Sarah Burton‘s latest collections for Alexander McQueen are her best offerings for the brand in years. Spring-summer 2023, shown off-schedule in London, is no exception. In a transparent bubble that had landed in the middle of Sir Christopher Wren’s 17th century landmark, the designer presented a thrilling ode to the eye. “The eye is the most unique symbol of humanity – each one is like a fingerprint; each one is completely individual,” she said, explaining the enlarged prints and raffia-fringed images of irises, pupils, and eyelashes embedded in dresses and spilling over a trouser suit. That thought gave her the impetus to begin to grapple with layers of themes that the house of McQueen has always been concerned with: nature and technology, deep history and present fears. “It’s sort of about seeing things again,” she said. “Not walking around with your eyes shut, your eyes down. Just seeing each other, recognizing each others’ humanity. Caring about each other.” But against that, she also meant that having open eyes on the world means taking on terrors. Burton recently re-read Orwell’s 1984. “That played into it as well: how do you find human contact in the world we live in, in the world of technology?” Besides the bold decorative narratives, out came clean, sharp tailoring. Look two: a revival of McQueen’s bumsters, with a cropped tuxedo jacket cut into sharp points at the front and the rest of it balanced to swing at the back. There are generations that have never heard of bumsters – Alexander McQueen invented that explosive downward shift of pant design in the 1990s. But the red-hot relevance of torso-exposure, and clothes designed to expose slices of naked flesh needs no explanation to new eyes. The references to the touchstones of the work of her late boss felt timely in this collection. Sarah Burton is designing in a different world, but the themes she brought to bear, and the skills inherent in the house resonate more than ever today.
Collage by Edward Kanarecki.
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Showing in New York somehow made Sarah Burton‘s Alexander McQueen feel more compelling and… fresh. Lee Alexander McQueen brought his show to New York twice, first in 1996 with Dante and again in 1999 for Eye. Sarah Burton was with him on both trips, and she was back in the Big Apple to present her autumn-winter 2022 collection for the label. “America and New York have always been so much a part of McQueen,” she said backstage. “It feels part of our creative community. It’s great to honor that.” Piles of mulch made from fallen trees gave off a peaty tang in the Brooklyn warehouse venue (it’ll be reused in plantings, she said), and birds and insects chirped on the speakers before the soundtrack settled into the groove of “A Forest” by The Cure. Backstage Burton was talking about mycelium, the underground fungal network that’s sometimes called nature’s “wood wide web,” connecting trees with one another and transferring nutrients and minerals plant-to-plant. The humble mushroom has taken on a new vogue in recent years with the mainstreaming of psychedelics, but Burton laughed off a question about microdosing. “What I really love is that the trees talk to each other and they sort of heal each other,” she began. “The thing is, they’re healing, but they’re toxic as well. There’s a danger to them.” A pair of dresses were fantastically embroidered in mushrooms whose vivid colors Burton said were lifted from real life, their mycelia represented by long skeins of silk fringe. A couple of unraveling sweaters were almost as trippy. Burton’s McQueen is a thoughtful balance of hand craft and haute tailleur. She was in New York City, after all, so she didn’t neglect to show off the label’s sartorialism. A smoking with a crystal-embellished back panel and a spangled bandeau in place of a shirt would be a glamorously restrained red carpet look for what’s likely to be a sober Oscars ceremony at the end of the month. Other sharply cut pantsuits picked up the psychedelic colors of those mushrooms – acid green and yellow, electric blue, bright red. “I wanted it to have a pace to it and an energy to it… and there to be color,” Burton said. “I wanted it to have a vibrancy.” Most notable were the suits that looked like they’d been spray-painted with the shadow of a rushing body. Burton said these were inspired by yet another archival McQueen collection, Number 13, the show in which the model Shalom Harlow and her strapless white dress were painted by a pair of robots normally used in the automotive industry in a sort of erotic dance. McQueen would’ve likely dug the mycelium theme; he was always intrigued by the elements, always finding his way back to a nature vs. machine theme. Many years on, that struggle is more real than ever. Burton brings that awareness and a woman-centered approach to what she’s doing here.
Collage by Edward Kanarecki.