How a Polish Fiber Artist’s Haunting Woven Sculptures Ended Up in Alexander McQueen’s Latest Show

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The trailblazing fashion house of Alexander McQueen has always been a fascinating study in contrasts, both during the founder’s tenure and since his death in 2010. It is a wholly original label lauded for its synthesis of strength and fragility, darkness and hope, immortality and vulnerability. Interweaving these competing themes into a cohesive vision is its magic.

It seems fitting, then, that creative director Sarah Burton—who has helmed the house for the last 13 years since McQueen’s death (and acted as his right hand another 13 years before that)—sought the monumental textiles of the late Polish fiber artist Magdalena Abakanowicz as the set design for her fall 2024 collection in Paris, her farewell.

Magdalena Abakanowicz installation for Alexander McQueen, Spring/Summer 2024, Paris, September 30, 2023. © Alexander McQueen. Photo: Norbert Piwowarczyk.

Installation view of Magdalena Abakanowicz at Alexander McQueen, Spring/Summer 2024, Paris. © Alexander McQueen. Photo: Norbert Piwowarczyk.

Burton wanted to put an exclamation mark at the end of her 26-year career at McQueen with five monumental woven sculptures by Abakanowicz installed around the show venue, Le Carreau du Temple. She considers Abakanowicz a “transgressive and powerfully creative artist who refused ever to compromise her vision,” she said in the show notes. Some of these groundbreaking works were accompanied by looks on mannequins that they inspired.

Magdalena Abakanowicz installation for Alexander McQueen, Spring/Summer 2024, Paris, September 30, 2023. © Alexander McQueen. Photo: Norbert Piwowarczyk.

Installation view of Magdalena Abakanowicz at Alexander McQueen, Spring/Summer 2024, Paris. © Alexander McQueen. Photo: Norbert Piwowarczyk.

One particularly monumental piece, Black Garment VI (1976), looms in the back of the venue. Handmade from knotty rope and plant sisal, it was created to resemble a shroud worn by a nomad or a priest of yore, said the artist, who, in her characteristically mystical parlance, once described black as the color of “mystery, of inside, of night in which you only feel without seeing.” 

Some of these giant forms enveloping the runway—which the artist likened to “spiritual shelter”—had been loaned from Tate Modern, where Burton discovered Abakanowicz’s work in a solo exhibition that ended in May. Now on tour, “Magdalena Abakanowicz: Every Tangle of Thread and Rope” surveys the artist’s early career, when her weavings—dubbed Abakans—first came off the wall and took shape in three-dimensional space, a transformation that elevated fiber sculpture to a recognized art form. By this time, the late 1960s, Abakanowicz had become a proponent of the New Tapestry movement in Europe. Other pieces chez McQueen were loaned from the Central Museum of Textiles in Łódź, Poland, and the Museum of Art and Design in New York.

Installation view of Magdalena Abakanowicz at Alexander McQueen, Spring/Summer 2024, Paris. © Alexander McQueen. Photo: Norbert Piwowarczyk.

Installation view of Magdalena Abakanowicz at Alexander McQueen, Spring/Summer 2024, Paris. © Alexander McQueen. Photo: Norbert Piwowarczyk.

Mary Jane Jacob, co-director of the Abakanowicz Arts and Culture Charitable Foundation, served as the artistic advisor for the installation, working directly with Burton. “It’s hard for us today to imagine how transgressive Abakans were in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” she said. “They were towering, bloated, brooding, gnarly—and magnificently beautiful.”

Indeed, each ten meters tall, the two parts of  (1973–75)—seen here for the first time outside of Poland—dwarf the room. The tightly bound, brilliantly hued coils of  (1969) reference the male anatomy, while the circular shape of  (1969) continued the artist’s interest in the female form.

Jacob was quick to acknowledge the struggle for recognition that Abakanowicz experienced as a woman artist—especially in a place, Poland, “then considered an artistic backwater,” she said.

Although Abakanowicz did not consider herself a feminist, she imbued her works with fierce self-affirmation and personal conviction. The sentiment has long been a signature of McQueen’s works in fashion, too. As Burton’s wrote in the notes: “The show is dedicated to the memory of Lee Alexander McQueen, whose wish was always to empower women.”

 

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