Finding Inspiration: Alexander McQueen Exhibition Design

The Alexander McQueen retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Savage Beauty, has been the talk of the summer. Organized around the theme of Romanticism, the show explored McQueen's work and revealed it to be as much high art as high fashion. But for me, the highlight of the show was its exhibition design — moody, slightly gothic, richly textured, sumptuously beautiful. I would have moved in if I could have! Here are some images of the exhibition, designed by the production designers for Alexander McQueen’s fashion shows, Sam Gainsbury and Joseph Bennett.

Each of the exhibition's spaces was designed differently, but all had a sense of moody romanticism, richness, and a lot of drama.

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The first gallery was an introduction to McQueen's "Romantic Mind," emphasizing his training as a Savile Row tailor, and his love for historical and modern London. The design of the space pulled the viewer right into the mood of the show. Grey concrete walls were mottled with a blue-green wash, a mixture of a modern material with a patina of age. An angled skylight was painted out in a moody blue, which, along with the pickled wood floors, added a bit of an atelier atmosphere.

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The exhibition design included a lot of mirrors (mini-gallery above). There were heavily antiqued mirrors in ornate gilded frames, hazy mirrors in antique gold rectangles, and hyper-shiny mirror boxes in a black room. This emphasis seems apt, given McQueen's "through a glass darkly" interest in historical themes and forms. It also recalls one of his most iconic fashion shows, when the audience sat staring at their own reflections in a mirrored box for 45 minutes before the sides smashed, revealing an overweight nude model inside, covered with moths. What does it mean to juxtapose art with the viewer's own reflection? (This is rhetorical; if I knew, I'd probably be a great artist.)

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Another controversial McQueen moment was the Highland Rape show, which included garments that looked slashed and torn, and obviously set off some outcry about the glamorization of violence against women. McQueen insisted, however, that his collection was actually about England's historical and figurative rape of Scotland, where his family was from. This room in the exhibition included gorgeous weathered and distressed wood planks, some of which were destroyed in a gash that echoed the 'damage' done to the garments.

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The "Romantic Nationalism" room was split in two, with English nationalism on one side and Scottish on the other. The English side featured gorgeous tulle, satin and jeweled dresses inspired by various Queens of England (you can see an image at the top of this post), while the Scottish side contained looks from the "Widows of Culloden" collection that feature the McQueen family tartan. The wood paneled walls with candelabra sconces suggested ancient baronial splendor. On second glance, I realized that the walls were laid out in a tonal plaid pattern that I totally want for my own home, despite my lack of Scottish ancestry.

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One of the last galleries, focused on the theme of "Romantic Primitivism," had walls painted in a mottled grey green, like patinated copper. Now I'm thinking about whether a decorative painter could replicate that effect on my own walls. Seriously, not since I read From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler when I was a kid have I so wanted to move into a museum!

“You’ve got to know the rules to break them. That’s what I’m here for, to demolish the rules but to keep the tradition.” — Alexander McQueen

The Met has a wonderful exhibition site with a lot of curatorial insight into the show and McQueen himself. You can also buy the exhibition catalog, Savage Beauty, on Amazon.

Images: 1. The Glam Girl Diaries; 2. Paola Boutique; 3. The Adventures of Tartanscot; 4. The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 5, 6 & 7. The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 8. The Glam Girl Diaries; 9. Daily Tonic.