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Alexander the Great

Bergdorf Goodman Conversation

The Costume Institute's Andrew Bolton chats with Alexander McQueen creative director Sarah Burton

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, the current exhibition at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, runs through August 7, offering a celebratory retrospective on a career as brilliant as it was brief. Here curator Andrew Bolton and creative director Sarah Burton discuss the clothing and the remarkable man behind it.

Sarah Burton Andrew Bolton
Conversations with Sarah Burton and Andrew Bolton
Bergdorf Goodman Magazine
June 2011


Sarah Burton Photo: David Burton
Andrew Bolton Photo: Karin Willis
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Lee Alexander McQueen startled the fashion world with his postgraduate collection in 1992. It was almost inconceivable that a 23-year-old could present clothing that combined dazzling artistic genius with a technical expertise rarely seen anywhere, but with each ensuing collection McQueen built a body of work that transcends the bounds of fashion and echoes throughout culture.

McQueen’s tragic death in February 2010, shortly before his final runway presentation, extinguished one of the great lights of art and fashion. His longtime right hand, Sarah Burton, now the creative director of Alexander McQueen, has risen nobly to the task of carrying on his great name. She speaks with Andrew Bolton of the Costume Institute who curated Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty and Glenn O’Brien.

Sarah Burton: I can hear Andrew laughing… Hi, it’s Sarah! How are you?

Andrew Bolton: I’m really good. You should be able to tell from my laughing. I’m here with Glenn. We were talking about Diana Vreeland. Our curator Harold Koda used to work with her, and he went to pick her up at her apartment one evening, and she said to him, “Oh, Mr. Koda, am I wearing enough makeup?” And Harold said, “Well, Mrs. Vreeland, you are wearing quite a lot.” And she said, “That’s not what I asked. Am I wearing enough makeup?”

S: That’s brilliant!

Glenn O’Brien: She occasionally wore lipstick on her teeth.

S: That’s very Izzy Blow, lipstick on the teeth.

A: Really chic. Sarah, what do you think Lee would have thought about a museum retrospective?

S: I think he would have loved a retrospective of his work. To see all those pieces together is absolutely amazing. But I would say that Lee never looked back, he always looked forward, so a retrospective is quite a strange thing for him. I think he would have loved it, but he would have wanted new rooms, new shows and new ideas…It would definitely be rain, snow, ice and fire.

A: So as soon as he did a show he just wanted to move on to the next?

S: Completely. In fact, he hardly ever talked about shows afterward—it was straight onto the next one. Quite often in Paris, even before we would finish a show, he would be talking about the next one.

A: I titled the show Savage Beauty because I always thought Lee had incredible dualities or contradictions in his work—light and dark, aggressive and romantic. I thought a lot of intensity came from the frisson of these dialectical relationships. Was it something that he was conscious of in designing a collection?

S: Very much so. The title Savage Beauty is very relevant, because Lee was often about finding beauty in things that the normal person doesn’t find beautiful. He constantly juxtaposed dark and light, life and death, nature and machine. But it was not something that he sat down and thought about. It was very natural to him. He’d find beauty and inspiration everywhere. His life and work encompassed a very dark side and a very light side.

A: You have that feeling with his collections. People didn’t know how to react to his presentations. On one hand, you were filled with awe and wonder, on the other side, you were filled with fear and terror. How critical was the runway show to Lee?

S: Really critical. Lee wanted you to feel emotion. It didn’t matter what emotion you felt, as long as you came away from his shows feeling something, whether it was joy or happiness, or fear or disgust.

G: The greatest fashion show I have ever seen was that sort of retrospective where the sets from past shows were all heaped in the middle.

S: That was The Horn of Plenty, and it was incredible. He started off looking at the throwaway and rubbish, and we had all the fabrics made from plastics and lacquering, and all these lamp shades on the model’s heads. It was an extreme take on beauty— the faces were like blow-up dolls with Coke cans on their heads. It was incredible.


Alexander McQueen - Windows of Culloden A/W 2006-2007 Alexander McQueen - The Horn of Plenty A/W 2009-2010 Alexander McQueen - Plato's Atlantis S/S 2010

Left to right: Widows of Culloden, Autumn/Winter 2006-2007
The Horn of Plenty, Autumn/Winter 2009-2010
Plato’s Atlantis, Spring/Summer 2010

Photos: Chris Moore/

A: That collection was about looking at the heyday of couture in the ’50s…almost a really extreme version of the new look—it has the wide hip, that very narrow waist. Even though it looks so extreme and fantastical, the actual silhouette is still looking back toward the new look. It’s extraordinary.

S: Yeah, he loved a very nipped-in silhouette and tiny waist. That was amazing. We started off with the caging just being on the hip, and as you know he works in such a three-dimensional way, he began to cut the caging off the hips, and he created these enormous wings with it. That came about by him cutting up these skirts and applying them on top. It became these really overpowering black feathered pieces, juxtaposed with the white next to it. Only he could have thought of that shape, because he took two skirts and cut them up and placed them on top of each other.

