“BUT HOW DID HE DIE?” said a young man to the girl standing next to him in an outsize dress.
The couple was looking at a blossoming, red-feathered, evening-wear creation, the first taste of the Met’s hit exhibition “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty.” The deceased in question, of course, was the designer.
“You don’t know?” she said.
He shook his head.
The two had come to the exhibit at a time that would seem appropriate but, given the mammoth crowd now populating the hall of Rodin, saving their visit for the last night turned out to be folly. “Savage Beauty” was closing at midnight, the latest the museum had ever stayed open. At 11 o’ clock, many line-standers had been waiting to bid McQueen adieu since early that afternoon.
“Really,” came a whisper. “How did Alexander McQueen die?”
She leaned in and told him.
“That’s pretty serious,” the young man said.
The Observer ducked into the compound’s side entrance, on 81st Street, at 10:00 p.m. Sunday night, and upstairs we witnessed the feared line that snaked through the halls, engulfing statues on display into the theme park-caliber queue.
We had bypassed it all, though, and so we witnessed the collection before many, and we found it an aggressively brilliant fever dream played out in silk, all the frocks cut with daring.
It was one of the most successful exhibits in the museum’s history. Hence, the line on that final night was very, very long. We had heard horror stories: six-hour waits, irate groups turned away feet away from the entrance, not to mention the claustrophobic hell once you do get inside. At one point during the week, a young child was rumored to have wet himself while on line. The parents did not want to risk losing their place.
“What did we do all that time?” said Simon Barros, a 21-year-old student, of the afternoon-to-night stretch. “I tried to download the app, but, I dunno, talking to people in line, talking to my friends, I’m thinking it’s definitely going to be worth it.”
Her voice trailed off.
“I’ll see when I come out.”
“Well, I thought this would actually be an event,” said Cole. He’s 26 and works for the United Nations. It’s not so often that a exhibition of this scale and importance has its last hurrah at the going-out hour, and it seemed many had joined The Observer in having a few cocktails beforehand.
“And it is an event!” he went on. “Some people were getting angry a lot, cutting in line … ”
Speaking of cutting the line, it was time for us to take in McQueen’s final show.
“I haven’t seen it yet either!” Anthony Haden-Guest, the writer whom we walked in with, exclaimed as we approached.
Those were the last words we exchanged with him, or anyone, for the rest of the time inside. The clothes were draped on mannequins with iron skulls for heads, the bare eye sockets and deep-sunken cheeks often deprived of breath by a suffocating cloth. And blindly they peered down at the masses.
“One of the mailroom guys told me yesterday how much he enjoyed the show,” Anna Wintour told The New York Times a few days earlier.
Some share her surprise, but they shouldn’t. Yes, even those poor souls who work outside the Vogue editorial department can enjoy the video of the fragile, 17-year-old Shalom Harlow—in a pure white dress girded outward and affixed above her chest with a belt—cowering swanlike on a giant revolving lazy Susan. Then she wriggled in horror as the danger crept closer. As she spun, two robotic metal appendages darted at her, sniffing her neck, before bursting at the tip and sullying the muslin fabric with yellow and black splatter. The paint-stained dress hung below the video display.
McQueen’s vision evolved with each room. In the next, Tartan garb evoked the Scottish heroes whom McQueen worshipped. And in a glass box a fuzzy ball of pixie dust melted into a hologram of Kate Moss, a tiny ethereal vision twirling in a dress made of fog and light, fabric of milky cloud-sinew, to the theme from Schindler’s List.
“I knew he killed himself, but I didn’t know too much about him,” said Mary Adams, a nurse practitioner who was leaving the show. The elderly woman had driven from Boston that morning. She had been in line since 2:30 and the clock was edging toward midnight.
“Did he have a troubled life?” she asked The Observer.
We leaned in and told her.
As we left, a new batch of people huddled by the front of the line got nodded in. The line still flowed from one gallery space to another, but they would be among the last of the groups. With entry gained, the people raised their arms, let out a vigorous whoop of anticipation and walked under the ghostly photograph of Alexander McQueen—the fashion show, for them, about to begin.