On May 2 the annual Met Ball kicks off the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute's new exhibit, Savage Beauty, a retrospective of Alexander McQueen's work. The hefty catalogue of the exhibit was recently distributed, and it features new glorious photos of some of the late designer's most glorious pieces. The book also includes Tim Blanks's interview with McQueen's successor, Sarah Burton — one of the most extensive that's been conducted to date.
Burton tells Blanks that when McQueen (she calls him by his first name, Lee) got the call from LVMH to go to Givenchy, he merely thought they were calling him to do a handbag collaboration with Louis Vuitton, which was the hot thing in fashion at the time. Burton went with him to Givenchy. "We had one pattern-cutting table, which used to belong to Body Map and Flyte Ostell, with chairs that didn't reach the table. When Lee got the Givenchy job, we got chairs that reached the table," she tells Blanks. "And he was really excited because it meant there was money coming in, and he could do things he'd never done before."
One of the most memorable collections from those days was for fall 1999, "which involved a model in a Perspex robotic body," Burton says. "The guy who made the robot told us ten minutes before the model walked out, 'If she sweats in the suit, she's going to electrocute herself. So tell her not to sweat.'"
"Every collection began with a show," Burton adds. McQueen designed in complete looks — hair, makeup, shoes, the works. "Shoes were really important because they anchored the look. The 'Armadillo' shoe from [spring 2010 show] 'Plato's Atlantis' was based on a ballet point shoe designed by Allen Jones. They were actually quite comfortable to walk in, but if a girl couldn't walk in them, she wasn't in the show."
Blanks asks Burton if the big spectacles McQueen was known for "satisfied" him. Burton replies, "He really loved the shows. He used to say, 'This is the last big one we're doing,' but he couldn't help himself. Lee just didn't like doing normal catwalk shows and so much was expected of him."
Burton says one of her challenges moving the label forward is finding things McQueen hasn't done. "With 'Plato's Atlantis', Lee mastered how to weave, engineer, and print any digital image onto a garment so that all the pattern pieces matched up with the design on every seam. That was the difficulty with the collection that followed. Where do you take it?" she explains. "He wanted to talk about the craftsmanship, about the old techniques that are being lost, and how people don't do things with their hands anymore."
Burton recalls McQueen's handiwork in the houndstooth jacket in look No. 2 of the fall 2009 show. "He slashed it, cut an asymmetrical kimono sleeve, and took the collar off and recut it. He laid a piece of fabric on the floor and cut it to make just the right collar shape. It was incredible." See many more incredible pieces he made, with quotes from him about each look, in the slideshow.