Teen Talks—Alexander McQueen: Celebrate and Create

Discover what made Alexander McQueen one of the greatest fashion designers of all time as The Costume Institute's Shannon Bell Price and teen fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson reflect on the exhibition Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, on view at the Met from May 4 to August 7, 2011.

Shannon Bell Price: Just as an introduction, Tavi Gevinson is a blogger and writer who is very excited to be here at the Met today. And along with her own blog that she's had since 2008, Style Rookie, Tavi has written for Harper's Bazaar, i-D Online, Jezebel.com, Love, Lula, Pop, Style.com, and Teen Vogue. She's also the writer of an embarrassing diary she recently found from the sixth grade. I just wanted to start a little bit just talking about Tavi and how she got into what it is that she does. You're fifteen; you just finished your first year of high school, right? And it doesn't have to be said that you've accomplished quite a bit before even entering high school, and I just thought maybe the audience would be interested in knowing a little bit more about how you came to do what you do, how you became interested in fashion—especially from a critical perspective—at a young age, how you built your online audience a little bit, and if you can divulge anything about your future plans. If not, that's okay, too.

Tavi Gevinson: Well, when I—I started reading blogs I guess like four years ago, and I—it was kind of at a time—it was before, like, newspapers wrote about fashion blogs, and it wasn't, like, as much of a thing yet, and kind of the only people who read fashion blogs were other fashion bloggers, so I wanted to jump in on the conversation a bit. And I guess from reading blogs like Style Bubble, especially, I kind of saw how dressing could be kind of, you know, personal reflection and all that, and how keeping a blog would be kind of like keeping a diary but, you know, more public, and outfits instead of writing. And then the critical side of fashion—I guess I gained really strong sense of appreciation for McQueen and other designers like Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto shortly after I started reading blogs because—I guess it was just really interesting, it was nothing I'd seen before, and I, I mean I live in a suburb of Chicago, and it's like, moderately hip, but it's not, like—I mean, it was just interesting to me. And I think—I also just started, like, trying to educate myself a lot, you know, reading other blogs to get a sense of people's personal style, but then reading, you know, Cathy Horyn and actual critique of designers, and I just thought looking at fashion as a reflection of a person or of a culture or a time could be really interesting. And future plans, I don't know.

Shannon Bell Price: One thing that we believe makes the show so successful and so emotional is that we were able to collaborate with all of McQueen's collaborators. So the exhibition design was done in collaboration with his runway designers and production designers, the music was curated by his music curator, the masks were done by his…one of his favorite hair and beauty guys, Guido Palau. So we think that that ability to collaborate so closely with them is what makes it so special and so emotional, really—is that the context is right. And so I'm wondering, Tavi, if you could just talk a little bit about McQueen's use of storytelling and theater and narrative in his work that attracts you specifically.

Tavi Gevinson: Sure, I mean those of you who have seen the exhibit know that it is—I mean, you described it as a fairy tale, and it is really another world. And I think for me, I'm so drawn to it because I love, you know, fantasy, fashion, and everything, but I'm a little too, I guess, of like… I don't know how to put it. Well—but I—like, it has to be a little bit rougher, too.

Shannon Bell Price: Like some edge?

Tavi Gevinson: Yeah, it has to be a little darker, or a little less… I think it can, in terms of design, also go into kind of costumey territory. So with McQueen, I kind of felt… I feel like his designs are sort of like dreams, because with dreams it's like, the way that, you know, truth comes to you through some kind of fantasy… There's a lot of darkness to it, as well, and I really appreciate that because I think that people in general are—you're supposed to, you know, like, ignore those thoughts and not go there and not think about things that are dark or, or whatever, like—well, no, sorry. Story that I'm not gonna share, but, but he went there, and I appreciate that.

Shannon Bell Price: Well, and I mean being in the context of a museum, I mean, some of the greatest artists in other mediums, too, dare to go there, and that's what makes their work so engaging.

Tavi Gevinson: And that's why I think also, like, upstairs, you know, it's shiny and flowerlike and cool, and the music is, you know, really exciting, but that's also why it's so touching, I think, and why, like, it's weird to identify with a dress the way you might identify with a book or a movie, but…

Shannon Bell Price: You feel like it's speaking to you in some way.

Tavi Gevinson: Right. But, you know, I think that there's definite potential there, and I think, I mean I felt a lot of that going through the exhibit, so…

Shannon Bell Price: And this idea of narrative and character in storytelling is something that I've always enjoyed in your blog and see in the way that you self-style, in that it often seems to be about a character, you know—you evoking a character, you relating to a character, you getting inspired by a movie or something in pop culture that makes you want to explore those symbols or, you know, feeling. And I'm just wondering if you can elaborate a little bit about that in terms of self-styling and storytelling.

