BY SARAH MOWER
29 NOVEMBER 2019
A spectacular garden of dresses opens to visitors on the top floor of the Alexander McQueen store in Old Bond Street today. Sarah Burton’s exhibition, entitled Roses, starts with an Alexander “Lee” McQueen quote at the entrance: “Everything I do is connected to nature in one way or another,” and then leads viewers by the hand through all the paths of creativity which have bloomed into wild flower dresses at McQueen over time.
Reversing the usual order of mystique and VIP exclusivity surrounding luxury fashion, Burton is on an active mission to build open-access resources that promote knowledge-sharing for new generations. The private view on Wednesday, for instance, was for a group of fashion students she had invited from all over Britain. With the head of the McQueen atelier, Judy Halil, she shared the memories and demonstrated the techniques which are alive in the culture of the house. A permanent video installation records Halil making the autumn/winter 2019 “Rose dress” from which the exhibition takes its title – step by step, minute pin-tuck to miraculous draping.
But Roses is something very different from a museum exhibit. “I want to show how community is at the heart of everything we do at Alexander McQueen,” Burton says. “Right from the beginning, when I started with Lee, from Central Saint Martins in 1996, and there were only a few of us, he gave everyone – the interns as well – hands-on experience in making things.”
Far from being a one-off gesture at a time when budgets for art education are being cut, Sarah’s event kicked off an imaginative second series of college talks and workshops with team members which have been happening in the store space since Unlocking Stories, the first exhibition she put on here at the beginning of 2019. Streams of customers and groups of curious teenagers who’ve been turning up at the shop are all offered tours, free of charge.
Roses is structured around two finale centrepieces: the luscious “Red Rose dress” with its sculptural, whorled petals, and the unforgettable crinolined gown which Lee McQueen made, assisted by Sarah and a team of florists, and filled with real flowers for his Sarabande collection of spring/summer 2007. The latter will greet visitors as they wend their way up the spiral staircase.
Over weeks of meticulous in-house restoration, the McQueen team made the poignant discovery that some of the dried hydrangeas and a single tiny rosebud still survive within the dress. Sarah’s memory of that look is related in a typographical narrative. “The flowers couldn’t be put on till the last minute. As she walked, the flowers began to drop in a trail behind her,” she remembers. “People were gasping.” Further on in the exhibition, the moment plays again in a video clip from the show.
Is this the organic homegrown creativity of Alexander McQueen? Well, yes, but rooted in British skill which can soar as high as haute couture. Full disclosure: Sarah Burton asked me to co-curate this project. She is never one to boast about her talents and is reluctant to give many interviews. What I’ve understood from working with her, however, is that her collaborative way of doing things is guided by a laser-like perfectionist eye and instinct for what feels right. Besides, she never forgets a thing – a dress, a cut, an emotion, a painting, every hilarious, nail-biting, unprintable backstage incident. All that – as well as her loyalty and talent – is what drew Lee McQueen to her, and, I dare say, the Duchess of Cambridge, too.
It’s typical of her that she should instigate a project that is about inspiring students while also being inspired by it in turn. McQueen aficionados will have clocked a dress worn by Stella Tennant in the spring/summer 2020 show, which was decorated in embroideries of sketches made by Central Saint Martins students during a fashion illustration session held in the McQueen store earlier this year. All of the students were credited by name for their artwork in the show notes handed out in Paris, and so – as a group – were members of staff from across the corporation who Burton set to hand-stitching the embroidery.
Meanwhile, there are gigantic dresses which look like exploding pink carnations, as though seeded from English country house flower beds. There are tumbling garlands of embroidery, regal roses, and dresses pollinated by bees and inspired by Arts & Crafts tapestries. One was moulded from humble sacking by Lee – Burton remembers him setting students to embroider over it spontaneously with imaginary wool butterflies and flower fronds.
Eventually, the path, with all its symbolism and research, leads right up to the present, with a photograph of a field of pale blue flax-flowers blooming on a farm in Northern Ireland. Sarah and her team saw it last summer on a research trip, and the spiky-petalled little blue dress it inspired subsequently walked the Paris runway in October.
Echoes of the hands-on Lee McQueen-led past reverberating into the future? That is very Sarah Burton. She’s finding her own unique voice ever more clearly through sharing with others in the realest of ways. At the end of her last show, when she brought out the army of people who work with her behind the scenes at McQueen to share her bow, people in the audience were crying. Her community mindedness, her way of doing things quietly, deeply and genuinely has finally become her superpower.
“Roses” is open during Alexander McQueen store hours at 27 Old Bond Street, Mayfair.