It was a metaphor inspired by the spectacular rolling skies that she and the McQueen team see every day from the studio, but it was also grounded in her new sense of dealing with the reality of the here-and-now. “There’s this sense that the sky is constantly changing—this uncontrollable change.” Some days can be very calm, with a beautiful dappled sky. “And then this ferocious sky,” she remarked. “And I’ve been thinking about what we’ve all been through: that constant feeling of not knowing what the next day will bring.” And how you just have to face it bravely. The truth is that we have no control over the situation. Nature is far more powerful than we are. Whatever the weather brings—sun, rain, or storm—you just have to keep going.”
As if on cue, the British weather played its part. At the start of the show, the McQueen tent’s transparent cloud-like Smiljan Radic-designed bubble was pierced with brilliant sunshine—the ideal backdrop for dresses printed with photographic images of sunrises and dazzling blue skies and clouds that the McQueen team had captured from the studio balcony.
Snowy-white cumulus sleeves ruched into a taffeta parka-dress and a blouse took on the weather theme. A voluminous wind-blown trench coat was followed by a ray-of-sunshine wisp of yellow tulle off-the-shoulder dress. A tweed jacket’s shoulders sparkled with crystal “raindrop” embroidery, and the skirt of a tank dress swished with blue rivulets of fringed pailletes. And, as “night” fell on three glamorous black finale looks, the London skies darkened to a foreboding leaden gray. Balcony of the studio
But the last thing Burton wanted to convey was pure escapism with his head in the clouds. It would have been far too easy to carry a show that was nothing more than a pretty themed series of this-looks-like-that under the business-as-usual untruth that nothing had changed as a result of working through the pandemic. “I didn’t want to board that train,” she explained.
She’d flipped her creative and imaginative process—the typical build-up to showing in the Paris framework—to refocus on making clothes more collaboratively, reflecting the personalities of the women who came into the London studio for fittings. “Because of the situation we’re in, it’s been very much working in 3-D, one-on-one with models and people from various walks of life, not all of whom are models.” She stated that anything that appeared to be imposed stylistically on them was scrapped and redone. “They’re all so unique and different. “There’s been a kind of women’s community; a great relationship with a group,” she reflected. “If we’d been on that train, we wouldn’t have done that.”
It resulted in a show that felt grounded in a female-gaze translation of the gritty London energy of Alexander McQueen’s street and underground tradition. There were boxy, boy-tailored suits for every corseted, full-skirted dress, denims fiercely intersected with zipped and buckled black leather, and boldly-elegant tuxedos; her hybrids of tailoring and dressmaking, cut short. Except for her “skeleton heeled” shoes, the rest of her footwear was grounded: heavy “rave” boots or McQueen’s signature thick-soled molded trainers.
This was London’s first Alexander McQueen womenswear show in 20 years. It happened on the eve of the Frieze art fair, which opens tomorrow at Regents Park—a magnet (again) for the kind of wealthy international spenders who dress up for the frantic round of gallery openings, dinners, and parties. That advantage had to have played a role in the decision to show McQueen live in London during his week.
But it was also about Burton’s pride in her city, and it echoed, for those who know Lee Alexander McQueen’s history, his boyhood obsession with standing on rooftops in east London to watch birds. Throughout his illustrious career, Lee McQueen battled nature’s elemental forces. Plato’s Atlantis, his final collection published in spring 2010, was a foreboding prediction of a world drowned by climate change.
That consciousness is ever-present for his successor. On the way to her show twelve years later, there were highway signs warning: PAN-LONDON FLOODING, TAKE CARE ON ALL ROUTES. Burton was referring to “how we should be protecting nature, rather than dominating it” as she spoke of uncontrollable skies and storms. Her efforts to slow the deterioration now include the use of chrome-free leather, upcycled tailoring fabric, and recycled polyester taffeta. In the meantime, she had the McQueen “Cloud” show venue designed to be collapsed and reused. It will eventually float away to house any number of potential cultural and educational events across the country.