Alexander McQueen’s SS22 show made London's gloomy weather look chic
For the first time in 20 years, Sarah Burton brought Alexander McQueen back to London with a SS22 collection inspired by the city's bad weather.
All images courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Yesterday, at the zenith of the London skyline, Alexander McQueen staged a show in the clouds. Well, it was a cloud. In a giant plastic bubble atop an 11-storey building in the East End of London, Sarah Burton brought one of fashion’s most important houses home. It’s been 20 years since a McQueen show has happened on British soil — Lee McQueen took it to Paris at the turn of the millennium, largely for business reasons. But now, the timing couldn’t be better for a restart. For its first show in a year and a half, Sarah stepped aside from the official fashion week schedule and placed McQueen in a sky-high league of its own. It’s a British brand, after all, with a studio and offices here — and a design team that is constantly seeking to preserve British craft and celebrate British style.
What could be more British than bad weather? Cloudy skies, stormy weather, grey days, and torrential rain — all of the things feel quintessentially English, perhaps just as much as talking about it is. “Everybody talks about the weather, but no one ever does anything about it,” wrote Mark Twain. Well, Sarah did do something with it. She turned the weather and all its moods into a collection of beautifully engineered clothes, an ode to nature and its tempestuous, unpredictable elements. And it all started with her looking up from her view at the McQueen studio, across the London skyline, and taking it all in — just as Lee would stand on the rooftop of his childhood council estate to watch birds that would one day become recurring motifs in his work.
“We spent a lot of time in the studio and were surrounded by the sky and it felt like it represented a lot of things,” she explained after the show. “It can be turbulent, it can be beautiful, it can be passionate, it can be frightening and dangerous … I wanted to express that in the collection — there are things beyond our control, like nature. We are a part of nature. You can’t harness it. You have to respect it. You have to listen to it.”
Hence, cloudy skies — sunny, stormy, grey, bright, you name it — became prints on puffball taffeta dresses, as light and frothy as their motifs (from photos taken by the McQueen studio at varying times of day). A sunshine-yellow tulle dress, with signature McQueen skeletal corsetry and voluptuous drapes, was like a ray of light streaming in. Roomy trench coats with open backs and windblown proportions felt like couture for the Great Outdoors. A white jersey tank – arguably one of the most basic wardrobe staples - was elongated into a gown jangling with metallic blue shards, like thundering raindrops, while cotton sweathershirts and denim were given the McQueen treatment with corsetry. And then there was the night-sky tailoring, severe in its sharpness and ominously dark, black tuxedos slashed at the shoulders and waists and covered in thousands of crystals droplets (according to Wikipedia, a a cloud is “an aerosol consisting of a visible mass of minute liquid droplets, frozen crystals, or other particles suspended in the atmosphere of a planetary body).
Sarah said she loved the idea of these women being storm chasers, people who actively pursue extreme weather in pursuit of adventure and adrenaline. Perhaps it’s an apt metaphor for the turbulent times we’re living in, not knowing what may come next, whether it’s another fifth or sixth wave of the ongoing pandemic, or the hectic socio-political landscape we’re living through. Not to mention the climate crisis, which will change our actual landscapes forever — and has urged Sarah to start using chrome-free leather, upcycled tailoring fabric, and recycled polyester taffeta (as well as making her show-venue sets reusable). “You have to be brave,” she pointed out. “Yes, there are moments of light and sunshine — but there’s also turbulence. You have to confront it and not hide away from it. You have to have the courage to deal with it.”
More generally, women are strong and courageous every day. One of the most striking things about this show was the casting, a mix of svelte catwalk regulars (Fran! Anok! Naomi!) and ‘real’ women (whatever that means) who Sarah has met through working on films during lockdown. It grounded the collection, just as much as the stomping leather boots and rubber-soled white sneakers. Some of these women were boyish with James Dean quiffs, others more rockabilly with tattooed bodies, or buzzcut punks.
Lee McQueen was a pioneer of unconventional casting, but you got the sense that Sarah — who is still one of only a handful of women leading a major fashion house today — was tapping into her female-gaze vision of the modern McQueen woman. Different sizes, different styles. She said that working with these women informed the collection itself, taking into account their preferences and taste, a kind of creative dialogue between designer and wearer. “It made you focus on the individual as a person and a human being, and it became about this community of women who we’ve been working with for the last year and a half,” she said. “If the dress doesn’t suit somebody, I’ll get rid of it and make something that does suit them. We’re all individuals. It’s not about putting a statement onto somebody. It’s about them inspiring you as much as you inspiring them.”
It struck the right note for the brand’s landmark homecoming. 20 years ago, fashion was a very different industry. Today, a more human, more considered approach to making and showing beautiful clothes is needed. “Collaboration and community” is how Sarah concluded. As far as forecasting goes, these are women who everyone can want to look like.