Tavi Gevinson: Well, maybe I was just, like, born with a Woody Allen desire to not be myself, but I—I don't know, for—also, well I'm fifteen, and I started my blog when I was almost twelve, and it's a, you know, a formative period of time here where you're just trying to "find yourself" or whatever, so, for me—and for me, like, dressing is a big part of my day. I don't care if that sounds silly because it's true and it's about, you know, the skin that you're comfortable with, and kind of the attitude that you take on, and so for me, I mean the idea of being someone else for a day or whatever is really intriguing, and then, you know, slowly you figure out which of those kinds of characters you've invented you seem to, I guess…seems to hit closer to home or feel the most familiar or comfortable.

Shannon Bell Price: And sort of to some of the points you were talking about—you know in academia, clothing sometimes can be about, about utility, you know, just covering the body—you know, we're talking about clothing, there's like a difference, a very subtle difference between like, clothing dress and fashion, you know. So fashion, when we talk about fashion, we're talking about something that is self-expressive, something that is related to the identity, something that, as McQueen uses it, is sort of a catharsis or a commentary, and I know we talked about that a little bit before—you know, he often used fashion as a way to be political, to comment about race, and gender, and class, and all sorts of things. So it can be a very powerful medium. McQueen was very focused on these aspects and he often used it not just to explore things outside of himself, but also, I mean—yeah, not things outside of himself—but also his own psychology, his genealogy. You know he was inspired by, by all of those things, and especially as seen in the Highland Rape collection, which was from 1995—pretty much put him on the map but also was a little bit misunderstood. And I know we talked about, a little bit, about this idea of fashion being a vehicle for commentary and self-expression. I'm just wondering if you want to talk about that and how you see that being executed in the Highland Rape collection that we talked about.

Tavi Gevinson: I think that collection was misunderstood because—well for a number of reasons. First of all fashion isn't regarded as social commentary the way that art or film—movies—are, and I think that…so people didn't want to attach that much power to fashion. And I think a lot of people were also—and still—call it misogynist, but to me, that's…he wasn't glamorizing rape or victims, survivors of rape. I think that, you know, writing it off as misogynist is a way to simplify the collection and all of the thinking that went behind it, and also a way to sort of pass up a potentially really interesting conversation that I think that collection can evoke…but…yeah.

Shannon Bell Price: So also just to put it in a little bit of context, so, the Highland Rape collection was done in the mid-90s, and it was called Highland Rape because it was about the Jacobite Risings, and the Highland Clearances and the violence against Scotland by England and the sort of genocidal relationship. And McQueen—being Scottish and from England, you know—had a lot of emotion about this, and Highland Rape was a very cathartic, emotional, sort of violent collection. It felt violent coming down the runway; there was a lot of sloshing and they—the models—were acting kind of, you know, out of it. And the fashion industry just saw the kind of beat-up women and saw the word "rape," and just kind of went crazy and thought it was about, like, the rape of women instead of the rape of a country by another country. So there was that misunderstanding; while he was sort of trying to explore something much deeper, the fashion industry kind of just ignored that bit and tried to take it to sort of this superficial level. But it speaks to a larger issue that he kind of butted up against often in his career, in that he was often categorized as a misogynist, and—which is not something that he would agree to—his take on his collections were that he was trying to, you know…he was wanting to design for strong women and to protect women. And he had women in his life, including his sister, who had been through some pretty violent things, and so he felt very sensitive to that, and he felt that his clothes sort of were meant to empower women, but also not to ignore the fragile relationship, you know, between society and the sexes and all of that.

Tavi Gevinson: At least in the writing communities I'm kind of a part of online, there's a knee-jerk reaction to, you know, not indulge in that feminist conversation, or not look at fashion as anything that could be creative as opposed to oppressive. And I think that's really a shame, because I think that there are so many possibilities in how you could make the two ideas of like, empowerment to women and dressing yourself, be friends. And I think that with a collection like Highland Rape, that wasn't, you know, condoning violence. To me it was more of an emotional commentary on, I mean, what you…what like the political background was that you already talked about, but, so I think it's important that, you know, as someone who's, like, feminist and interested in fashion, to not just take everything at face value and to actually look at the intents of the artist and implications. And I think McQueen is probably the most—at least recently—controversial and interesting to me; there are the most layers there, example of that—and all the times he's been accused of misogyny.

