At the end of the Alexander McQueen show, after Naomi Campbell had strutted by in a silver beaded dress with a heart-shape breastplate of a bodice and a skirt dripping in loops of fringe, and the audience had risen to its feet in a standing ovation, the designer, Sarah Burton, came out to take her bow. It would be, everyone knew, her last one for the brand.
She was leaving the house she had made her own after assuming the mantle of its founder and her mentor following his suicide in 2010. David Bowie’s “Heroes” was playing over the speakers. It was a fitting song to go out on. Because for the past 13 years, Ms. Burton has been as close to a hero as fashion has had.
She ensured the McQueen name had a life, not just a legacy, that went on; took it out of tragedy and trauma and guided it ever so gently into the light. Took a brand built on clothes that thrummed with tension and drama and a knife edge of danger — you never knew quite what you were going to get when you went to a McQueen show — and gave it heart.
It’s hard to remember now, in an era when celebrities like Cate Blanchett and Elle Fanning and Jon Batiste, all of whom were in the audience, vie to wear McQueen to red carpet events, but it was far from a foregone conclusion that the brand would survive its namesake. At the time, the industry was widely declaiming that no one — no one!! — could possibly follow in Lee Alexander McQueen’s footsteps (or his armadillo-shod platform hoof steps, to be exact). That no one could possibly cut a suit with the outrageous combination of technical skill and untrammeled imagination that he brought to the job, and it was disrespectful for Kering (then Gucci Group), which announced in 2000 it had bought the brand, to even try.
That Ms. Burton, an unknown (albeit one who had worked side by side with Mr. McQueen for 12 years), did, was an act of courage and faith that first held together the company, and then proved it was possible for a designer to inherit an aesthetic and, rather than reject it or dutifully imitate it, understand it and make it her own. Not just in form and pattern, but in spirit.
Ms. Burton embraced the weaponized tailoring and drama of Mr. McQueen, but gave the brand a grace and generosity that had not been present before. It was such a resonant change that only a year after Ms. Burton was named creative director, she made Kate Middleton’s wedding dress, which in turn made McQueen a name that stood not just for fashion extremes, but for modern Britain.
Just why was visible in Ms. Burton’s final show, which she dedicated to “Lee Alexander McQueen, whose wish was always to empower women, and to the passion, talent and loyalty of my team.” It was not an elegy or a greatest hits tour, but a defiant, triumphant celebration of female corporeality and strength of all kinds.
She cut and sliced suit jackets to expose different parts of the anatomy, laced a molded black minidress in blood red up the spine and painted a splash of crimson thread across a coat. The Tudor rose of England bloomed on bias-cut slips, and O’Keeffe-ian flowers formed the petals of a dress. Aran knits contained whole gardens unto themselves and a frayed tulle top dripped silver bullion shreds over a pair of white wool bumsters.
It was one of the few shows of the week to include models of all sizes — small, midsize, plus-size and even pregnant — and a variety of ages on the catwalk. Ms. Burton has always seen women in full: as warriors, mothers, storytellers, myths. And dressed them for it.
The designer has not said what she is doing next — or why she and Kering decided to part ways. Perhaps the show’s backdrop, monumental textile works by the Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz, who heroized the domestic art of weaving and whom Ms. Burton described as “a transgressive and powerfully creative artist who refused to ever compromise her vision,” was a clue. Whatever the reason, Ms. Burton has woven herself into the fabric of this time.
As it happened, Ms. Burton’s was not the only goodbye show of the week. Gabriela Hearst was also saying farewell to Chloé after three years, though her impact on the brand was relatively minor, as was her final collection for the brand, an ode to flowers in swirls of ruffled white knits, blossoming sleeves and fishnet slips covered in leather and ceramic daisies.
They were functionally delicate, but overshadowed by the rousing appearance of musicians from the Mangueira samba school of Brazil, who appeared for the finale to play Ms. Hearst, prancing joyfully down the runway, and her models out. (The designer didn’t seem to be that torn up about going.)
While Ms. Hearst’s clothes were never particularly notable, in one respect she did make a significant difference to Chloé, however, spurring its transformation to B Corp status, the better to be held officially accountable on environmental and social standards. During her tenure Chloé was the first major luxury brand so certified, no small thing given sustainability seems to have largely disappeared from the fashion conversation this season.
“There’s no going back now!” Ms. Hearst chortled in a preview in which she noted that she had always considered herself only “one link in a chain” of Chloé’s designers.
Still, the departure of both Ms. Hearst and Ms. Burton means two fewer female designers atop major houses — and none at Kering, the second biggest fashion group in the industry — at least until their replacements are named, and potentially thereafter.
That risks seeming an awful lot like going backward to me.