The McQ army returned to London this season with a show part Blair Witch and part Babes in the Wood. Designer Sarah Burton tells Susannah Frankel the story behind a fairytale homecoming
"It's like a love story in a sense," says Sarah Burton of her autumn/winter collection for McQ, the Alexander McQueen second line. Despite its relative youth, this is the main line’s decidedly feisty little sister – or brother – with a highly distinct personality all of its own. Burton picks out from the rails an oversized and beautiful felted-wool military greatcoat, patchworked in shades of green. "If he's gone off to war, you might put on his coat. The idea here is that it's made out of lots of different coats, taken apart then put back together again. It's make-do-and-mend."
It's also quintessentially romantic and British in flavour. Think, if you will, of girls in overblown tulle skirts, appliquéd with brightly coloured anemones and worn not with tiaras and pearls but with studiously heavy lace-up ankle boots in oxblood leather with ridged-rubber heels and soles. The footwear has all the elements of fetish one might associate with the Alexander McQueen name, fused with more than a touch of Start-rite. Think, while you're at it, of Black Watch tartans, tweeds, short, sharp kilts, moulded flock-velvet dresses, rib-knit sweaters, bomber jackets and parkas, and of an irreverent and eclectic style that is native to this country and to its capital in particular.
Given the Anglophilic nature of the look in question, it seemed apposite that McQ's debut outing on the catwalk was staged in London this year, rather than the more rarefied setting of Paris or Milan. This marked the return of the house to the schedule for the first time in more than a decade. "Yes, it was a bit of a homecoming," Burton says. "Because Alexander McQueen is shown in Paris, we felt it would be good to show McQ in London. It felt great to be back – we're a British brand. We’re all in London. The company's based here."
So, against a backdrop that was part Blair Witch Project, part Babes in the Wood, out came the McQ army, a band of well-heeled outsiders with all the swagger and sass that could be wished for. While there was a utilitarian feel to the clothes – from functional fabrics and visible seams to patch pockets and tattered hems – all were executed with the attention to cut, fit and proportion with which Alexander McQueen made his name. "I wanted to pay particular attention to the structure," Burton confirms. "We did all the fittings on the body just as we would the main line." And it shows. The end result was intricately realised and choreographed, from the statuesque and sophisticated appearance of the models in their pared-down but immaculate clothes, to the final "dream sequence" conceived with London theatre company Punchdrunk and presided over by Kristen McMenamy, giving it her ever-impressive all in an elaborate white gown. "Kristen has been on all of our inspiration boards forever," Burton says of the casting. "She’s just so powerful, intoxicating almost." The aforementioned homespun element was also present and correct, however – the catwalk was strewn with autumn leaves, evoking a woodland floor. "They were stuck on individually," Burton laughs. "After the show, Style.com asked me where we got the leaves. I panicked and asked Sam (Gainsbury, long-time McQueen show producer). She said, 'From a fucking forest!' I went back and told them, 'From trees...'" It’s the type of marginally surreal, not to mention mischievous, exchange of which Lee Alexander McQueen himself might have been proud.
We are sitting in the daylight-filled Alexander McQueen studio in Clerkenwell, and Burton is pondering the distinctions between Alexander McQueen and McQ. The latter originally launched in 2006, and was bought back by the company a little over three seasons ago with a view to reinventing the label in-house and lifting it from diffusion label to a fully-fledged collection with its own, clearly defined story.
"Doing that show was about telling a story, as it is always is at McQueen," Burton says, "and about creating a world for McQ, a world of its own, so you knew who the woman was, and who the man was, and which world she or he inhabited. The McQ girl may be slightly younger, slightly less dressed and definitely tougher."
The main line is elegant, chic, couture. I wanted McQ to have an element of street, to be much more stripped back. There's a masculinity to it
When he was alive, Alexander McQueen elevated his women’s main line into the realms of haute couture, and Burton has carried on in that vein. "The main line is elegant, chic, couture," she explains now. "I wanted McQ to have an element of street, past and present – for it to be much more stripped back. There will always be references to surplus, military and sport in McQ. It's maybe more throw-on, more everyday and more British than McQueen. It's also more androgynous: there's a masculinity to it. I don't want to say that it's easier to wear, because I'm not sure that's true, but it is perhaps more versatile. Having said that, McQ should also always feel special and unique."
The waist is still cinched throughout – some things are simply meant to be – but for McQ the signature McQueen peaked shoulder gives way to a broad, dropped line, the finest cashmere is replaced with heavy felts and the most delicate silk embroideries supplanted by equally finely worked surface-embellishments in heavyweight wool. Burton has clearly looked to the McQueen archive – and to the early London shows – for inspiration too: McQ tailoring may be more roomy but it has the same complexity and sharpness of cut, not to mention respect for Savile Row tradition. With this in mind, she points to another coat and the fact that it is only half-lined. "Although the end result is more humble, this is actually more difficult to do," she says. The seams may be visible but that makes it all the more important that they are nothing short of perfect.
From mid-September, McQ will be established in the collective fashion consciousness still further with the opening of a four-storey townhouse in London’s Dover Street that will sell womenswear, menswear and accessories. Pod Architects is responsible for the brutalist feel of the architecture and a spectacular curved concrete staircase that imposes flow between floors. Otherwise, the interior comes courtesy of David Collins, working in close collaboration with Burton herself. "We looked at fetish," Collins for his part says, citing the designs of Carlo Mollino and the art of Giacometti, Francis Bacon and Allen Jones as reference points. "We wanted it to be erotic – sexual, not sexy." Nudes, pale pinks and flesh tones dominate and walls are painted in the type of gloss finish reminiscent of post-war English schools. Floors are made of smoked, limed oak. In a contrast between sharp-edged modernity and organic textures and forms, polished stainless steel is played off against cracked Gesso, and hard chrome finishes against dark velvet and pale shagpile (yes, shagpile). Clothing rails, meanwhile, are crafted in black resin fiberglass, and balance on S&M-inspired and very shapely, long sculpted pairs of legs. "We’re taking the fantastical elements of the clothes into the store," Collins explains.
Back at McQueen HQ, Burton says: "McQ is about the perfect jacket, the perfect coat. Elements of it are certainly more affordable than the Alexander McQueen line but that's not the driving force. I wanted to concentrate not only on the patterns themselves but on the way they are made." For the forthcoming spring/summer 2013 collection, she says, "It’s soft military – everything's washed and softened down. So whereas the autumn collection is quite uptight and rigid, summer will still be structured but softer in its fabrication."
"There will always be a kilt, a leather pant, a biker jacket, a print and a little party dress in McQ," Sarah Burton concludes. "The most important thing to me, though, is that all of these are desirable pieces in their own right."
Text Susannah Frankel
Photography Gareth McConnell
Styling Robbie Spencer
Hair Mark Hampton at Julian Watson Agency
Make-Up Hiromi Ueda at Julian Watson Agency
Models Kate Kondras at MC2, Ibra at Tomorrow Is Another Day, Tatiana Krasikova at Fusion
Set Design Alice Kirkpatrick
Photographic Assistants Denis Laner, Berta de la Rosa
Styling Assistants Shawana Grosvenor, Harriet Davey
Hair Assistant Jonny Hughes
Make-Up Assistant Nobuko Maekawa
Set Design Assistant Dale Slater
Casting Noah Shelley for AM Casting