NEW YORK, United States — From Jean-Paul Gaultier at Montreal’s Musée des Beaux Arts to Hussein Chalayan at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, this has been a year of high-profile fashion exhibitions. The grand daddy of all these shows is the Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Last week, I finally managed to catch the exhibit in its final days.
In total, 661,509 people passed through the exhibition, making Savage Beauty the most visited fashion exhibition in the museum’s history, putting it in the same league as the Treasures of Tutankhamun (1978) and Mona Lisa (1963). So high was the demand that the Met extended the exhibition’s run by week and stayed open until midnight on the final two days, releasing a statement explaining that this was the first time that the museum had ever kept its galleries open so late to accomodate the “extraordinary response”
But despite this “unprecedented interest” in Mr. McQueen’s body of work, museum officials said that Savage Beauty will not travel to any other museums because it is composed almost entirely of loan. What a shame.
By all accounts, the Met and its curator, Andrew Bolton, did a formidable job of bringing Mr. McQueen’s body of work into a tightly and expertly curated fashion experience, immersing visitors deep into McQueen’s world. Those of us lucky enough to have attended any of his fashion shows could see the same kind of high-quality production value, creative integrity and aesthetic sophistication in this wonderful, inspiring exhibition.
As I walked into the room entitled “The Cabinet of Curiosities,” packed shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of other people, I overheard a little girl asking her mother, “Mommy, why do the hats have animal horns?” Her mother answered softly and authoritatively, “Because he was a very special, talented man who made fashion into theatre. He was no ordinary fashion designer.”
Listening to this exchange brought home the real impact of this exhibition. Unlike so many of the television shows and media that claim to show the ‘reality’ of fashion, Savage Beauty managed to get underneath the glossy surface and make fashion understandable, interesting and inspiring to a mass audience.
For this reason, I hope the Met will reconsider its position on taking Savage Beauty on the road. Surely those who loaned their McQueen items to the exhibition — most notably Daphne Guinness and Alexander McQueen, the company — have seen the powerful impact of the exhibition. Surely there can be no better tribute to this great designer than having hundreds of thousands of ordinary people enjoy Mr. McQueen’s work and see it up close.
But emotional reasons aside, there is a clear business rationale for touring the show as well. It turns out that the exhibit has been a great marketing machine for McQueen. According to a release sent out by the Met yesterday, “popular McQueen merchandise in the Met Shops, including armadillo shoe ornaments, crystal skull paperweights, and tartan purses, sold out several times and were repeatedly reordered.”
Imran Amed is founder and editor of The Business of Fashion
Correction – 9 August 2011: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Hussein Chalayan exhibit took place at The Design Museum in London.