Shannon Bell Price: So one of the things that also is sort of melancholy about the exhibition to me—besides all sorts of…there's all sorts of melancholy things about the exhibition—but to me it really hits home in the last gallery, and in the Angels and Demons collection in Gothic, in Romantic Gothic—because I think that when you see and pay attention to the techniques and the methods that he was beginning to use in his last year or two, were becoming so well articulated, and so beautiful, and so unusual. He was doing a lot of engineering of prints, engineering of weaves, engineering of—you know, doing sort of à la disposition dresses where the print of the weave is made specifically for the cut of the dress; things that, you know—contemporary couturiers aren't even doing that kind of intricate work. So I guess it just hits home for me what a massive loss it was. I mean I was always a fan, and it was a loss, but when you see the pieces at the front, you just think, "Wow," you know, "Where was he going?" You know, "Where was he going? What was going to be next?" And I guess what I just thought maybe was interesting, I mean, we talked about the "bumster," which was one of his early—you know, the drop-waisted pants—one of his very early additions to fashion, which, you know, kind of changed the jean silhouette for the next fifteen years after he did that, but—and this is kind of a big esoteric question but—I'm just wondering if you, I don't know, just on an emotional level, you know, what do you hope or what do you see his legacy as being in terms of an influence on the twenty-first-century fashion? Because it was very important for him to feel like he had an influence on twenty-first-century fashion. You know, I can say that he did, as a historian, but, you know, just from your perspective?

Tavi Gevinson: Well I guess—I mean, we were talking earlier about how this exhibit has been really successful, and you were kind of thinking about how his recent death and also Kate Middleton, and I mentioned Lady Gaga. And I, I'm uneasy about giving her too much credit because, you know, there was Björk and there were pop stars before her who worked with him, but I guess for people more our age she's acted as a bit of an introduction to McQueen, like through the "Bad Romance" video and everything. And I guess—I know that for people, I mean, like at my—so that video came out, I guess 2009? And I think I was one of the only—I don't take pride in this, I felt really dorky—people in my grade who like, you know, followed McQueen and everything, and then it was really nice when people learned more about him and they were interested too. But I guess what I liked seeing the most was that, like, it felt more like my peers understood and supported my philosophy on dressing, and why I chose to be obnoxious and colorful or dark, or just, I guess, try and experiment with what I was wearing every day. And so on a scale of, you know, like, people my age, I would say that an introduction to McQueen from what I've seen has just given people, like, I guess more of a respect for fashion as something that can be really interesting and exciting, and like I loved hearing guys in my school who had just—who had previously been like, "Fashion is dumb, go sports!" Like, I loved hearing them being like, "Man, did you see those shoes Lady Gaga was wearing?" So…

Shannon Bell Price: Yeah, those particular shoes really made a huge impact.

Tavi Gevinson: Yeah, right. And it wasn't in a way where it's—like, I don't mean that I think now, you know, people our age will become more fashion conscious and start reading Vogue much earlier and getting really concerned over what they look like, but more, you know, trying to be more creative, and I, like, I think that's awesome.

Shannon Bell Price: Yeah, it is interesting—I mean we didn't really talk about Lady Gaga too much when we were up there but I do think it's interesting, and I—you know because there's precedents to her, you know, there's Madonna with her relationship with Gaultier, and, you know, even Gwen Stefani or something like that, you know—in how they use fashion really to formulate their identity and their public persona. And yeah, Lady Gaga was very unique in that she was happy to embrace the designers who were sort of darker and edgier and weirder, and yeah, and created a different kind of…different kind of persona…and brought some of the…and I think that you're right, I think that McQueen was one of them that she brought to a different level of an audience that may not have been so aware of him, you know, him before, you know, right at that sort of Plato's Atlantis moment when he used her music for the runway show and crashed a million servers or something like that.

Tavi Gevinson: Well I remember in one of the interviews after that show he said something that I believe is printed on one of the walls upstairs and it was like, you know, "I'm going to take you places you've never been before." And what, I mean, what you were saying about all those techniques you can see in his last two collections, I think it is, I mean, such a loss that there was no chance for those new techniques to be explored.

Shannon Bell Price: From reading your blog, I sort of have gotten the impression that over the past few years—as you have become more of an insider to the fashion industry versus, you know, an observer, as you were when you started your blog—that you seem to have some of your own concerns about the hypocrisy or something like that in the fashion industry and I was just wondering is it something you want to talk about or what is it that seems to have made you, like, a bit uncomfortable or at least—and it might be your age or just something, you know, a new thing you're getting into—but, you know, that you're starting to want to kind of go beyond fashion and, you know, talk about other things on your blog and get a little bit broader.

Tavi Gevinson: Well I guess I still in many ways feel like an observer, which makes it more comfortable for me to be able to write and not feel like I have to apologize every other sentence or write a million disclaimers. I mean sometimes I feel like having a conversation about stuff in fashion I have problems with, and sometimes I just feel too exhausted, but I guess it's nice to kind of, you know, write about that, and then also have examples from someone like McQueen who could take that energy and maybe anger that he had with the industry and use it as inspiration for really great art.

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