The one element that has gone missing in the collections is the spine-tingling, eye-welling emotion of a show so exceptional to witness thatdespite all exhaustion, cynicism, and workaday pressuresit suddenly transforms being involved in fashion into a magical privilege. Just when it seemed like that feeling was virtually extinct, Alexander McQueen handed his audience a self-imagined fantasy of crinolined princesses and British-colonial romance of such beauty, it arguably surpassed anything he's achieved in 14 years.
"I've got a 600-year-old elm tree in my garden," he said, "and I made up this story of a girl who lives in it and comes out of the darkness to meet a prince and become a queen." After a trip to India, the designer worked like a fiend for months in his studio, with images of Queen Victoria, the Duke of Wellington, and the Indian Empire running through his mind. They were transformed into ballerina-length multi-flounced dance dresses, each more insanely exquisite than the last: A miraculous red-feather-fronted number turned to burst into a froth of creamy frills in back; another came covered in baby-fine knitted lace; a third had a pair of peacocksagain fashioned from cutout black lacewith their tail feathers fanning out over ivory tulle petticoats.
Interspersed were rigorously cut military tailcoats with taut pants detailed with military frogging, and slim brocade and cloque pantsuits with crisp white high-necked shirts. Then there was a stately parade of imperial-red and velvet jackets bedecked with millions of dollars' worth of antique Indian diadems and diamond neckpieces, and yet more incredible rich Empire-line saris and wispy dishabille transparencies. These were followed by a sequence of gold-encrusted, ermine-coated glory, echoing the heyday of Norman Hartnell and Hardy Aimes' fifties British couture as worn by Elizabeth II.
Whatever had triggered this new lease of inspired design, it went further than the mere rendition of fanciful costume for the sake of telling a story. Importantly, McQueen finally found it in himself to quash the confining, uptight carapace that had held back former collections, replacing it with a new sense of lightness and femininity. Meanwhile, for all the transporting spectacle and extravagance, the narrative never submerged the sense that, within this wonder, there's plenty to wear, too. No coincidence, then, that McQueen today announced that his company has gone into profit for the first time. It was a day when his brilliance had never shone more brightly.