Returning to London after a 14-year hiatus, creative director Sarah Burton delivered a McQueen show of class and sensibility. Held at the Royal Horticultural Society Halls, where Burton worked on her first McQueen show 20 years ago, the decor eschewed the traditional straight runway in favour of large gauze curtains which created a winding trail through the room. The sense of anticipation — already near breaking point, as with any show of such magnitude — could only be increased by the steady fade-in of models as they passed back and forth towards the viewer. The corresponding fade-out as they retreated behind further layers of gauze made each outfit linger and reverberate in the spaces in between.
Inspiration for the show is said to have come from multiple areas, not least Burton’s unborn child (she cites her pregnancy as a reason not to hold the show in Paris this year),and the sanctity of nighttime. No surprise, then, that the spirit was that of warm darkness, graceful femininity and immaculately delicate detail. While the audience occupied the former, some models staved off the strong white lighting with thick, duvet-like coats and shawls, lined with fur and embroidered with butterflies. These designs came at the ‘bedtime’ end of the show, but Burton’s woman accomplished much before she turned in for the night.
The first model sported a large black coat with fur lapels, and the hint of a sheer dress underneath. Dominant, however, was the embroidery, which seemed to encompass and express the tone for the rest of the show: a large stopwatch, a butterfly, stars and a stone lion, among other artefacts. Such motifs continued, with butterflies and floral designs proving especially dominant, and contrasting strongly where they were paired with heavy black outerwear.
Even this dichotomy was exploded with the appearance of the first of several sheer dresses. A rippling creation of sheer, dark fabric with prints of butterflies, swallows, hand mirrors, lipstick and a multitude of other symbols, it was artfully placed near the beginning so as to suggest that the coats may have hidden it on other models. Extensive cut-aways and layers created a build up of colour, darkness and patternagainst the model’s pale skin. Both pieces felt, in hindsight, rather like a manifesto for the show to come — highly concerned with silhouette and transparency, like the gauze curtains surrounding all, but equally sensitive to symbolism, femininity and the behaviour of materials when worn.
With these first points established, the thick coats became jackets, one complete with an integrated sash that brought to mind the silk lapels of a dinner jacket, or else a longer jacket in cream with three layers of asymmetric lapels in three different styles. The show may be feminine in its symbols and, in part, inspiration, but the presentation and execution was far more ambiguous. The same butterflies and lips that so delicately adorned a dress found their way onto leather jackets as highly-detailed pin badges or patches. Leather appeared multiple times, as if to offset the more floaty pieces, in corsets or printed dresses that carried with them the slightest hint of the dominatrix in among the grace.
The strong leather jackets, sparkling with increasing numbers of jewel-encrusted badges and paired with sheer, short skirts, gave way to thick, feather-like furry skirts and a true return to both the delicate, underwear-like tops and sharp embroidered jackets of the beginning. Here, too, we could appreciate in earnest the trousers common to several of the models. Loose, straight, open at the sides and secured with several small belts on the legs, they served as a reminder that, while Burton is in charge, the classic McQueen quirkiness and creativity remains.
All of this, however, paled (or rather darkened) in comparison to the evening gowns. After a show of predominantly black outfits with shiny accessories and the occasional pastel coloured dress, they felt like an explosion of colour in such strong lighting, and represented each element of the overall show taken to the extreme. The badges of the leather jackets became cascades of golden charms draped around the model’s shoulders and falling on extended sleeves all the way to the floor, framing a cutaway top-half that suggested the shape of previous jackets with V-shaped bands. These charms then became sheets of gold in the next outfit, a full-length long-sleeved dress of very sheer and slightly patterned material with one half covered in a solid mass of gold, stretching from the left shoulder down the arm and across the waist. Then, organisation struck with a duo of dresses, one white and one black, whose diamond patterns matched those butterflies of earlier pieces. Finally, in the pinnacle of symbolic execution, those same motifs of birds, flowers, insects and chains were recreated in sequins that infused the artefacts with an explosion of shimmering colour.
All of which led us finally to the aforementioned quilted coats and furry materials that spoke so strongly of a return home and to bed, even as the flowers continued to bloom and butterflies quiver on the shoulders of one of the last models. In many ways, this show was a homecoming, but one that blended grace and excess even as it explored the most delicate and symbolic aspects of femininity.