Alexander McQueen

Alexander McQueen: History takes shape

A spectacular new exhibition heralds Alexander McQueen as a genius. Would he have received such adulation if he were still alive? Mythical status can be a matter of timing, argues Susannah Frankel

Tomorrow, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Launched at the annual Met Ball – oft dubbed "the Oscars of the fashion world" and this time chaired by Francois-Henri Pinault, CEO of PPR (which owns a controlling stake in McQueen's company) and his wife Salma Hayek, with Anna Wintour, the actor Colin Firth and designer Stella McCartney as co-chairs – le tout New York will doubtless be there. It goes without saying that the designer himself will be conspicuous by his absence.

McQueen, as we know, died a little over a year ago by his own hand.

To introduce the show to the British fashion establishment, journalists and collaborators were invited to a press breakfast at the Ritz hotel in London last February, in the presence of museum director, Thomas P Campbell, curator, Andrew Bolton, Wintour, McCartney, McQueen CEO Jonathan Akeroyd and Sarah Burton, McQueen's long-time first assistant designer and now creative director of Alexander McQueen (and, of course, now famous herself as the designer of last week's royal wedding dress). Six of the late designer's most celebrated garments framed the stage, among them the lilac silk and black lace jet encrusted corset from Dante (autumn/winter 2006); a McQueen tartan gown with a cream tulle underskirt from the Widows of Culloden (autumn/winter 2006); and a dress crafted in fabric taken from a 19th century Japanese screen over another made entirely out of oyster shells (Voss, spring/summer 2001). All are exceptionally beautiful and continue to evoke feelings of wonderment and more than a little sadness. It was good to see, though, that they have been lovingly restored for the occasion by some of the most accomplished experts in their field. Great efforts have been made to track down vintage McQueen pieces – particularly early vintage pieces which are rare – and, in many cases, such archival treasures, lent by old friends, were worn to the point where their condition might hardly be described as pristine until now.

For his part, Bolton spoke eloquently of the McQueen oeuvre. The concept of the Sublime, he argued, underlies the premise of the exhibition that is an exploration of McQueen's profound engagement with romanticism. With this in mind, it is divided into categories: The Romantic Mind, Romantic Gothic, Romantic Exoticism, Romantic Primitivism and so forth. That McQueen was romantic – with a small "r" – there is no question. His work is testimony to that and indeed he described himself thus on many separate occasions over the years.

"But where is the Alexander McQueen who once called me a f****** c*** because he objected to my review?" said one feted fashion commentator behind the scenes. And few would argue that, as far as this, the first retrospective of the designer's work is concerned, the more visceral, antagonistic and, some might argue, "real" McQueen is apparently less evident. Instead, here is an intellectualised, at least partially sanitised and, above all, idealised, tribute to a brave and brilliant human being who, while private in person, made a career of exposing himself through his work, warts and all.

In death, then, like so many others before him, McQueen has become a legend; a blank canvas on to which onlookers can paint their interpretation of his story or hypothesise about what his future might have been.

Almost as news that the designer had chosen to leave this world broke, he travelled the route from "bad boy" (he always disliked the moniker, not unreasonably finding it reductive) to "genius" (a label that is equally meaningless and never failed to evoke anything but hoots of derision) with barely a nuance in between. So-called experts were quick to speculate that McQueen's suicide was a result of his mother's death which took place only days before. Others opined that the stress of designing upwards of a dozen collections a year was too much for him – fashion, then, killed Alexander McQueen. This is all radically over-simplified, clearly, not to mention presumptuous – just the kind of neatly packaged preconception the designer would have sought to challenge, in fact.

And so, a man who, throughout his short life, strove passionately to de-mythologise his world – from the fashion industry he loved and loved to hate to his Scottish ancestry and the rags-to-riches media incarnation that sprang up around him – has been duly mythologised. The irony of such a turn of events is inescapable. "[James] Dean is absolutely at his peak — forever," the American-film historian, David Thomson once said of among the most celebrated actors of all time.

"Everyone's got their own notion of what would have happened to him had he not died." But who really knows what the legacy of Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift and Rudolph Valentino, say, might have been had they lived to a great age? In light of their early demise, their preternaturally lovely image – hugely important to all of them – has remained in tact, preserved for all eternity in a way that the pharaohs of Egypt might only have dreamt. We may all, from time to time, rake across the scandal and pore over any suggestion of human weakness, but such heroes and heroines of Hollywood's Golden Age are predominantly deified. More difficult to gloss over quite so neatly are the life stories of writers John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, say, or artists from Vincent Van Gogh to Jean-Michel Basquiat – all of whom died in poverty, their work only appreciated posthumously. It took the world some time to catch up with their today universally acknowledged visionary status, but that doesn't help the fact that, while living, they were largely unrecognised and misunderstood and that was a source of some pain.

