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Alexander McQueen Spring/Summer 2024 Womenswear
Alexander McQueen Spring/Summer 2024 womenswearCourtesy of Alexander McQueen

Sarah Burton’s Powerful Swansong Collection for Alexander McQueen

After 27 years at the house, and 13 at its helm, Sarah Burton’s final Spring/Summer 2024 Alexander McQueen collection centred on intense, powerful femininity, writes Alexander Fury

Lead ImageAlexander McQueen Spring/Summer 2024 womenswearCourtesy of Alexander McQueen

Sarah Burton’s final collection for Alexander McQueen began with a brief black dress sliced open at the heart. How’s that for symbolism? And it was fitting, given that Burton, during her 27-year tenure at the house (13 at its helm) has undoubtedly poured her heart and soul into collections that have, in some way, shifted the needle of fashion. Burton’s love of craft, her wickedly sharp tailoring skills and her ability to translate the inherently masculine into the intrinsically feminine have influenced fashion at multiple levels – subtly, but surely. Hers is a legacy that is rich and deep.

And so, this Spring/Summer 2024 show cemented everything she stands for – not least the notion of a creative director who pours their blood, sweat and tears into every show. Burton frequently cries backstage after collections; the sweat from the work of Burton and her superb team is evident in every through-out seam of these intricately-wrought clothes. As for the blood, that was part of the inspiration for this show, a complex, emotional homage to femininity and strength, grounded in the body itself. It was called Anatomy II, building as it did on Burton’s stellar Autumn/Winter 2023 collection – itself somewhat radical for a collection already announced as a swansong. But Burton is an assured designer whose work often builds slowly on that she has established previous, refining and developing silhouettes, giving herself room to grow. If this show was remarkable for anything, it was its intense, powerful femininity – absolutely keyed to Lee Alexander McQueen’s own love of women.

The show was dedicated, in part, to his memory, as delineated in the succinct statement released by Burton: “This collection is inspired by female anatomy, Queen Elizabeth I, the blood red rose and Magdalena Abakanowicz, a transgressive and powerfully creative artist who refused ever to compromise her vision. The show is dedicated to the memory of Lee Alexander McQueen, whose wish was always to empower women, and to the passion, talent and loyalty of my team.”

Having witnessed his own sister be the victim of domestic violence, McQueen once stated: “I design clothes because I don’t want women to look all innocent and naïve, because I know what can happen to them. I want women to look stronger.” Hence his women were warriors, his clothes armour. Burton’s vision is softer than McQueen’s, but no less strong – here, her women were armoured in their own femininity, marching around a space punctuated by textile works by the Polish sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz – intense, corporeal representations of female anatomy. You didn’t think of sex, though, rather of the origins of life, of female agency, of the power of women. Burton’s dresses referenced flowers – some featured a print by David Sims of a blood-red rose, while others were freed from petal-like folds that seemed to enfold a woman within a living blood. But, actually, those petals looked labial, women transformed into giant walking vulvas. Those gashes over the chest, which could have appeared like wounds, suddenly took on new meaning. There was nothing accidental here.

The notion of stripping away cloth – and even skin – to expose the fundamental structures beneath is something keyed to the identity of McQueen. Burton peeled off the layers of her tailoring, paring it back to exoskeletons that framed the body. Other pieces emphasised the figure, expanding the anatomy, exaggerating and amplifying the form within – empowering. Intentional or not, the slicing around the figure focussed around the heart – one corset was dubbed ‘Open Heart’. Throughout, it was bared, exposed, on show. As it has been through all of Burton’s collections. At the finale, Naomi Campbell wiped away tears as she marched out in a corset and skirt that seemed to fuse two fashion legacies: McQueen’s savage armour with Burton’s graceful femininity. And, as Burton herself emerged, the crowd had already risen to their feet to champion a rare thing: a real creative, a true fashion designer who lives and breathes her craft. A keeper of the flame, a defender of the faith.