"I love a gown," sighed Sarah Burton as she wandered around the racks of her pre-fall collection for Alexander McQueen. She'd come up with some doozies, like the high-necked, full-sleeved Victorian confection in black mousseline that invoked the spirit of Charles Frederick Worth, fashion's first couturier, or the gown whose torso was crusted with floral embroidery. Best of all was a strapless spectacular embroidered with the same blowsy tulips that made Burton's new men's collection so special. It fell away in draped folds of silk jacquard that recalled the monumental silhouettes of Charles James, a designer loved by Lee McQueen.

This was grand McQueen, the kind of museum-worthy stuff that sustains the legend with its almost operatic lavishness. Burton does it brilliantly. There were other things here that were scarcely less elaborate. The strapless, flared cocktail dress in pleated smocked velvet, for instance, in a shade of green so dark that it seemed to drain light from the room as it quivered and undulated like an alien life form. Or the cape-backed emerald dress veiled in a lace that was practically three-dimensional. It was a whisper from purest couture. You could feel the obsession in such exquisitely realized pieces, which is why they bordered on the overwrought.

And which is why the most suggestive elements of Burton's pre-fall collection were the plainest: the cropped pants with a little kick in the back that she paired with white poplin shirts—or maybe a peasant blouse—and jacket shapes mutated from menswear. It was a different kind of silhouette for Burton. "I've raised the waist, kept the peplum, but moved away from the pencil skirt," she explained. There was still a flavor of McQueen drama, but the taste was fresh. It left you wanting a whole lot more.