Sarah Burton exerts her soft power with beetle prints and extreme layering at Alexander McQueen


No prizes for guessing what the fashion pack will be wearing on the Eurostar home at the end of Paris Fashion Week. At the Alexander McQueen show last night,  each chair had an Aran sweater slotted over the back  with the seatholder’s name printed on the label inside. What bettter way to understand the workmanship of this label than to sit on it – then wear it?

Alexander McQueen Autumn/Winter 2018 CREDIT: GETTY

If ever there were a demonstration of soft power in action, Sarah Burton is it. Eight years into her role as Creative Director of Alexander McQueen she remains quietly spoken and on the surface at least, reticent, all the while pulling off a quite extraordinary feat of ensuring both a sense of continuity and continuous change.




So you’d hope that she could articulate some fresh iteration of soft power in her collection, and she didn’t disappoint. The new McQueen jacket comes with shoulders as strong and defined as ever, but instead of being squared off and hard-edged, this shoulder line is broader, but gently sloping. The waist is contoured, but with multiple seams – I counted nine on one jacket – rather than boning. Some featured scarlet silk linings and dipping hems that resembled butterfly wings.  Others mesh wool with cascading panels of lace.  If the McQueen woman wants to add some kick-ass to her suit, she can buckle up one of the wide leather corset-belts that have become one of the label’s signatures.

Alexander McQueen autumn/ winter 2018 CREDIT: GETTY

It won’t be a matchy-matchy suit however. Burton conceived her jackets to be worn with le flou- translucent lace slips or filmy silk chiffons that were printed with insect or butterfly markings. While the rest of the fashion industry has been obsessed with big cat prints for next season, Burton confessed she’d been inspired by one of David Attenborough’s documentaries on beetles.






As ever with Burton, discovering the process behind each collection is part of the privilege of owning one of these pieces. The patterns had begun as accurate replicas of dozens of different species of beetles and butterflies – pinned to her mood-board were intricate illustrations that wouldn’t look out of place in The Natural History Museum. But the more Burton looked at them the more she felt they should be magnified, “or exploded” as she put it. “It’s about hyper femininity” she says, “and hybridisation. Is she a woman? Is she an insect? It’s a story of metamorphosis”.

In Kafka’s novel of the same name, it didn’t end well for the metamorphosed central character. But Burton’s models seemed comfortable and confident, as their silky butterfly and insect markings swirled around them. This vague feeling of dysmorphia seems to be catching. Two weeks ago in Milan, Alessandro Michele talked about hybridisation, about the end of gender and even human distinctions.

Alexander McQueen autumn/ winter 2018 CREDIT: GETTY

For Burton, hybridisation is more about the practical functionality of clothes rather than a metaphysical question. Cropped leather jackets, designed as integral top layers of blazers, could be removed. Other jackets had zip off hems. Leather dresses with overlaid panels could be unzipped to create different degrees of volume. She’s also been working with Kering’s sustainability team: wools have been recycled and cashmere comes from approved herds.

Extreme layering has fascinated designers across all four capitals : it’s a functional means of expressing the ever malleable human body. At McQueen, the outer skin include spectacular cream sheepskin or satin bombers and belted blanket coats.

Alexander McQueen autumn/ winter 2018 CREDIT: GETTY

There were a lot clothes and accessories here, from show-stopping insect brooches and gob-stopper sized pearl earrings to block heeled shin length boots. Burton has sometimes been reluctant to clutter her women with bags, but there were several new styles here, including a neat envelope shape with a brooch fastening and a bi-coloured flip-top tote that seemed like an extension of the outfits.

The evolution from the early days when Burton was sometimes criticised for overly focussing on fantasy evening wear, to the present, with its fully-realised collections, is no accident. The label is growing, and quickly. In September it moves into a large new flagship in London– the old DKNY store on Bond street, all three floors of it.




It seems reductive to talk about “product” at a house where the language is steeped in emotion, but that’s part of the reality of today’s fashion brands. Perhaps that’s why Burton brings so many seamstresses and tailors over to Paris for the show. There were more than a hundred working on the collection over the weekend. I watched while three women hand-sewed sequins (made from recycled plastic) onto a tunic. This is a hugely expensive undertaking. But Burton knows that if the magic of her process is the beating heart of McQueen, however big it gets. This is one metamorphosis that should end well.

 
Posted On: The Telegraph


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