After His Suicide, the Met Scrambled to Salute Alexander McQueen

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Gala is perhaps the institution’s most famous and most glamorous event, New York’s version of the Oscars. The event, a million-dollar fund-raiser for the Met, is planned out months, sometimes more than a year, in advance.

But when 40-year-old British designer Alexander McQueen committed suicide last February, the Met began to scramble furiously. They scrapped plans for the scheduled exhibition and got to work on the upcoming retrospective “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,” that opens May 4.

Costume Institute curator-in-charge Harold Koda and exhibition curator Andrew Bolton reasoned they had to act quickly–there might not be another chance, since McQueen’s body of work would disperse and deteriorate over time. “If you leave a show too long, there’s a lot of revision that goes on,” said Mr. Bolton–revisions in history, both personal and couturatorial. At Vogue, whose editor in chief, Anna Wintour, serves as annual co-chair of the event, there was “a resounding desire, both publicly and within the fashion industry, to pay homage to Alexander McQueen,” said Vogue‘s director of special events, Sylvana Ward Durrett, in an email. “This year’s Costume Institute Gala, she said, was “an opportunity to salute his legacy.” Met director Thomas Campbell, who’s had experience curating shows of textiles, was already familiar with McQueen’s work from the Met’s 2006 “AngloMania” exhibit, and gave the show the go-ahead swiftly.

No doubt the drama of McQueen’s death led to some of the early urgency in the fashion community. “It was sort of like Marilyn Monroe dying right at her peak,” said Tiffany Dubin, founder of the Sotheby’s couture department and author of Vintage Fashion.

Mr. Bolton and Mr. Koda recognized that the theme had the formula for success–it was timely; he was popular; and McQueen was a natural provocateur: He once hired a double amputee to model a pair of hand-crafted wooden legs. He made a name for himself by parading battered models down the runway for a “Highland Rape” collection.

Still, many samples of McQueen’s most notable pieces, like his famously low-rise “bumster” trousers, were missing. The house would have to track down the far-flung “club kids,” as Koda put it, who had purchased much of McQueen’s early work when he still needed the cash to pay rent.

In the main gallery of the Metropolitan, Mr. Bolton is refashioning McQueen’s “very raw, hardscrabble” London studio, laying wood-planked floors and showing a selection of his earliest pieces. As viewers move throughout the rest of the exhibit, they will encounter hand-crafted wooden wings, Victorian corsets, ghostly projections of Karen Elson and Kate Moss, accessories from McQueen’s jewelry and hat collaborations and about a hundred pieces of clothing, ranging from his postgraduate designs at Central St. Martins in 1992 to his posthumous “Angels and Demons” collection. Judging by the hype already surrounding the McQueen show, the switch was a prescient one. There’s already a wait list longer than usual for the $10,000 tickets to the Institute’s annual gala, on May 2, co-chaired by Stella McCartney, Colin Firth and Ms. Wintour. At a Council of Fashion Designers of America tribute to McQueen last year, executive director Steven Kolb remembered how “the audience was so, so touched. What’s going to happen at the Met will be moving because he’s still part of a generation of young designers.”

Chimed in New York stylist and fashion commentator Mary Alice Stephenson, who will be dressing Hilary Rhoda and Joan Smalls for this year’s gala, “It will be a particularly emotional night because of what’s happening with John Galliano,” the recently deposed Dior designer. “There’s an amplification of attention to designers who have personal histories.”

Poor Charles James. Before McQueen’s death, the curators were planning a show for this spring titled “Against Nature,” which would have featured five houses helmed by “designers that dealt with the body in an interesting way,” said Mr. Koda. McQueen was already on that list, and Mr. Koda floated the names of Christian Dior and James as possible others. New York couturier James has been the subject of retrospectives at the Brooklyn Museum and F.I.T., but he has yet to receive his Met moment, and it was delayed again.

After His Suicide, the Met Scrambled to Salute Alexander McQueen