Staying True to Alexander McQueen’s Spirit

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Courtesy of Alexander McQueen

Sarah Burton continually returns to the genius of Alexander McQueen, in ways both small and large. Her latest recalls a 1998 show in which the model Shalom Harlow, in a many-layered paper dress, was encircled by a pair of paint-spraying robots in a warehouse. McQueen had wanted the robots to act like spitting cobras, and the result was Harlow’s pure white dress being covered in ugly black and chartreuse splatters.

On Tuesday night in a Brooklyn warehouse, those blotchy patterns again appeared on a red pantsuit, a yellow pantsuit, and a red-and-black dress with its hem partially detached with a zipper. But look closely at the image on the three styles and you see the outline of a figure. “It’s actually a shadow of a person moving, whom we photographed in the studio,” said Burton. “It looks like graffiti.” And it subtly links you to McQueen’s decidedly complex notions of beauty.

Burton is perhaps the model of how to extend a legend’s name and keep reinventing and honing the work — and in the face of a storm of changes across the industry in the dozen years since McQueen’s suicide. In the past few years — since her last Paris runway show before the pandemic — she has offered masterfully plain tailoring. Indeed, the more other designers tweak and pull their tailored silhouettes, the more stubbornly natural the McQueen suits and coats look. And fall 2022 is a great season for them, beginning with a straight-line, black wool double-breasted coat closed with a slender black leather tie, and a black wool suit with a skirt slashed high on the left leg and the trim jacket mirroring the effect on the other. And whether the suit is dark and formal or figured with a shadow on hot red or yellow, the look always leans a little more to the feminine than the masculine. That’s another Burton difference. She knows her customers. (The second show on Tuesday night was for clients.)

Photo: Courtesy of Alexander McQueen

Her other favorite themes have been nature and community, especially the communities in Ireland and the United Kingdom that produce crafts. She and her London design team have created shows around the flowers at Great Dixter, a house in East Sussex, the Stitch School in London, and weavers in the Shetland Islands. This season, Burton had a good look at mycelium.

Well, everyone seems to be wild about mushrooms. She had images of mushrooms as inspiration in her studio, and their acid shades of blue, yellow, green, and red gave the designer her colors. So now those shadowy pantsuits, nodding to Harlow, have an extra dimension. She also abstracted the images for a shredded oversize sweater, shown with black leather biker pants, and a fairly psychedelic mushroom minidress embroidered with sequins and crystals.

The tulle and paper-thin fissure dresses, with exploding necklines and asymmetrical, punk-debutante skirts, were a more grounded version of McQueen romance. Ditto the unadorned biker leather and the pair of bustier dresses in leather with draped skirts that opened the show. Burton knows how to extract an urban uniform from the McQueen story.

She was asked by reporters why she had decided to show in New York and not Paris or London (where she staged the spring collection) and said that Lee McQueen had a history here, with two shows, including one during a hurricane. And she thought that the precision of the tailoring and vibrancy of the colors squared with the city.

Photo: Courtesy of Alexander McQueen

My guess is Burton, encircled by reporters, was probably saying to herself, Oh, I don’t know! The truth is the urban panache of her tailoring, the punk vibration of her knits, the casual sweetness of her poly-faille dresses would work anywhere.

Before the show, as guests were milling around the giant mounds of garden mulch that served as a set, I saw François-Henri Pinault, the head of Kering, which owns McQueen, and he said the brand would be back on the Paris show schedule in September.

Emmanuel Gintzburger, the chief executive of McQueen, sounded more circumspect, saying perhaps it would be back.

Burton, though, knew her mind. “Not yet,” she said emphatically. “I quite like being on our own. Maybe eventually we’ll go to Paris again.”

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