Through songs, films, and books it sometimes feels like Alexander McQueen never left. February 11th marks the tenth anniversary of McQueen’s passing: In both life and death, the designer holds a mythical trope in the fashion world.
Despite not being able to afford his tuition, fashion illustrator and educator Bobby Hillson allowed McQueen entry into Central Saint Martins because she saw that he had obvious talent. His patron Isabella Blow- who famously bought his entire graduation collection from Central Saint Martins- nurtured his talent as muse and unofficial publicist. He took inspiration from personal hobbies like scuba diving, his Scottish heritage, and 90s’ club culture.
These stories are told over and over again but in the countless retellings of McQueen’s life, it is rare that the public gets to fully understand the details that lured so many people to his talent. Organized by Alexander McQueen’s creative director, Sarah Burton, Roses is a new exhibition at the flagship McQueen store on Old Bond Street that offers a retrospective look at the designer’s long-standing employment of flowers in his work.
Before the exhibition opened Sarah Burton and members of McQueen’s designer team hosted a talk and walkthrough of the exhibition for university students in fashion studies in which they offered a refreshing take on the legacy and artistry of Alexander McQueen. There was no mythologizing or eulogizing of McQueen as one of the ‘all-time greats’. Instead, the exhibition celebrates the coming together of embroiders, designers and interns to maintain the designer’s vision and narrative.
Burton and long-time collaborators talked about how shows and designs came together with the pressure of final essays and group projects that were due the next day. When McQueen would have ideas for designs and needed one of his collaborators to help him make it come to life, he would simply say, “try it and see what happens” whenever they had doubts about if it could be executed.
What is great about this exhibition is how we see Burton’s own reading and experience of the archive come alive. For the Spring/ Summer 2013 collection for example, Burton incorporated McQueen’s use of corsets but used bees as a way to focus on the life that floats around his roses. Reminiscent also of McQueen’s use of winged moths for his Spring/ Summer 2001 finale.
Taking inspiration from the rose shaped dress that of Autumn/Winter 2006 and sleeves from Autumn/Winter 2008, Burton forged her own vision of McQueen’s rose. Whilst this motif has long been associated with the house’s namesake, Burton’s was largely inspired by the Rose Queen celebrations she saw during her childhood in the North of England and let that experience blossom in her Autumn/Winter 2019 collection.
Today, McQueen is a massive global fashion brand. You see this on your way up to the gallery: as you climb up a winding wooden staircase at the centre of the store, you witness the array of clothing, accessors, and shoes from recent collections on mannequins, hangers, rocks and carefully carved wooden display tables. And yet, through garments, mood boards, photographs and film, this exhibition reminds you that regardless of whose name is above the door, no great designer is bigger than the sum of their parts. Perhaps most importantly, a great designer is a hardworking co-worker and collaborator.