struggled to juggle his extraordinary creativity with the demands of commerciality; in death, he has achieved a level of establishment acceptance that he could never have dreamed possible – even with his elastic imagination.

Only four days after it was revealed that his label had received the commission of a generation, when the Duchess of Cambridge stepped out of the car wearing a wedding dress by the label's head designer, Sarah Burton, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York held a preview of its retrospective of the designer's work. Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty opens on Wednesday.

Since his death last year, Lee McQueen, who adopted the name Alexander for his label, has grown in prominence. It is an irony that this designer, who often played with images of mortality in his work, would have appreciated with his typically black humour.

The exhibition features all of McQueen's best-known work, from his early days in the 1990s, through his tempestuous tenure at Givenchy, to his very last collection.

The dress that was famously spraypainted mid-show by paint jets in 1999, the Chinese garden hat from his 2005 collection that was worn by his long-term muse, Isabella Blow, whose suicide in 2007 preceded McQueen's, and videos from his highly original shows all serve as reminders of the designer's unique talent.

"For me, this feels horrific, but [McQueen] would have loved it – he would have pretended that he didn't, but he would have, and the wedding dress would have given him such a sense of validation," said McQueen's long-time collaborator, milliner Philip Treacy, as he walked through the show.

"Fashion is supposed to be effortless, but when I look at every piece I think of what he put into it and how in the end the sheer pressure of creativity killed him. He promoted this idea of himself as an enfant terrible but he was actually a very sweet and gentle person – he wouldn't have wanted you to know that, either."

Fellow British designer Stella McCartney talked about "the genius of my friend" and remembered when the two of them were just starting out and "used to joke about starting businesses in London – who'd have thought".

The highly private Sarah Burton, fresh off the plane from London after a fairly busy few days, recalled the weekend when McQueen went for a walk on the beach and returned to the office on Sunday with bags full of shells to be incorporated into his collection.

"The studio smelled like the seaside," she said.

Harold Koda, chief of the Costume Institute, said that what particularly struck him was how "McQueen took things that were terrifying but made them beautiful." This is certainly apparent in the exhibition: the jewellery that more than flirts with S&M imagery, the billowing capes that oscillate between ghostly and elegant, the body-fitted leather dresses that turn feminine gowns into armour. "He confronted demons and made them magical," added Koda.

Meanwhile, the Duchess of Cambridge's wedding dress is to go on display. It is not known exactly when or where it will appear, although Kensington Palace and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London are among possible locations.

"The Duchess of Cambridge is considering a number of options to give members of the public the opportunity to see, close up, the skilled British craftsmanship that went into the making of her wedding dress by Sarah Burton and her team as well as the Royal School of Needlework," said Clarence House.

For months, the dress was fashion's best-kept secret. Even the team of embroiderers at Hampton Court Palace did not know the identity of the designer.

At the forefront

Duchess of Cambridge Her decision to opt for wedding dress by head designer Sarah Burton propelled it to the highest prominence a brand can have

Michelle Obama Wore a flame-red floor-length McQueen gown to state dinner in honour of China earlier this year, prompting much embarrassing bluster among American designers and journalists, cross that she didn't wear a design by a homegrown label

Kate Moss Moss and McQueen were mutually supportive of one another from the early days of their careers. After Moss was photographed apparently taking cocaine, McQueen appeared at his next show proclaiming his love for the model

Isabella Blow McQueen's lifelong muse and supporter bought his entire graduate collection and was hardly ever seen wearing another label Blow's suicide in 2007 was said to have contributed to the depression that led to the designer's death last year.


Hadley Freeman

The GuardianTramp

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