The Metamorphosis of Alexander McQueen’s Butterflies and Beetles

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Alexander McQueen A/W18Courtesy of Alexander McQueen

An enduring love of lepidopterology has wound its way through the McQueen archives – we take a closer look at Sarah Burton’s paradise found for A/W18

Nature was a cornerstone reference for Lee McQueen, and up there with the life cycle and noble rot of a flower, and the ornamental markings and materiality of a wild animal skin, were butterflies – the fixation of Sarah Burton’s Autumn/Winter 2018 offering for Alexander McQueen. The remarkable patterning of Glasswings, Painted Ladies, Pink Morphos and Tiger Wings wound their way into prints on silk, tassel-fringed chiffon and even built into shredded velvet fil coupé jacquards. Scarab and Goliath beetles lent their prints too, and dotted gauzy dresses in 3D form, like opalescent jewels. Lepidoptera references were not just decorative, they inspired forms too: from silk tuxedo jackets that unfurled outwards from the waist, lapels doubling up as wings, to carved shell-like puffas, feathery moth-like pelmets and multiple zips enabling instant transformation. 

These nods offered dark and delightful visuals, animalic and quixotic – but their metaphor held extra power. “Butterflies and bugs, and paradise found rather than lost,” Burton explained of her inspiration backstage. Of course this is not a first outing of a McQueen insect, Burton has used them countless times, acknowledging nature’s omnipresence in Lee’s work. “I have always loved the mechanics of nature and to a greater or lesser extent my work is always informed by that,” McQueen once said. Butterflies were of particular importance to the designer and used to theatrical, dramatic effect. Take Philip Treacy’s spectacular red butterfly headdress, made of hand-painted turkey feathers to resemble a swarm of the winged creatures clustered around the wearer’s face for McQueen’s La Dame Bleue S/S08 collection; or the earthy patternings printed onto chiffon and gathered by wing-like leather corsets for S/S09; or Sarah Burton’s first full collection for the house, which revisited the claustrophobia of the headdress, with hordes of ochre butterflies clambering around the throat of a high-necked dress.

Both the light and dark of the life cycle fascinated McQueen, which was no clearer illustrated than in his last collection, Plato’s Atlantis S/S10, before his death in February, 2010. Inspired by Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), he invented a narrative of devolution, visualised with a dissection of digital alien-reptile-butterfly prints in non-human shapes. Here, McQueen had “predicted a future in which the ice cap would melt, the waters would rise and life on earth would have to evolve in order to live beneath the sea once more, or perish. Humanity would go back to the place from whence it came.” This season, where numerous designers have offered battledress for the modern woman, Burton’s ‘paradise found’ offers a positive vision as she repurposes the inbuilt armour bestowed by Mother Nature.