I usually don’t mind for Sarah Burton‘s Alexander McQueen. But this season, I felt a spark about her work. The collection opened with the sound of birdsong and echoing children’s voices. Then, the McQueen warrior women marched relentlessly on, in sharply tailored frock coats and slim-leg pantsuits gripped by belts jangled with jewels that included tiny silver hip flasks and metal-bound notebooks. For the closing, a finale of fairy-tale evening dresses of frothing net and embroidery suggestive of medieval folk tales. “What do you talk about in a time when there’s so much noise?” queried Burton during a press talk. “I wanted this collection to be really grounded, bold, and heroic,” she answered herself. “I feel like you need to be heroic.” Burton’s poetic adventure for autumn-winter 2020 began with a visit to Wales, the storied Celtic land of myths and creativity. At St. Fagans National Museum of History in the capital city of Cardiff, the first thing that caught her eye was the Wrexham Tailor’s Quilt, fashioned at night over a 10-year period from 1842 by a tailor using recycled scraps of the woolen cloths he had used to craft the uniforms he made by day. With its scenes from the Bible and allusions to the Industrial Revolution that was threatening the very idea of handcraft at the time, it is a powerful object, “a narrative of someone’s life,” as Burton said. Taking her cue from this inspirational starting point, she worked on sharp-seamed, graphic tailoring that incorporated upcycled wool flannels from previous McQueen seasons woven in British mills and set in dramatic geometric blocks that suggested flags or heraldic pennants. The Victorian tailor’s startlingly contemporary imagery was reflected in prints and complex intarsia treatments. Alexander McQueen himself used antique patchworks as a source for some textile treatments in his spring 2004 “Deliverance” collection, and Burton and her team found further quilt inspiration in the collection of the dealer Jen Jones, including more examples made from scraps of traditional men’s fabrics and others in soft blush pinks also used for the elaborately stitched but unseen petticoats that Welsh women once wore to buoy up their plain, utilitarian skirts. That complex handwork was replicated in dimensional jacquard weaves used for a coat with the allure of a 1940s diva’s dressing robe, or as a deep border to counterpoint the severe tailoring of a shapely black jacket. Fabric innovations also included dégradé treatments that changed from solid to sheer (taffeta to chiffon, or dense to spiderweb fine-gauge knit), suggesting strength and fragility in one garment. The famed Welsh blankets, meanwhile, represented for Burton the idea of “protection and wrapping and caring and kindness”. The idea was powerfully suggested in a surprisingly tender 1930s photograph Burton had pinned to her inspiration board, depicting three Welsh miners in their formal Sunday-best suits, with their respective infant children held by blankets wrapped around them and improvised into papooses “so that they had their hands free to work,” as Burton pointed out. Summing up: it’s a line-up of beauty dressed in confidence and strength.
Collage by Edward Kanarecki.