It's hard to conceive of a more thankless task in fashion than taking over from a designer as galvanizing as Alexander "Lee" McQueen, but Sarah Burton is precisely the kind of quiet powerhouse who has what it takes to grab hold of his legacy and drag it where it needs to go to survive and prosper. As much as she worked beside McQueen for 15 years and clearly had a symbiotic connection to his very particular vision, it's her gender that is her greatest asset and point of difference, at least as it shaped tonight's show. The very first outfit could stand as a manifesto for the future: The tail coat is a trad McQueen piece, but here it was softened, its edges unfinished, and the hard, peaked shoulders that were another McQueen signature had been slashed open, relaxed.
Burton also softened the staging, a concept that was always so critical to a McQueen show. Where his narratives were often dark, discomfiting things, she opted for a nurturing atmosphere: a pagan, Earth-Mother-ly spirit. The woman in her show began as a plain white canvas and was steadily reclaimed by nature: wrapped in embroidered fronds, in leaves of black leather, in a raffia-trimmed brocade, in the wings of monarch butterflies or an enveloping mass of feathers. The craftsmanship was startling—that monarch butterfly dress, for instance, or a gown with a breastplate of gilded cornstalks and skirt of pheasant feathers, or another gown of pleated organza that looked like an unfolding sea anemone.
What hadn't changed with this show was the fantasia that defined McQueen's work. Burton has already said that there were so many ideas left to be explored in her work with the designer. Now that she has proved her absolute fealty, her absolute familiarity, it's going to be riveting to watch her apply the craftsmanship and teamwork that made this collection such a success to a new vision for the house.