Designers don’t always get to have a farewell show. Fashion house exits can be swift and brutal, final collections only realised in retrospect. Sarah Burton’s frexit from Alexander McQueen on Saturday night felt poignant for lots of reasons, but perhaps all underscored by the fact that she was able to take a final bow (to a standing ovation, and embraces from fashion luminaries) when her predecessor, Lee Alexander McQueen, had not.
In the notes left on every seat (Burton did not take reporters’ questions backstage after the show; she had a car waiting to leave with her children who watched from the front row) she dedicated the collection to the memory of McQueen, describing how his “wish was always to empower women”.
The set was framed with primal heavy woven pieces — five “Abakans” lent from collectors across the world — by the Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz depicting bloody female anatomy. Burton took another cue from Elizabeth I, Cate Blanchett (who has played her twice) was in the audience, the back of her black suit adorned with an enormous crimson bow.
Lots of designers purport to reflect womanhood in all its incarnations, employing feminist-lite sentiment to frame their work, but it is rare that they literally depict this through the casting in their shows. For years, Burton has included a broad array of models, here Yseult, the French singer and house muse, appeared as did her fellow curve models Devyn Faith Garcia and Jill Kortleve. Kaia Gerber, 22, opened the show, and 53-year-old Naomi Campbell wore the closing look, wiping away a tear as she walked.
The collection itself was a masterclass in Burton’s extraordinary dedication to craft; knitwear came with exquisite crochets of roses and spine details skirting the back. Blood red threads hung from the arms of cocoon shoulder-coats, bumster trousers were paired with splice-shouldered tuxedo jackets, open-heart corsets had sculpted hips framed in silk tulle, skirts fluid with looped beaded embroidery. Ivory slip dresses featured a print of a bleeding Tudor rose; another gown in heavy layers of dripping red damask wool looked as if it had been shredded.
Of all the names circulating across the front row of who will replace Burton, none are women, who are still in the minority when it comes to leading these moneymaking goliaths, plying their fantasies to actual women with the money to invest.
The fashion world is an ephemeral place, which exists more as an idea than physical realisation. It’s there in fleeting moments captured in an image or a flicker of film, but it’s not anywhere you can go and visit. It’s an illusion, an intention of capturing a mood, which makes it sometimes magical and often problematic.
Moments in time don’t need to be rooted in reality, but it is the mark of a sort of directed creativity which singles out the true designers from the arbiters of mere imagination. Burton skirted both the dark underside of McQueen’s vision yet also dressed the Princess of Wales, making both sides of the house feel authentic. Whoever steps into her (white, Nike) trainers has an enormous legacy to live up to.