It was the most heartfelt of moments for the most emotional brand in modern fashion. From Lee McQueen’s provocative catwalk shows to his sudden and untimely death, to the fairytale romance of the lace gown created in a secret atelier by Sarah Burton for the royal wedding of Kate and William in 2011, Alexander McQueen has always been not just about beautiful clothes, but about feelings.
At Burton’s last collection for McQueen, presented at Paris fashion week as she said goodbye to a brand to which she has dedicated her entire 26-year career, there was not a dry eye in the house.
Burton dedicated the show “to the memory of Lee Alexander McQueen, whose wish was always to empower women, and to the passion, talent and loyalty of my team”.
Under the soaring iron ribs of a historic industrial market in the Marais district, celebrities, family and friends packed shoulder to shoulder. A soundtrack of pre-show whoops and cheers emanated from backstage as models, makeup artists and stylists behind the scenes celebrated Burton, and icons from her archive dotted the front row.
Actor Elle Fanning chose a dress from Burton’s bee-themed spring/summer 2013 collection, with a latticework honeycomb-structure full skirt and a matching bee-encrusted choker. Cate Blanchett rewore a tailored dress with a dramatic back view of heart-shaped scarlet angel wings, which she debuted as president of the jury at Cannes film festival in 2018.
The show opened with a moment of pure McQueen sartorial subversion. Kaia Gerber, the model daughter of 1990s supermodel Cindy Crawford, wore a black minidress with an exaggerated moulded hourglass shape, which turned to reveal a spine of embroidered arrow stitching the length of the back seam, in blood red to match the glossy stilettos.
In the 13 years since Lee McQueen’s death brought Burton, his unassuming deputy, into the spotlight she has given a gentler, more organic side to the house. Where Lee McQueen leant into Jack the Ripper’s London, Burton’s vision of Britishness has brought in wild flowers and folklore. But for her finale, Burton went for the jugular, in full-throated operatic drama.
Tailoring was harness-tight or anatomically detailed, with breast cups articulated on to jackets. Glossy black leather made a bewitching contrast with the gossamer silk gold fringing which gave a hypnotist’s sway to the strut of the models. There were moments of pure sweetness, too. The red rose, an eternal McQueen motif, was handpainted onto the belly of a fluid white silk dress worn by a visibly pregnant model. The catwalk celebrated a wide wingspan of age and body size. As David Bowie’s Heroes played, Naomi Campbell wore the last look, a silver bugle-beaded gown with sweetheart neckline and shark-fin peplums.
To a standing ovation, Burton – dressed casually in jeans and a white shirt, with a sweater around her shoulders – beamed as she took a final bow. There was a long hug with Anna Wintour, and kisses for her three young daughters, Cecilia, Elizabeth and Romilly.
Burton, who is 49, has given no indication as to her next move. Her departure from McQueen raises the question of whether she will continue in the unofficial role of go-to designer for the now Princess of Wales, a relationship that has strengthened during the 12 years since the royal wedding, with Burton creating looks for many key occasions, including a black coat dress worn to the Queen’s funeral.
The two women, who each have three children and share a love of the countryside, are known to have a close relationship. It was arguably Kate Middleton, as she was then, rather than Lee McQueen, who made Sarah Burton truly famous.
Burton had been in her role just a year when she made the royal wedding dress, which had a rapturous reception among the public and fashion critics, putting Burton in the spotlight and transforming the perception of the Alexander McQueen name from a brand mired in tragedy, which counted gothic skull-print scarves as its best seller, into a house of femininity, craftsmanship and British luxury.
Burton may take McQueen’s most high-profile customer with her as she exits the company, creating new pieces for her either as private commissions or under a new own-name label.
The departure of Burton, who joined Lee McQueen’s team as an intern and was by his side as he created his most memorable shows, is the end of a bloodline at the house of Alexander McQueen.
A successor is thought to have been decided, although no announcement has been made. Italian designers Riccardo Tisci, a Burberry alumnus, and longtime Prada design director Fabio Zambernadi have been mentioned in connection with the job, as have senior figures currently working in deputy roles for major houses in London and Paris. But having picked an unknown insider for the top job 13 years ago who went on to reinvent the house, McQueen may believe that internal recruitment is the elegant choice.