When the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibit closed on August 7 at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, it left a swath of unmet needs, unfulfilled consumer demand, and a transformation of the designer’s personal and corporate brand. The late McQueen was elevated from fashion rebel/outsider to Artist/household name in the exhibit’s wake, but for thousands of New Yorkers – it was only hearsay because they could not get in. The show opened with 5,100 visitors on its first day, more than popular shows like the Jacqueline Kennedy and Chanel exhibitions. When it closed, the final attendance count had reached 661,509 visitors, making it the eighth biggest show on record in the history of Metropolitan Museum of Art. Not bad for the son of Cockney cab driver, and the one of the six children that was always a “misfit.” Today, as the summer of our US debt ceiling debate wanes, and economic doldrums continue around the world, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty left behind some very compelling lessons about innovation economics and the pursuit of passion.
Lesson #1: True innovation creates demand.
According to the New York Times:
“The exhibition also broke the attendance record for the Met’s Costume Institute, surpassing the 2008 show “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy,” which had 576,000 visitors. Nearly 80,000 people saw the McQueen show during its final week, as the museum stayed open until midnight for its final two nights.”
This is an example of consumers delighting in something they didn’t know was missing. This is a clear cut case of a phenom. McQueen’s work, and the Met’s packaging of it passed the law of demand test, which Melvin and Boye define as “the quantity of a well-defined good or service that people are willing and able to buy, during a particular period of time, that decreases/increases as the price of that good or service rises/falls.”
People were willing to buy Savage Beauty. More than 23,000 people purchased membership to the museum during the exhibition, allowing them to skip the line, and 17,000 people bought $50 tickets to see it over the last eight Mondays, when the museum is normally closed. The museum also sold more than 100,000 copies of the related catalog. People just couldn’t get enough. They were willing to stand in lines for up to four hours during one of the hottest summers in Manhattan history. The show was so popular that both trustee and uber-Vogue Anna Wintour and the museum were “startled.” To keep up with demand, the museum extended the exhibit by a week and extra morning and night-time hours were added as well as the special Monday openings – “Mondays with McQueen” – when the rest of the museum was shut.
“We knew [the Met exhibition] would do well, but we didn’t know how well,” said Wintour. “One of the mailroom guys told me yesterday how much he enjoyed the show. It just shows you how fashion now reaches so many different people.” We think what reached people went beyond even fashion. What reached in and grabbed people by the throat was the intensity of his passion, manifested in an amazingly beautiful lifetime body of work.
Lesson #2: Demand is fueled by scarcity.
There is no one quite like McQueen. He was a constructor and a de-constructor simultaneously, a Saville Row trained tailor and a crafts movement devotee. Just as Frank Gehry’s buildings have messed with our concept of what a building is – McQueen’s designs – particularly as they were shown in the romantic hero cave design of the Met galleries, challenge our idea of what fashion is, or can be. McQueen had the courage to do things that no one else would do…“a blouse threaded with worms, a coat sprouting horns, shoes that devour feet. A pert little jacket is printed with a crucifixion scene; the hair on a full-length hair shirt is carefully waved and combed; a corset has a cast-metal animal spine curling out from behind.” (New York Times, May 4, 2011)
No wonder such a broad cross-cutting demographic turned up. In every place we work in, we meet people who would move closer on the scales towards McQueen level inquiry, if they could give their imagination voice. McQueen set a gold standard for giving oneself permission to create.
Lesson #3 Demand Relies on Imagination and Knowledge Equally for Power.
Obviously, if you look at this work, you can tell that McQueen advocated free thought and free speech and championed “the authority of the imagination.” In so doing, he exemplified the Romantic, the hero-artist who staunchly follows the dictates of his inspiration.”
At the same time, he respected and bent tradition. According to the Metropolitan Museum’s curators “integral to the McQueen culture is the juxtaposition between contrasting elements: fragility and strength, tradition and modernity, fluidity and severity. An openly emotional and even passionate viewpoint is realized with a profound respect and influence for the arts and crafts tradition. Alexander’s collections combine an in-depth working knowledge of bespoke British tailoring, the finest skill of the French Haute Couture atelier and the impeccable finish of Italian manufacturing.”
What are fashion houses and museums if not hothouse climates for entrepreneurship and innovation (with their emphasis on R&D, design, partnerships and licenses) – both are businesses in the business of cyclical creativity. That McQueen took his creativity to the edge (“ethereal and gross, graceful and utterly manipulative, and poised on a line where fashion turns into something else.” – New York Times) was in part a tribute to the powerfully creative atmospheres of the ateliers, the collaborative spaces, he insisted on working within. In addition to knowledge and inspiration, every innovator needs a really good lab.
Lesson #4 Creating Demand often Requires Clearing the Decks.
The economist Joseph Schumpeter argued that creative destruction (a term he popularized) is crucial to capitalism. McQueen was the ultimate destroyer. “What I am trying to bring to fashion is a sort of originality,” he said. For Schumpeter, innovation economies were based on evolving institutions, entrepreneurs, and technological change that are at the heart of economic growth.
At 16 McQueen landed an apprenticeship with a Savile Row tailoring firm that catered to the British royal family, and became a serious pupil. Like Picasso’s early study of classical painting, McQueen received a virtuoso’s grasp of the mechanics of clothes making — cutting, sewing, constructing — and those became the cliffs from which he leapt.
Lesson #5 Demand Doubles Down.
Demand is generative. The Met Show has not been the only McQueen moment this summer. Kate Middleton’s wedding dress was designed by Sarah Burton – “McQueen’s right-hand woman in life, and the head designer of the McQueen label in death,” and instantly became the main attraction – this time at Buckingham Palace – since opening last month. When the demand curves of all consumers are added up, the result is the market demand curve for that product. Hence the lines that snaked around blocks in New York and London.
Innovation economics reformulate conventional economics theory so that knowledge, technology, entrepreneurship, and innovation are positioned at the center of the model rather than seen as independent forces that are largely unaffected by policy. Alexander McQueen, in his short but intensely self-actualized creative life, embodied these qualities, and infused them into everything he did.
In the end, why did so many people line up? Was it about Fashion? I think it went deeper. His work spoke to people. It highlights the huge, wealth creating opportunities that are possible when you have the courage to create something different and new, something important enough to spark the public’s imagination. When that happens, traffic and word of mouth increase, the buzz begins, lines form and in all kinds of ways, cash flows to the sublime.
Check out this video interview with Andrew Bolton about Alexander McQueen and the collection:
Julie Anixter is Chief Innovation Officer at Maga Design and a Founder of Innovation Excellence.