First, what must be said: Alexander McQueen's Spring collection was a tribute to the late Isabella Blow, the woman who discovered him, famously propelled his career from a student rack to a couture house, and faithfully wore his clothes—and Philip Treacy's hats—in their most extreme manifestations. Second, though: All terrible emotions apart, McQueen, like every other designer, can only be judged in the unsparing light of the general arena of fashion. To put it bluntly, this collection—after an off season last time—was going to stand or fall based on whether his clothes were any good.

It stood. McQueen mustered the clarity to dispense with smoke and mirrors and show his capabilities in cut, drape, and feathered flourish to an audience near enough to inspect every detail. He stepped up to the plate by running through all his archived knowledge—Savile Row tailoring in Prince of Wales menswear check jackets and strict, strong-shouldered suiting, combined with the legacy of his couture experience in fan-pleated chiffon, goddess-y drape, and hand-crafted drama. The theme of birds—particularly symbolic of Blow—held the show together through a reprise of all the highlights of McQueen's career. The molded-hip silhouette of a jacket and dusty, twisted georgette gowns came from his Barry Lyndon show; the floating bird-of-paradise prints, from his "shipwreck" season; the ombré-printed vast-shouldered kimonos, from his Japanese couture collection for Givenchy; the trapezoid shapes, transposed from the tricorne hats of his "highwayman" moment; the lace stockings, reprised from his They Shoot Horses… performance. And so on.

But this isn't really the point. McQueen has indulged in self-referential wallows in the past before, but this, for the most part, avoided that feeling. If some of his carapace-stiff shapes are as unviable as they ever were, the airy rainbow-bird-wing-printed pleating, an Art Nouveau-patterned blouse, and his romantic fairy-goddess chiffons put him back in the game of current trend (though they'd have been better without the fierce waist-cinching belts that looked like a hangover from winter). In all, McQueen honored his mentor by striving to bring out the best in himself.