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It was young people who raised the curtains on Sarah Burton’s fall show for Alexander McQueen. In an almost ceremonial moment, perhaps not quite registered by the crowd, she asked the black-clad junior members of her teams, and students from local schools in Paris, to hoist the woven hangings alongside the runway.
Their taking part, however unnoticed, had a resonance which ran through a powerfully evocative show; her first which brought a down-to-earth sense of young womanhood to the magic of McQueen.
Sarah Burton has always had an affinity for nature, and for tuning into history. Whilst she worked for Alexander Lee McQueen—he took her on as his first and only assistant when she was a Central Saint Martins textiles student—she grew into his trusted researcher and a fanatical archivist of all his work. As soon as she stepped up to replace him, her own interest in celebrating the mysterious powers of nature has been behind much of her work. Her creative breakthrough has come now she has decided to get out in the open air of landscapes and communities in far-flung corners of Britain. “I felt this sense of groundedness, of needing to feel the land, and tradition,” she said.
This season, she took her team to Cornwall, the southernmost county of the United Kingdom. It’s a landscape which inspired the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, and has ancient stone circles, medieval churches and—if you look hard enough—a surviving subculture of paganism and healing witchcraft.
Discovering a Cloutie tree, on which people tie rags and ribbons as wishes and mementoes, triggered the beginning of the collection. Back in London, where Burton works in seclusion with the couture-level team which made Kate Middleton’s wedding dress, imagination took flight. Evolving ideas with the incredible hand-embroidery and textiles teams, they wove ideas from the memento ribbons into tweeds, and thought about self-determining women, women who sewed messages into samplers centuries ago.
The result was a show which staggered the audience with its dense imagery—dresses beaded with silvery trees; white lace figured with kissing doves, medieval tapestries of flora and fauna, trailing threads, witchy symbols of stars and suns traced in jet. Still, the thing which really made it was the believable youthfulness: long, tendrilly “undone” hair by Guido Palau, and flat studded bootees or McQueen trainers.
Sarah Burton was wearing a pair when she ran out to give her bow, a pincushion still tied to her wrist. She is a hands-on worker. For the first time, she had fully articulated her own vision, whilst fully honoring McQueen’s. She dealt out terrific black gray pantsuits, with long, belted coats and jackets; some in leather, and some with asymetric folds flying elegantly off to one side—shapes McQueen started, but with none of his armour-clad rigidity. Touchingly, she had her team painstakingly stitch his name and date of birth into the decoration of a dress, in a centuries-old style. It was inclusive: of the British past, of female power, and of the energy of youth. Excellent.