A: What strikes me was that the silhouettes that he was very consistent with were established early on in his career. Even the bumsters were about that elongated torso. That antler wedding dress had that long-waisted, elongated body based on the 1890s. What was it about that silhouette that he revisited so many times?

S: He loved the shape of women, which led him to accentuate the waist and make it even more extreme. He did the same with the neck. He liked to elongate a woman’s neck, enhancing her beauty, and making her more powerful, by giving her this almost hyper-real silhouette. He used to pull the corsets “tighter, tighter!” on the fit model; her whole body was molded onto our corsets. He loved that silhouette.

A: When the bumsters first came out in England, everyone said, Oh, it’s all about the bum, but it essentially wasn’t, it was an experiment in elongating the torso. There is a quote where he said, “I want to be the purveyor of a certain silhouette or way of cutting, so that when I am dead and gone people will know that the 21st century was started by Alexander McQueen.” He talked about how he loved Dior because he created a new look. And Lee’s legacy was this new silhouette. Do you think that was part of it?

S: Yes, completely. He loved that Avedon picture of Audrey Hepburn with that very elongated neck. He loved the extremes of beauty. With the Plato’s Atlantis collection, he said, “Turn all the boards around, I don’t want to see any research images, I want to just use the fabrics to create shapes.” We had all these printed fabrics, and it was almost that the fabric was morphing out of the body. He always worked on a mannequin, and he always worked in a three-dimensional way. He pushed his own boundaries forward and used the fabrics to create shapes.

A: What struck me the most in doing the exhibition was his technical ability in tailoring and dressmaking. Lee was able to combine the rigors of tailoring with the spontaneity of dressmaking. The first section of the exhibition is called “The Romantic Mind” which is all about tailoring and technical prowess, and what I found really interesting was you had the very nipped-in waist and the hard shoulder but there was always an element of playfulness, like a collapsed lapel or something, which was more about dressmaking. Even though he’s a trained tailor and his clothes are very much based on tailoring, he also had the ability to improvise in draping and dressmaking. Was that something that you saw watching him work?

S: Yes. When he went to the Givenchy atelier, he learned a lot about dressmaking. What was amazing was that because he knew exactly how to construct a garment, he could push it forward. When you really know how to make things, you can throw all the rules away. I think a lot of it came from working in a very three-dimensional way, not from a flat drawing. He had a way with fabric. He could trace a pattern by eye on the floor, cut it out and drape it on the stand, and it would be an incredible garment.

A: I had read about his MA graduation collection, but I had never seen any pieces until we saw the collection Daphne Guinness bought from Izzy [Blow]. Two things struck me, one was that incredible pink jacket with a thorn print, which had a three-point skirt to it. As early as his MA graduation collection he came up with a silhouette that he continued to repeat. He was already establishing his design vocabulary. The other thing that struck me was the extraordinary black jacket.

S: What struck me was the lightness of those pieces. He didn’t fuse the jacket inside, he always hand-canvassed things. There is a kind of beauty in their weightlessness. I still have his drawings from the graduate collection, and so many of the silhouettes are the same; he’s used the feathers, he’s got a version of the bumster, he’s got the three-point frock coat, he uses the M-collar, the slashes across the chest and the brocades. He’s revisited those ideas time and time again, but I never ever saw him go into the cupboard to look at them. They were obviously instinctive.

A: To have that vision at twenty-three and to stick to it and continue revising those silhouettes and iconography showed such a strength of character and vision.

S: It was always black and white with him, and never grey. He knew exactly what he wanted, and he was completely fearless in asking for it and doing it, and that was really a joy.

A: The gallery in the exhibition called “The Romantic Gothic,” looks at the historicism that is so present in his clothes and the narratives that he constructed around his collections. I wonder whether you could talk a little bit about the idea of the “Romantic Gothic” in his work and his engagement with the dark side of Victorianism.

S: He was quite fearless in the way that he looked at life and death. He wasn’t afraid of either, and I think that’s very much a Victorian perception. They used to take pictures of dead people, and that’s such a taboo now. He was never afraid to address the things that people quite often think of as dark. But there is so much light in those collections. It wasn’t just dark, there was always a balance to it; there was always a sense of light as well. He loved the Victorian—a very tiny waist and a neat, proud shoulder, and this elongated form. He often revisited Victoriana. If you look at Plato’s Atlantis, a lot of those shapes, even though he didn’t look at any references, are reminiscent of the beautiful sleeves and the coats they used to wear, the riding coat over the skirts.

