But his house also designed for an impressive list of stars and dignitaries including, most recently, Kate Middleton's dress for her wedding to Prince William. It's likely not a surprise that Björk and Lady Gaga have incorporated his pieces into their videos, but the more demure Sarah Jessica Parker and Nicole Kidman have also worn his extravagant, imaginative creations.
True to form, Savage Beauty is an immersive, stunning affair that showcases both the drama and the fragile beauty of McQueen's art. In the tradition of a fashion house designing a runway show, many hands came together to create the exhibit. Curator Andrew Bolton has led a collaboration that celebrates McQueen's visionary sculptures (and how else could one think of his work in this context?) with complementary atmospherics. Each gallery anchors the showcased collection by emphasizing an underlying narrative, accomplished through a mindbending mix of multimedia (experimental video, sound, light), cinematic in scope. Whether pumping Handel or staging the models' positions into decipherable scenes, the individual rooms are thoughtfully detailed to highlight the often-epic stories of the pieces — much as McQueen used the runway show as a place to perform his art. Bolton and crew effectively transport McQueen's famously disruptive spirit into the hallowed halls of one of the world's premier museums. After walking through the austere spaces that surround the show, the viewer can feel the thumping vitality of the interconnected McQueen galleries (one room even involves the sound of a beastly, pounding heartbeat) — and, for a wild moment, the museum's stuffiness has been transformed: the Met has become McQueen's space alone.
The results are sometimes unnerving, and almost always affecting. In the gallery showcasing his Highland Rape line (autumn/winter 1995-96), a bruising electric guitar plays "God Save the Queen" as mannequins face different directions on wood stage that has been shattered to create a giant hole. The walls are covered in splintered wood, and the mannequins' still bodies leave the unsettling impression that you've stumbled onto a very nasty crime scene. The clothes are also disturbing to behold — a black silk dress with a gold print of a flower seems harmless enough, but closer examination reveals that the flower is disintegrating into a drippy mess above the crotch. The other dresses are ripped lace and tartan, and the mannequins wear leather masks with jagged red swaths of gems, scarring their faces like wounds.
Highland Rape was originally a line widely misinterpreted as exploitative fantasy, just as it also made McQueen a star of the fashion world. But, as a Scotsman and — more tellingly — an artist working in the medium of haute couture, he intended something else entirely. "People were so unintelligent they thought it was about women being raped," McQueen said. "Highland Rape was about England's rape of Scotland." Like one of his famous runway shows, the priorities of the exhibition design rested in bold, controversial choices and dynamic pageantry, and whether or not individual elements failed is less a question than the larger ones: does the whole slap you in the face, does it inspire wonder and frustration, anger and hope? Whether or not you see his work as art is all in how you answer these questions.