For McQueen, the two years before he died were certainly among the most fruitful of his career; a time when his experience everywhere from Savile Row in London to the couture ateliers of Givenchy in Paris led to unprecedented technical virtuosity. An increasingly complex and turbulent emotional life, meanwhile, sent an already unusually vivid imagination into over-drive. In that, then, his death and its effect on culture more broadly may well one day mirror those of the aforementioned celluloid idols – put very bluntly, it happened while he was in the throes of a creative high. In particular, the designer's final complete collection, Plato's Atlantis (spring/summer 2010), a spellbinding study of Darwin's theory of evolution in reverse, was the perfect exit: as spectacularly beautiful as it was innovative; with its aerial views of everything from mountain tops to bubbling streams and pixillated close ups of flora and fauna, this was the ultimate expression of the designer's love of nature which, in the end, transcended all else.

But McQueen, even by this point, was still mis-read. Accusations of misogyny, in particular – in this case directed at the unashamedly alien "armadillo" shoe – never ceased to distress him deeply. Referring to some of his darker gestures, McQueen explained: "It's never about models' feelings and always about mine".

In light of his fate, only a fool would doubt the truth of these words.

Would Alexander McQueen's talent have been rewarded by an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art had he lived? Indeed, would he have been asked to design Kate Middleton's wedding dress? That will remain a mystery but it seems doubtful. To begin with, single designer retrospectives at the gallery are rare – to date Coco Chanel, Cristobal Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent and Gianni Versace have been the exceptions that proved the rule and their businesses were more established than this one. More than that, though, McQueen's aspirations were such that he would have decreed that walls must be pulled down to accommodate his vision; neither would he have deigned to edit his more provocative inclinations to suit mainstream or – heaven forbid – conservative taste. Instead, he would have insisted upon absolute creative control, just as he always did, and, given the stature of the institution in question, his refusal to compromise would most likely have proved insurmountable. Which also applies to the constraints of designing a wedding dress with input from the bride and traditions demanded by the royal family.

Cynics might not unreasonably argue that, with the complexities and fundamentally unpredictable nature of the human being no longer an issue, the McQueen name has now become a far more easily marketable commodity. The show is underwritten by "Alexander McQueen" the company and will only serve to raise its profile still further. In the end, however, context is all and Savage Beauty – ultimately a formalised appreciation of the work of a man who was anything but – deserves to enjoy a more valuable place in history than that. Many of those involved in its creation were close to the designer. Its creative director is Sam Gainsbury, McQueen's long-time show producer. Simon Kenny, responsible for building McQueen's spectacular sets, is its production designer. John Gosling, who worked with McQueen on his soundtracks, has provided the music and Guido Palau, who styled hair for McQueen, has created masks and head treatments for mannequins.

In the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, in place of the hugely evocative and wildly dramatic wide-angled images for which McQueen's presentations were well-known, are Solve Sundsbo's quieter and mournfully lovely photographs of his work, often seen up close, and that elevate McQueen from showman to bona fide artist even though he himself was reluctant to describe himself in those terms. At first sight, these appear to have been shot on a mannequin but they were, in fact, worn by McQueen's fit model of more than a decade, Polina Kasina, then digitally manipulated.

"They look as if they had been composed in the traditional academic style of previous exhibition catalogues," writes Eric Wilson of the New York Times, "one that suggests historically important clothing exists in an environment of perpetual sterility. It's only when you recognise that the model is actually Ms Kasina, transformed through a combination of make-up, lighting and Photoshop, that the beauty of Mr Sundsbo's approach and its relevance to the work of Mr McQueen becomes apparent."

Having contributed the introductory essay to the volume in question, and enjoyed unprecedented access to McQueen for 15 years – for which I will always be extremely grateful – it was my instinct too to follow a more classical formula and one which was never stipulated in any brief. At least partly, these words adopt a less casual tone than anything written about the designer to date out of respect for his memory and the need to protect that above all else. More specifically, six months before McQueen died and, while we were immersed in another yet-to-be-published collaborative written project dedicated to his working process, I showed him a first draft, only to find he was appalled that I'd left the ribald humour he was loved for, not to mention the expletives – and there were many – intact.

"What do you think?" I asked him.

"I think you're a f****** idiot," Alexander McQueen replied. "It's just like everything else that's ever been written about me and you know me better than that."

"But you said to keep it real," I argued, genuinely thrown.

"Not that real," he said.

Who knows what the deeper thinking behind these words might have been? In retrospect, though, an on-the-face-of-it light-hearted exchange today appears more resonant.

Towards the end of his life perhaps even McQueen himself was striving for mythic status and the show in question seems nothing if not justified in light of that. Meanwhile the wedding dress designed by his protégé Sarah Burton, bearing the Alexander McQueen label, will go on display itself and enhance the designer's mythical status, as it is enshrined in history.

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from tomorrow. A catalogue to coincide with the exhibition by Andrew Bolton, with contributions by Susannah Frankel and Tim Blanks and photography by Solve Sundsbo is published by Yale University Press