After Sarah Burton’s lost at sea boys washed ashore for SS16, we explore how the spirit of the late designer remains in her fantastical collections
At the moment in London, the ghost of Lee Alexander McQueen is everywhere you turn. His name is stamped on posters on the underground; his clothes are in the halls of the V&A; his life and loves are detailed in salacious tell-alls that had publishers issuing apologies before they were even released. His is a presence that is impossible to escape.
But strip back the sell-out exhibitions and the tomes that mythologise the man himself, and McQueen has one particularly celebrated point of recognition: his fashion shows. Unmatched in their fantastical nature, they are the facet of the house that won an audience outside of the fashion industry, making front-page news and headlines throughout Lee’s reign. Models were elevated into creatures of superhuman power in towering shoes and silhouettes exploded with flowers, feathers, shells. His romance, his gothicism, his love of women: these are all tenets of the house that have survived past his explicit direction.
After Lee McQueen’s death, the appointment of Sarah Burton (previously Head of Womenswear) as the brand’s creative director was one that has honoured these codes – but while the light of McQueen has stayed aflame, Burton has done more than carry the torch. After the creative director showed her latest menswear collection in London this weekend, we reveal the way that the codes of McQueen ran throughout – and see how, in Burton’s own words, “knowing the past is probably key to building the present and the future.”
Into the depths: McQueen and water
Beneath London railway arches, Alexander McQueen's boys of SS16 washed ashore. Hair windswept and sticking wetly to their foreheads, they wove their way through the cavernous space in suits and fabrics patterned with mythical sea creatures and Sailor Jerry tattoos. Burton was exploring a new angle of familiar McQueen ground: the natural world was a pillar of his design lexicon, with water forming a part of key runway shows and collections.
As the alien silhouettes of Plato's Atlantis imagined a dystopic, waterlogged future, Burton's exploration also distorted familiar tropes of the ocean. With references taken from old cartography and historic cultural ideas of the deep (think ghost ships, mermaids, monsters), her presentation wasn’t the cheerily nautical world we are accustomed to, but was rather viewed through the dark prism of the McQueen universe. These sailors were, she admitted, somewhat “lost at sea.”
“As the alien silhouettes of Plato’s Atlantis imagined a dystopic, waterlogged future, Burton’s exploration also distorted familiar tropes of the ocean”
“It's about finding your own identity,” Burton explained of the collection, revealing that she was inspired by “a romantic side of being at sea; the sense of belonging and being lost.” Black and white optical suits with twisting patches of fabric were inspired by dazzle, the technique used to camouflage ships in World War One – as Susannah Frankel explained on the AW15 womenswear collection, romance is key to both McQueen and Burton’s work, but the latter’s woman is “a quieter figure…any drama ultimately lay in the obsession with intricate workmanship and surface detail.”
Sea of Love: McQueen and romantic identity
Models walked to a thundering audio tapestry: Judi Dench reading Shakespearean sonnets, and excerpts from The Tempest. Dench’s voice, as Burton explained backstage, represented that of the mother or lover of these solitary seafarers, wondering about their welfare from the safety of dry land. In creating characters that defined shows and spinning invented narratives through his work, McQueen made sure that storytelling – often tangled with the romantic – was woven into the thread of every collection; as he summated, “the world needs fantasy, not reality.”
“It's about finding your own identity,” Burton explained of the collection, revealing that she was inspired by “a romantic side of being at sea; the sense of belonging and being lost – you don’t have anywhere apart from going from place to place to place.” The clothes themselves were full of visual clues that spoke both to this romance and sense of misplaced identity; look closer at the toile de joie fabric, and you realised it was grappling wrestlers instead of pastoral scenes that made up the prints. Black and white optical suits with twisting patches of fabric were inspired by dazzle, the technique used to camouflage ships in World War One. As Susannah Frankel explained on the AW15 womenswear collection, romance is key to both McQueen and Burton’s work – but the latter’s woman is “a quieter figure…any drama ultimately lay in the obsession with intricate workmanship and surface detail.”
No boundaries: McQueen and menswear
A neglected element of McQueen’s output is both his menswear and the presence of men throughout – whether walking at Dante, The Hunger and It's a Jungle Out There, working with him on collections, and occasionally doing both – they were a big part of McQueen’s formative years. “The early shows had a lot of boys in them,” remembered Katy England. “It was a mixture of friends, people that were interesting, people who could exaggerate the story. There were no boundaries.”
After all, it was McQueen’s start as an apprentice at Savile Row tailor Anderson & Sheppard that began his fashion career and imbued him with the skills that went on to inform his designs. While his menswear didn’t offer the same scope for extravagance as womenswear, it provided an opportunity for McQueen to explicitly practice the tailoring techniques he was trained in, subverting traditional silhouettes. Tailoring has led the collections of McQueen’s recent menswear, but as with Lee's own work, always done with an edge; traditional naval elements like double-breasted were thrown off-kilter, trousers stopped short of the ankles, stripes twisted away from the typical Breton.
Ultimately, what Burton’s long-standing relationship with Lee McQueen has informed is a nuanced understanding of even his most formative influences. Although not as violently or emphatically dramatic as McQueen’s own creations, what Burton has achieved – not only in this collection but her output for the house as a whole – is keeping the spirit of McQueen alive. Things continue to move forward, and Lee’s legacy remains in every stitch – as it should.
“Things continue to move forward, and Lee’s legacy remains in every stitch – as it should”