The very last moments before its petals begin to drop are when a rose is at its most beautiful. This was the idea at the core of Sarah Burton’s latest Alexander McQueen collection, staged at the Conciergerie in Paris, the vaulted dungeon where Marie Antoinette was held before being taken to the guillotine.
“I started by looking at women and the female form and the rose, and the idea that something can be so beautiful as it is on the verge of decay,” said Burton after Tuesday’s show.
The collection began with models belted firmly into textured coats worn over dresses and boots, each outfit coloured head-to-toe in the exact same shade of blush pink or blood red, garments layered like petals.
“And then she peels away, the way a rose peels away,” as Burton put it, so that the next wave of models wore leather dresses, with knife-sharp pleated skirts and heavily boned, but skimpily cut, bodices. From there, the petals became three-dimensional, outsize organza rosettes quivering on cocktail dresses.
This is a delicate moment for Sarah Burton to navigate. The brand’s big show taking place this week is not this one, but Savage Beauty, the VA’s Alexander McQueen retrospective, which opens in three days’ time.
Her task at this moment is to balance respect for the retrospective with a firm hand on the tiller guiding the label into the future. The beauty of a fading flower was a fittingly melancholic nod to love and loss, but Burton made it not just about any flower but about the rose, symbol of femininity. It brought the story full circle: not just about her predecessor but about herself and about the more feminine mood she has ushered in as the queen of McQueen.
Thirteen years ago, Alexander McQueen staged a show in this venue. Then, the milkmaid necklines, oversized hoods and powdered beauties holding wolves on chains brought to life the building’s French Revolution past.
Burton’s show was more Victorian than 18th century, and more British than French. Fuzzy Miss Havisham hair and nineteenth-century tailoring – both, as Burton described, “very of-the-house” – leant the feel of an eerie attic rather than a nightmarish dungeon. And the rose is of course the ultimate English flower – although the pleated leather skirts, with their confusing masculine/feminine dynamic, called to mind a kilt, which in turn calls Alexander McQueen’s Highland Rape-era Scottish references into play.
After the show, Burton was keen to show reporters a knitted dress with scissor-edged pleats. In the shadowy recesses of each pleat, the knit was delicately and deliberately laddered, giving a volume and sheerness to the fabric which enhanced its beauty even while destroying it.
At that moment, Burton was almost knocked to the ground by a waiter who in the backstage hustle dropped a tray of champagne glasses. “There is beauty in imperfection,” she laughed.