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. Don’t forget to follow Design & Culture by Ed on Instagram!
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.
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.
Trust Sarah Burton to choose the most haunting and beautifully strange show setting of LCM. In the austere rooms of Soho’s Welsh Presbyterian Chapel, Alexander McQueen men’s show went on. With the super dull faces of the models, the black & white show full of coats, sweaters and serious blazers took it’s place. Inspired with Yohji Yamamoto’s archive collections, McQueen offered gold brushed jackets, black coats with different “signs” and printed shirts. Maybe it was a bit… dark and sullen, but the pink checked look let some ray of light inside the venue.