Alexander McQueen, the Royal Wedding and the Met: Fashion House Reigns, Scholarship Abdicates

04/29/2011 06:31 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2011

The anticipatory buzz surrounding the Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty," May 4-July 31, has just become supersonic, thanks to a certain high-profile client of the British fashion house.

The Met's website for its Costume Institute's new exhibition, at this writing (five days before the show opens), provides scant information about what's going to be in it. What it does provide is an excruciatingly long, dull video of models on a succession of runways, provided "courtesy of Alexander McQueen."

In fact, the whole show is courtesy of the fashion house, the exhibition's lead sponsor. The late designer, whose first name was actually Lee, committed suicide on Feb. 11, 2010 (a fact not mentioned in the Met's press release, which refers to him only as "the late Mr. McQueen").

Will the retrospective be updated to include any reference to the royal wedding, now that the world knows that the Duchess of Cambridge's gown was designed by Sarah Burton, the creative director of the fashion house that retains McQueen's name?

"No," replied Nancy Chilton, the Met's spokesperson for the show. "All is by Alexander McQueen himself."
(Actually, quite a number of accessories in the catalogue -- headpieces and shoes, for example -- were designed by others "for Alexander McQueen," as the catalogue states.)

Even if the new regime at McQueen isn't directly represented at the Met, it is undoubtedly getting not only a reputational but also a commercial boost from this prestigious, self-funded exposure.

For example, as Cathy Horyn of the New York Times reported:

The company has certainly been busy making clothes for guests attending the Costume Institute gala on May 2, in honor of the late designer and his work.

In my New York Times Op-Ed piece commenting on the Met's 2005 Chanel show (mounted thanks to similarly self-interested sponsorship), I decried the apparent influence of the fashion house/sponsor on the exhibition's selection of what to display and how to describe it. From the looks of its catalogue, "Savage Beauty" could well be another case of sponsorship trumping scholarship.

In what is perhaps the least erudite catalogue ever produced by the Met (and almost certainly the sole Met catalogue cover consisting entirely of a hologram), curator Andrew Bolton provides a brief but illuminating preface, exploring McQueen's sensibility, influences and "profound engagement with Romanticism." (Gothic is more like it.)

But the rest of the text (aside from a liberal sprinking of quotes from McQueen himself) is given over to a long biographical essay by Susannah Frankel, fashion editor of The Independent, and an interview by journalist Tim Blanks with Sarah Burton, McQueen's professional heir apparent, who for 15 years had served as his design assistant.

The bulk of the catalogue consists of sumptuous full-page images of McQueen's sometimes grotesque but always arresting designs. The photographs, taken on live models, have been altered to appear to be on mannequins whose "flesh" has been wounded by nasty abrasions. If you actually want to learn something about the individual garments, you have to flip to the back of the volume, which reveals nothing more than the date, collection, materials and lender for each of the pieces.

We can only hope that the exhibition's wall text and the individual labels for the designs delve deeper into McQueen's intentions, craft and artistry.

Below (with an assist from my husband) is the catalogue's macabre hologram, morphing from McQueen's face to a skull. It had originally been designed for the invitation to McQueen's spring/summer 2009 fashion show: