Fashion’s Royal Queen

 In Feature, Style

The art of chess and fashion unite in an unprecedented exhibition at the World Chess Hall of Fame.


Fashion’s highest order is already in eager anticipation of “A Queen Within,” a first-of-its-kind exhibition that was recently previewed in St. Louis and New York and will make its world premiere at St. Louis’ own World Chess Hall of Fame in October. The groundbreaking exhibition debuts pieces from one of the largest private collections of Alexander McQueen, in addition to a slew of garments from both well-known and emerging avant-garde designers, including Sandra Backlund, Hussein Chalayan, Gucci, Iris van Herpen, Pam Hogg, Viktor + Rolf and Writtenafterwards, among others.

It’s the first solo US show for renowned curator Sofia Hedman, the brains behind the celebrated “Savage Beauty” exhibition at The Met in NYC. Hedman is credited, along with WCHOF Executive Director Susan Barrett, for elevating the concept to incredible heights as not just a fashion exhibition, but a sophisticated fusion of the art of fashion and the intellectual world of chess.

The earliest concept began as a conversation between Barrett and Chess Grandmaster Jennifer Shahade, both avid fashion enthusiasts who wanted to figure out how to do a show that combined their loves of fashion and chess. “I found our curator, Sofia Hedman, and turned our thoughts over to her,” Barrett says. “What she came back with was a much deeper, more meaningful concept that focuses on the queen. She drew inspiration from the fact that there can be up to nine queens on the board. Who are those queens? What are their roles? We’re using fashion to tell that story.”

In the game of chess, the queen is considered the most mighty and often the most unpredictable piece. She is a sign of power and risk-taking, much like the 20-plus fashion artists partaking in the exhibition. The show, which debuts Oct. 19 at WCHOF, is organized into nine rooms— each exploring a different personality of the queen in a series of art installations and garment displays. The avant-garde nature of the garments—and at times the intimate quality of the pieces shown—is perhaps what’s most exciting. “One of [my favorite McQueen pieces from the exhibition] is a black sequin dress inspired by Isabella Blow, one of McQueen’s muses,” Barrett says. “At first look, it appears to be just a plain dress. You have to view the garment from just the right angle, and suddenly an image of Isabella’s face appears. It’s an exceptionally rare piece and very subtle in its genius. It feels like you’re in on a secret when you ‘get’ it.”

Many of the participating designers have never shown their work in the US. Take, for instance, French designer Iris van Herpen, whose most recent collection electrified audiences in Paris with her use of technology to explore electricity in the body. The master of coiffure Charlie Le Mindu (who has designed wigs and costumes for Lady Gaga, among others) will create bespoke headpieces for the show.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the STL-exclusive exhibition is gaining national and even international attention that prompted a special press preview at Christie’s in New York on June 3. Women’s Wear Daily ran an in-depth article—so did New York Magazine and But interest isn’t just national. Several fashion experts flew in from Europe for the preview event, and there has been quite a buzz in London, Barrett says. Alexandra Kotur, style director for US Vogue; Amy Fine Collins, correspondent for Vanity Fair; Annabelle Neilson, another of McQueen’s muses; Simon Doonan, creative ambassador-at-large for Barneys New York; and Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology are just a handful of the big names who attended the preview. Some of St. Louis’ own fashion elite were also in attendance, including Susan Sherman, Jimmy Jamieson, Tania Beasley-Jolly, Kitty Ratcliffe, Sam Foxman, Emily Koplar, Anjali Kamra and ALIVE Magazine’s Elizabeth Tucker, among others (see coverage live from New York on and in our next issue).

“I think it’s significant that a large portion of the pieces in the exhibition are coming from a private collection of garments that was amassed here in St. Louis,” says Barrett, who predicts her team of 11 St. Louisans, five European-based contributors and a small group in New York will spend upwards of 10,000 hours preparing by the time the exhibition premieres in St. Louis. “These museum-worthy pieces are not coming from Paris or New York. People should know that we have patrons in our city who are collecting and dressing at the highest levels. We shouldn’t be so surprised that an exhibition of this magnitude is here.”

To learn more about the exhibition, visit






Photo credit: Sarah Carmody, courtesy of the World Chess Hall of Fame

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