Alexander McQueen - No 13, Spring/Summer 1999 Alexander McQueen - The Horn of Plenty, A/W 2009 Alexander McQueen - Plato's Atlantis, S/S 2010

Left to right: No. 13, Spring/Summer 1999
The Horn of Plenty, Autumn/Winter, 2009-2010
Plato’s Atlantis, Spring/Summer 2010

Photos: © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A: Like the first collection, Jack the Ripper Stalking His Victims, every collection seemed to tell a story. Maybe I’m being jingoistic, feeling as if a lot of British designers have that approach. But Lee took it to another level in that his stories came first. What was the actual sequence of it?

S: He always had to think of the story first, and after he had the story and the vision of the show clear in his head, the collection would come…quick and fast! He would think of a story, and then we would do research, but what was great was that there be story upon story. It was never there’s the story—off you go! The next day he would come up with new stories. Sometimes there were fifty shows’ worth of ideas in one show. Every day he would add to the story, talking about what the shoes were in that story or adding another angle on it. Did you see this film? Have you read that book? Have you seen that picture? It was building the story all the time, so it was never boring.

A: He’s such a great raconteur that you’re not just fascinated by the technical virtuosity of fashion. He was able to use the skills of his craft to convey really complex ideas and concepts about identity, gender and politics. He really did tap into our cultural anxieties, but also it struck me how each collection had an element of autobiography.

S: Yes, with someone like Lee, everything is guts, everything comes from him inside. It was completely personal, how he was feeling at the time, what things he loved or hated. It’s very autobiographical.

A: Two collections I see as autobiography are Highland Rape and Widows of Culloden, which explore his Scottish heritage. In an interview in The Guardian, Sam Taylor-Wood asked him what does Scottish heritage mean to you, and he said “everything.”

S: He was very proud of being Scottish. He had beautiful kilts and great ghillie boots that he used to wear for special occasions.

A: He used the McQueen tartan.

S: Yeah, we used it several times. In Widows of Culloden it was particularly magical, not just because it had the hologram, but…I think there’s a quote that you have in the catalog about how you could feel the cold air…

A: I think as he evolved as a designer, his collections became less overtly aggressive, provocative and confrontational; they’re more subtle.

S: There are always extremities in his work. I do think that his craftsmanship became better and better. His way of working with fabrics and shapes kept developing.

A: Was that awareness of the skills of couture something that he always had?

S: I think so, but everything was a challenge. He never said you can’t do something. Everything he wanted to do, somehow he managed to find a way to do it. Quite often in fittings he would rip open jackets to check that they were canvassed properly. He knew everybody’s job in the company basically…

A: You’ve talked about how he loved other cultures because he loved the craftsmanship of those cultures, like Chinese and Indian embroidery, but he wasn’t a great traveler. What was it about China and Japan that he found so fascinating?

S: A lot of the Chinese embroideries are reminiscent of Victorian opium dens. I think that he loved the richness and the craftsmanship of embroidery and also the opulence of it, the excesses of it. There’s always a Chinese or Japanese embroidery board in the studio somewhere. Always.

A: It seemed that his observation of other cultures was still filtered through the gaze of Victoriana.

G: Well, in the Aesthetic Movement, the English did Asia better than the Asians in some ways.

S: (laughs) So true!

A: I agree completely. In our imagination, when we think about China or Japan, a lot of it is fed through the gaze of the Aesthetic Movement.

S: Lee’s house was this amazing mix of beautiful pieces of art…objects that he collected, glassware and beautiful Japanese hand-embroidered silk screens. He had incredible taste, and it was obsessive collecting based on that period.

A: I know collecting affected his design process. He was a great collector of Witkin’s photography, and that inspired the Voss show. In the last scene of Voss, you had Michelle Olley recreating the photograph “Sanitarium” by Witkin. That collection made me deeply aware of how McQueen saw beauty in areas that other people may not. I saw in Voss that for Lee the body really was this site of contraventions; it was all about the spectacle of marginality, about difference and distinction, and idiosyncrasies. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about his ideal of beauty.

S: It’s very hard to tie it down, where he found beauty, because he found it in so many different things. He found light in darkness and darkness in light. I think that he didn’t really have any boundaries for what he found beautiful, or what he wanted people to find beautiful. Again, I think that he wanted you to feel something because there are so many things in life that just make you numb. He wanted to make people feel.

A: Someone asked him where he found beauty, and he said that when he walked around the street it was what people perceived as ugly that he found the most appealing.

S: Yes, I remember him coming to me with a load of beach mats and saying let’s embroider these and make them into an amazing samurai coat. Who would have though of that, a beach mat from Brighton! He had such a vision that he could make anything beautiful.

A: There’s a shamanistic aspect to Lee’s work in the way he’d fetishize materials like oysters or horsehair or mud.

S: He could use anything to make anything. Making the Voss collection, I remember him coming in with a jigsaw, matchsticks, oyster shells, and I’m thinking how is all this going to work all together—well, brilliantly is how. He didn’t think about it. He just did it.

The Bergdorf Goodman Conversations are conducted and edited by Glenn O’Brien. BG

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