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Perspectives Fashion

10 Years of Savage Beauty

With over 340,000 copies sold, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty remains an indispensable perspective on the groundbreaking fashion designer.

May 26, 2021

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty opened at The Met in 2011. This year we celebrate the tenth anniversary of the exhibition and its publication, which has sold over 340,000 copies and counting. Written by Andrew Bolton—with an introduction by fashion journalist Susannah Frankel and an interview with Alexander McQueen’s creative director, Sarah Burton, conducted by Tim Blanks—this stunning book remains an essential publication on the groundbreaking artistry of this provocative designer.

I spoke with Gwen Roginsky—who has served as the publication director and production manager of Costume Institute books for twenty years—about her experience working on the Museum’s best-selling publication to date.

A picture of a book depicting fashion designed by Alexander McQueen

Look a little closer—that isn’t a mannequin on the right!

Rachel High:
One of the things that made the Savage Beauty catalogue such a success is the evocative imagery by fashion photographer Sølve Sundsbø, and I think readers might be interested to know that there is a little more to the photographs than meets the eye. How did these images come to be?

Gwen Roginsky:
It was Sundsbø’s idea to make the live models look like mannequins using white body paint and post-production retouching. The first test shots came back with some of the model’s hands and heads edited out and replaced with hardware. The effect was morbid and distracting. It was fine to be dark, but we didn’t want the images to be creepy.

The final images, which kept the hands and eliminated the hardware, worked. Their focus is on the clothing, and the garments look natural because they were photographed on living bodies. The shots are dramatic and better reflect how McQueen’s clothes are made to be seen.

“Like Byron, Beethoven, and Delacroix, McQueen is an exemplar of the Romantic individual, the hero-artist who staunchly followed the dictates of his inspiration. As a designer, he doggedly promoted freedom of thought and expression and championed the authority of the imagination.”

— Andrew Bolton, “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty”

A picture of a book depicting fashion designed by Alexander McQueen

The dramatic movement of the costumes shown in this photograph was only possible with live models.

As with any works of art in The Met collection, the staff preserves and protects all accessioned costumes from deterioration. For this reason, no one may wear a garment after it enters the collection. You were able to photograph McQueen’s works on live models because they weren’t accessioned Museum objects, right?

Right. All the works were part of McQueen’s archive and we photographed them there. The models we hired had worked as dress models for McQueen, so they were familiar with wearing his garments. We shot the photographs in December 2010, on a very fast schedule. We had to start printing the book in February so that copies would arrive from the Italian printer in time for the show’s opening in May.

Could you speak about the origins of the catalogue’s iconic cover image?

With most books, we go through many rounds of cover designs, and it is often hard to get consensus on the right image. Early in the planning, the exhibition’s curator Andrew Bolton and I met with the representatives from the McQueen organization in the Museum’s staff café. They showed us an invitation from one of McQueen’s last runway shows featuring a lenticular image, which shifted from a portrait of McQueen to a patterned skull depending on how we angled the card. Suddenly we had a cover. It never happens like that.

The lenticulars are manufactured in Italy and each one is secured to the book by hand with strong, double-sided tape. The bindery is in Calenzano, near Prato, which had a strong textile industry. Some of the materials that McQueen used were made there, so it was nice for the book to have this additional connection to his work.

A picture of a book depicting fashion designed by Alexander McQueen

Bindery workers assembling Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. Photos by Gwen Roginsky

The book had a large first printing. Was that nerve-wracking?

In 2011, many people in the Museum were worried that McQueen’s work was not widely known or appreciated. The Friday before the show’s opening was the royal wedding, and Kate Middleton wore a McQueen dress created by Sarah Burton, who is interviewed in the catalogue. Suddenly, everyone in the world knew McQueen’s and Burton’s names. The first printing sold out in three weeks.

What do you think most contributes to the popularity and longevity of this book over the past decade?

It amazes me! Perhaps it reached a tipping point and became so iconic that everyone affected by McQueen’s work wanted to have it.

Our book holds up because of its exceptional photography, design, text, and curation. Andrew selected each piece to tell a broader story. Thumbnail images of some of McQueen’s fashion shows give a sense of his creative process and show how he presented his work. Quotes from McQueen about his work appear throughout the book.

Since the exhibition, there have been many books published on McQueen. I thought ours might be surpassed, but it remains a benchmark.

The book also captures a certain moment in time. It represents a period of transition for the house as it reflected on its beginnings and looked toward the future.

The book’s popularity is a testament to McQueen’s talent, originality, and creativity, as well as Andrew Bolton’s insight and vision. It is a book meant to be looked at over and over. Even a decade later, there is always something new and inspiring to discover.

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty features 293 illustrations and is available at The Met Store and on MetPublications.