Following a powerful display of womanhood, Sarah Burton took her final bow as creative director of Alexander McQueen the other night at the Paris collections. Her PR team had warned that the backstage would be closed to guests, probably to avoid weepy, and very un-British, farewell scenes. Burton became creative director in 2010, shortly after her mentor’s suicide, but many in the audience have known her since she was an intern at the brand in the mid-1990s. In all likelihood, the person who succeeds her will not have a direct link to McQueen, and their understanding of his genius will come from collective memory. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, if you think of designers who’ve helped us rediscover old brands — Marc Jacobs, for example, at Louis Vuitton, or Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel. Nonetheless, it’s a big change for McQueen.
For the show, the company had borrowed from museums textile sculptures by the Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz and placed the gigantic works around the room — one group looming over the French businessman Francois-Henri Pinault (whose company, Kering, owns McQueen) and the actresses Cate Blanchett and Elle Fanning. David Bowie’s “Heroes” began as the models did their final loop, and almost immediately the audience was on its feet, applauding. Burton, wearing her usual jeans and white (Nike) sneakers with a dark-blue shirt, came out and went around the room, individually greeting or hugging friends and journalists for a few minutes. If there were tears, they weren’t shed by Burton. She stayed smiling. It was a class act. There were other personal gestures in the show that said as much about Burton’s character as they did the changes in the industry, which is dominated by conglomerates like Kering and LVMH, and which are causing a leveling effect on creativity.
More and more, the designs of many big brands look the same, and sometimes a tailored style on the Paris catwalks is so formulaic it looks like a Mango creation. When Burton became creative director, McQueen’s sales were at roughly 100 million euros. She helped raise them eightfold, largely through ready-to-wear — in contrast to other fashion labels that rely on accessories. When I profiled Burton earlier this year, Pinault said, “It’s a brand that has been built already to a very significant size by the success of ready-to-wear.” And because of that “consistency in style,” he added, and the potential to develop new bags and shoes, there was no reason the brand couldn’t reach 1 billion euros.
Burton’s last collection was a tour de force of McQueen tailoring. It didn’t concede any ground to trends or empty marketing concepts like “quiet luxury.” On the contrary, it charged forward, as if to say, in the expert cuts and considered details, “This is who we are.” Burton had reworked a black jacket with a slashed body — a style she showed a year ago, adapted from an early McQueen design — and the trouser suit looked even better, sharper and meaner. Everything about this show felt like a concise declaration of creative integrity. The slash coats with black leather bras peeked through. The long, beautifully draped slip and halter dresses with photo prints of a dark-red rose. An exceptional white crochet tunic, with rose details in relief, followed the body’s curves.
McQueen loved expressively strong women, British history, and nature. That’s what Burton brought together and turned into an arrow. She wrote in a brief press note, “This collection is inspired by female anatomy, Queen Elizabeth I, the blood red rose and Magdalena Abakanowicz, a transgressive and powerfully creative artist who refused ever to compromise her vision. The show is dedicated to the memory of Lee Alexander McQueen, whose wish was always to empower women, and to the passion, talent and loyalty of my team.”
Who refused ever to compromise her vision. The same could be said of Sarah Burton. She has not explained why she’s leaving the company and, being discreet — unlike the vocal McQueen — she may never. When I saw Pinault in Milan ten days ago and asked him if the decision had been hers, he said it was and that she told him she felt she was becoming creatively stale. That’s possible, of course. Twenty-six years at one house is a long time. But, to me, it didn’t sound like something Burton would say. Across the industry, designers and brand executives are under pressure to increase sales, and there are only so many ways you can do that without compromising who you are. Burton may have simply said no for the last time. Pinault said her successor will be announced after Paris Fashion Week.
Independent designers and those working for family-owned houses are generally doing amazing work this season. Junya Watanabe said his spring collection intended to “create objects, not clothes.” His mentor, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, has been doing that for a while, but I found Watanabe’s geometric constructions far more compelling than those of Kawakubo, in part because they realistically pushed boundaries of clothing forms yet could still be worn.
Some forms — cages of fabric, denim trousers with cone-shaped struts at the sides — could have been abstracted from historical fashion, like a 19th-century cage crinoline or a set of 18th-century panniers worn to extend a skirt at the waist. In addition to denim, Watanabe used black neoprene, tweed, and leather. Looking at his opening spiky styles in neoprene, he could have thought of Sid Vicious’s head. (Watanabe loves punk.) But then those other wacky puzzle shapes seemed to spring out of the head of Buckminster Fuller, the American architect and Futurist known for his geometric domes.
“I like the ambivalence between pure and sexy,” said Nadège Vanhee, who brought an outdoor vibe into her Hermès show, with thick patches of wild grasses and flowers. A crisp, burgundy cotton in micro checks was meant to evoke a picnic blanket; simple, strappy sandals had hiking soles. (“I’ve been wearing hiking shoes a lot,” Vanhee said. “I wanted the feeling of being grounded.”) The sex appeal came through with bra tops and slim skirts, flared shorts, and laser-cut leather skirts, their perforated patterns subtly based on those used for home linen.
Another source of inspiration for Vanhee was sportswear with a dual function — for example, a lightweight casual coat that can be tied at the back but also converted into a dress. Or trousers with short zippers at the waist that you can open or close, depending on how low you want to wear them (or how much you ate for lunch). Tube dresses in both knit and tiny strips of leather have a midriff section you can unbutton if you feel like showing more skin or indeed want to create a two-piece look with a bra and skirt. Hermès’s consistently strong financial results have a lot to do with quality and demand for its leather goods, but also the way that the company understands luxury.
The L.A.-based label CO, which is moving more of its operations to Europe (the design studio is already there), has made some extraordinary changes, and its clothes are worth discovering. Stephanie Danan, who founded CO over a decade ago with her husband, Justin Kern, has refreshed the brand’s minimalism with a sharper look. Though CO remains small, Danan has done things to make it more interesting and new than some of the bigger minimalist names.
She credits some of the change to the stylist Samuel Drira, who’s also behind the magazine Encens. Danan said she had focused on creating a lifestyle around CO, especially a California lifestyle. “And Samuel said, ‘I don’t care about that. I don’t give a shit,’” Danan recalled in her Paris showroom.
“He said, ‘I want to create a woman that you have no idea about, but you want to be her. And the only way to do that is through silhouette.’” Danan smiled. “My head exploded when he said that.”
It was completely liberating advice. CO’s jackets have more shape, and Danan has shown one in natural beige hemp with a long balloon skirt in light caramel-colored taffeta. There’s a pair of floaty caftans in tangerine and sky blue (rare colors this season), and another shapely jacket over a blue cotton shirt with a long dark skirt half-composed of a silk print. CO’s top-stitched denim also looks cool and sophisticated.
Danan isn’t overspeaking. She and her team have created a woman you can’t quite place but really want to know.