Lee Alexander McQueen died in 2010, but not before he had predicted the trajectory of fashion this decade with extraordinary accuracy.
He believed fiercely in fashion as armour for women, had an unsettling instinct to needle into the dark heart of sexual politics, and an impulse to celebrate female strength. It is uncanny, in hindsight, to note the extent to which McQueen predicted a reckoning in gender politics that came to pass years later. He foresaw the #MeToo era that has reverberated through fashion in the slogan T-shirts and hemline debates of recent years.
Sarah Burton, who has kept the Alexander McQueen brand alive and vibrant without the man himself for nine years, is a force of nature of a quite different kind. Backstage after her Paris fashion week show, held in the same 17th arrondissement lycée where McQueen staged his Hitchcock Heroines show in 2005, she talked passionately about the “deeply personal” roots of a show grounded in the fabric mills and raw landscape of the Derbyshire countryside where she grew up. “It’s armour, but it’s not literal,” she said. “Lee started on Savile Row and McQueen is always about tailoring for me. The jacket is at the heart of what we do. Tailoring is about strength, but it’s also about being held.”
Instead of chairs or benches, the entire Lycée Carnot was lined with rolls of fabric and wool from British mills – William Halstead, John Foster, Bower Roebuck, Savile Clifford and Joshua Ellis – lined up for the audience to perch on. The collection was a classic McQueen balancing act between rigorous tailoring and exuberant femininity. There were blazers in worsted flannel, cashmere military coats, and a Beefeater-esque scarlet trouser suit. But there was also a corset dress in “lust red”, and a ballgown of sunray-pleated tulle.
The framing of this collection as an explicitly personal one for the designer sent a strong message from Kering, the brand’s parent company, of belief in and support for Burton. Kering, which has recently offloaded other small brands in which it had invested, has kept faith with Alexander McQueen and expressed the intention to build it into a much larger brand.
It is thought that Kering proposes to scale Alexander McQueen to around the size of Saint Laurent, which would mean a fivefold increase. The opening of a lavish flagship store in London was a clear signal of Kering’s commitment to the brand. Explaining the justification for the expensive refit, the recently installed CEO, Emmanuel Gintzburger, said: “McQueen is not only a brand that you buy, it is also a house where you’re trying to feel a creative experience. You need to feel something, and this is why you go to McQueen.”