The Talented Mr. McQueen

As fashion insiders applauded Alexander McQueen’s seventh collection, 1996’s Dante, the British designer retreated from the spotlight. He deliberately remained mysterious, out of fear that his rising star would result in the loss of the social security benefits he was living off of. That same year he was appointed to design for Givenchy. When he became chief designer for the French fashion house responsible for dressing Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy, there was no longer any need to hide.

In May 2011, The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art paid tribute to the late Alexander McQueen with a 100-piece retrospective called Savage Beauty. The accompanying hardcover book, a 240-page collection of images and quotes is a reflection of the exuberance and social awareness that he embodied. Known for his dark sensibility and unflinching confidence in his work, the book sheds light on the joy he took from putting together shows and his desire to always convey beauty through his designs.

From the Victorian era to heroic women like Joan of Arc, McQueen interpreted his inspiration in a way that made a statement about his experiences. “My work is a social document about the world today,” he said. Raised in a working-class family, McQueen dropped out of school at 16 and began his design education as an apprentice on Savile Row. Working with Anderson & Sheppard, tailors by appointment to the British royal family, he learned about construction before studying at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. Regardless of being anti-establishment, he had great respect for history and tradition. While the book provides an all-encompassing look at the influential designer and his collections, it also celebrates the way he communicated through clothes. “I prefer extreme reactions,” he once said. “There is no point in doing it if it’s not going to create some sort of emotion.”


Paris: Meet Madame Grès

A Grecian-inspired dress is encased in glass. Its cream fabric is swathed elegantly around the mannequin, and falls to create a floor-length skirt. A sash accentuates the form’s waist, and then extends beyond the hem. On first glance, it is a timeless dress. But one of Madame Grès’ designs deserves a second look. Its angles and delicate pleats represent the complex construction she used to create one of many minimalist looks during her sixty years in fashion. In a room filled with towering stone statues, her work is equally striking.

The Musée Bourdelle in Paris is the site of “Madame Grès: Couture at Work”, her first retrospective. The space – an extension of Antoine Bourdelle’s home and studio – is fitting for a designer who originally wanted to become a sculptor. “For me it is just the same to work with fabric or stone,” she said. Born Germaine Krebs, she launched her design house, Alix in 1934. The exhibit proves she identified her design signatures early and stayed true to them, regardless of trends. Her aesthetic is what curator Olivier Saillard describes as being, “fashion that wasn’t fashionable.” Consequently her masterfully draped dresses could easily be imagined being worn on the red carpet today. Dresses in tangerine, emerald and violet stand out from her typically neutral colour palette. Also on display are original sketches, a video of Grès fitting a couture client and magazines in which her designs are featured.

Seeing pieces in the retrospective dispersed among the museum’s sculptures highlights her artistry. But a row of varied white gowns has just as much impact without the juxtaposition. Each dress in the group showcases the complexity and range of her skills. Much like the rest of Grès’ work, these are minimal, but far from simple. Moving through the exhibit from the ‘30s to the ‘80s sheds light on the life and work of this mysterious couturier. The intricate designs and legendary craftsmanship on display show that above all, she was an artist.