Curator Katie Somerville sees the personal touches of Alexander McQueen’s genius among the pieces that are part of the NGV’s next blockbuster exhibition. By Lucianne Tonti.
Inside the NGV’s Alexander McQueen retrospective
Anyone familiar with Lee Alexander McQueen’s work is likely to know about the furore that surrounded his 1995 show – the one that singled him out as the enfant terrible of London’s fashion industry – Highland Rape. At age 26, McQueen sent dishevelled models down the runway in slashed and tattered outfits that exposed bare skin, nipples and breasts. The media decried it as gratuitous depictions of violence against women and accused him of misogyny. The allegations stung McQueen, who surrounded himself with strong women. He was of Scottish descent and had intended to make a political statement about the genocide of his ancestors that began in the mid-18th century.
Contemplating a piece from that show, soon to feature in a blockbuster exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), Katie Somerville reflects on what was missed in that controversy. “Literally there are no stitches involved,” she says. “It’s held together by screws and bolts, basically, in this very refined, beautiful way.”
Somerville, who is the gallery’s senior fashion curator, goes on to describe a “remarkable tartan peplum jacket” that was styled on the runway with nothing underneath. “It has this beautiful open front and then lovely fluting through the back,” she says. “You can tell it was all hand done because of just slight idiosyncrasies between the cut of the two sleeves.” And inside the panels at the front, a penny has been sewn to weigh it down “so it sits just beautifully” – a clue that suggests McQueen sewed it himself. Known for the tailoring he had honed as an apprentice on Savile Row, the construction and fit of his garments set him apart from his peers.
The NGV has been procuring Alexander McQueen’s designs since 1996, before the world realised he was a once-in-a-generation fashion talent with curious inspirations such as Joan of Arc, Plato’s Atlantis and golden showers. A classically trained tailor, he could make wildly beautiful garments from strange materials such as clingwrap, dead birds and seashells.
Next month, more than a decade since he took his own life at the age of 40, Alexander McQueen: Mind, Mythos, Muse will open at the NGV. Sixty McQueen garments from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will be on display alongside 56 items from the NGV’s archive.
Somerville recalls the June meeting when the curatorial team proposed the first McQueen acquisitions to the NGV’s deputy director – she was then a curatorial assistant. It was just four years after McQueen had graduated from Central Saint Martin’s college in London, and his work was among a slew of others they were considering, including pieces by Maison Margiela, Christian Louboutin and Stephen Jones.
“This is all very, very ’90s,” Somerville says. It was a time when conversations with designers were conducted via fax, so McQueen and his team would run from their small, bare studio in Hoxton Square to the local library to send and receive correspondence.
The first McQueen work the gallery acquired was an outfit from the Spring/Summer 1996 collection, Hunger. It comprises two pieces, both made from silver mesh. A sleeveless tank top has what looks like a fencing mask attached to the collar that covers the entire head, face and neck before it morphs into the body and stops at the lowest point of the hips. The pair of straight-leg trousers it is worn with are cut in McQueen’s signature, extremely low-rise style – known as the bumster, for obvious reasons. Somerville describes the pants as significant because they were “the kind of top dot-point in what we knew about McQueen”.
In her tenure with the gallery, Somerville has overseen the rise in popularity of fashion exhibitions. Last summer was Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto; The House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture was in 2017. But her affection for McQueen feels different somehow, like a direct reflection of the wonder and admiration he inspires in students of fashion history.
Alexander McQueen became accustomed to media attention early in his career. He had a unique capacity to execute collections with skill and style, while also running social or political commentary on issues that were close to his heart. Often the vehicle was fashion shows that were both thrilling and beautiful, spectacles that elicited emotion, revulsion and awe.
Highland Rape embodied all of the above. “That collection itself was of critical interest to us, kind of observing him as an emerging designer from afar. And it had all those brilliant hallmarks again,” says Somerville.
The pieces are from a time before McQueen was manufacturing commercially, meaning the garments in the NGV’s possession are one-offs. “I don’t think any of those went into production per se,” says Somerville. “Many of the pieces exist as the catwalk sample and that’s it.”
In those early days, McQueen was willing to sell the samples for what Somerville describes as “survival”. But within a year, the dynamic had shifted. After he was appointed to the helm of the French couture house Givenchy in 1996, she says it seemed he’d “started to think about holding onto an archive of his own key pieces, as a lot of designers do”.
Increasingly, contact became separate from the designer himself. “Other than those first four pieces, pretty much everything since has come predominantly through dealers and auction houses,” she says.
Although this removed some of the intimacy from the transactions, the process of procuring via auction houses and dealers allowed the team at the NGV to articulate what pieces and collections they would most like to add to the archive. Somerville says, “We were fortunate, we have some great pieces that have provenance back to some of McQueen’s muses like Annabelle Neilson and Isabella Blow.”
Among the recent acquisitions Somerville takes pride in are the pieces from Autumn/Winter 1998, a collection that was named for Joan of Arc. At the runway show, McQueen presented a series of garments with powerful silhouettes that at times resembled armour and, in other moments, fire. The runway finished with a model wearing a bright-red beaded gown with tassels from the waist to the floor. Her face and head were covered by a mask of the same material. She stood with her legs apart, slightly gyrating her hips while a ring of flames burned around her.
Somerville describes this collection as especially important. “We went from a couple of years ago having nothing to represent it, to now when we’ve got two beautiful, tailored looks. But the real cherry, literally the cherry on top,” she says, “was coming across a piece that we’d never seen come to the market, which is one of the incredible blood-red beaded pieces that was in that final fire moment at the end of the runway.”
Through the process of curating the exhibition and the publication that will accompany it, the NGV conducted many interviews with McQueen’s collaborators and peers. One of them was with Nafisa Tosh, a tailor and dressmaker who worked with McQueen through the early to mid-2000s. “She literally worked on some of the pieces in our collection, so she’s got brilliant insights,” says Somerville.
In addition to the wild depth of his creativity, McQueen was famously hands-on in the studio. In the lead-up to each show, everyone would be working “into the wee hours of the morning”, according to Tosh, and if you did leave to catch a few hours of sleep, you lived in fear of returning to find McQueen had come through with a pair of scissors or unpicked something.
Accompanying each design in Alexander McQueen: Mind, Mythos, Muse will be art that has some resonance with the work, whether it be implied or direct inspiration. McQueen was a voracious consumer of history and culture.
For Somerville, this wide-ranging knowledge of the world, along with his technical skill, is what makes people’s fascination with him endure. “That capacity to channel personal narratives, or broader societal zeitgeisty issues, and instead of sculpting it or painting it or photographing it, to be able to use fashion in that way as a platform to make a statement is very interesting.”
Alexander McQueen: Mind, Mythos, Muse opens on December 11.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 19, 2022 as "His majesty McQueen".
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