It is very rare for a fashion designer to express heartfelt emotion on their runway. It is perhaps fair to say, though, that throughout his career, Lee Alexander McQueen did just that. Sometimes those feelings were violent, at other times romantic. More often than not, a sense of both extremes ran through his collections – and in retrospect, inevitably – there was always an underlying melancholy too.
With Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty opening at the Victoria & Albert Museum this week, it seems apposite – and also moving – that open displays of emotion were more prevalent across the board. There was Comme des Garcons’ magnificent expression of the ‘ceremony of parting’ of course, Haider Ackermann’s tenderly draped and pleated wardrobe that always evokes a search for lost time and there was Sarah Burton’s exploration of ‘the spirit of the rose’ for Alexander McQueen.
This is a designer who understands loss more than most. Since she took to the helm of this house, following the death of her friend and longtime collaborator, she has worked hard to uphold the essence of his handwriting.
Where McQueen himself was clearly troubled, and such disturbance was central to the power of both his presentations and clothes, his successor’s nature is less fraught with complexity.
Here, then, the unquestionable beauty and quintessentially English nature of this most feminine flower was examined throughout its brief lifetime as it budded, bloomed to reveal a marvelous, velvety heart before slowly darkening around the edges and decaying.
In a colour palette restricted to all the shades of red from blush pink to crimson, black and ivory, the show began with brief, sharply pleated leather skirts suspended from bodices inspired by lingerie - the rose in its nascent state, perhaps – before blossoming into dresses constructed entirely out of fluttering silk petals and more with overblown sleeves and emblazoned with voluptuous images of the flower in question. In the end, gowns were ruffled, frilled and torn in ever more intricate a manner, their surfaces disrupted by veils of silk thread – wilting.
The location was the Conciergerie, where Marie Antoinette spent her last days before execution and where Alexander McQueen himself showed for the Autumn/Winter 2002 season. His set was dominated by prowling wolves, rapacious schoolgirls and masked highwaymen. Sarah Burton’s woman was a quieter figure and any drama ultimately lay in the obsession with intricate workmanship and surface detail that characterizes her work. Her touch is a loving one also, however, and in the end that emotion dominated throughout.