Alexander McQueen's last works were given final honors by his trusted team in a hushed and dignified showing that went to his core as a designer who scaled the heights of couture accomplishment. Sarah Burton, his right hand, described how, in beginning this collection, McQueen had turned away from the world of the Internet, which he had so powerfully harnessed in his last show. "He wanted to get back to the handcraft he loved, and the things that are being lost in the making of fashion," she said. "He was looking at the art of the Dark Ages, but finding light and beauty in it. He was coming in every day, draping and cutting pieces on the stand." The 16 outfits shown had been 80 percent finished at the time of his death.
What McQueen was preparing had a poetic, medieval beauty that dealt with religious iconography while recapturing memories of his own past collections. He had ordered fabric that translated digital photographs of paintings of high-church angels and Bosch demons into hand-loomed jacquards, then taken the materials and cut stately caped gowns and short draped dresses. In its ornate surface narrative, that might read as a kick against the plain and restrained direction fashion is taking, but in their own way, the fluted, attenuated lines of his long dresses suggested a calm and simplicity. Instead of aggression, they transmitted the grace of the medieval Madonnas and Byzantine empresses McQueen had been studying.
For anyone who had watched his development through the years, the references to milestone collections were apparent. The bandage-bound heads, some with feathered coxcombs, simultaneously called up the designer's rebel-British background and his landmark Asylum collection while also catching a likeness to the modest head coverings seen in Northern European medieval portraiture. When a high-collared, formfitting cutaway jacket made entirely from golden feathers appeared, it read as a direct retrieval of McQueen's first step into haute couture in his Icarus collection, after he took the helm of Givenchy in 1996 at the age of 27. This time, though, it was realized with even more skill, with a multilayered white tulle skirt sprinkled at the hem with delicate gilded embroidery.
Somehow, that one outfit encapsulated everything about McQueen: both the tailoring and the romanticism. Perhaps he wouldn't have chosen to show it in such a simple and intimate way—in a small, ornate room to privately invited groups of editors—because that left out the full realization of concept and showmanship that equally drove his creativity. But the circumstances, sad as they are, allowed his friends and colleagues to share a long and poignant moment to look at what the man achieved, and to grieve for him.