Last night, beneath the towering glass ceiling of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s magnificent interior courtyard, the audience of the Alexander McQueen AW16 menswear show sat talking. Engrossed in conversations, many didn’t notice a single, black-clad figure entering, descending the stairs at the end of the chamber and taking his seat at a glossy piano in its centre. He began to play and silence fell; his music marking the space’s transition into a new world, far from the chaos of London’s menswear week. It was one haunted by enchantingly beautiful boys, who graced the floor in designs that clashed light and dark, tradition and subversion, punk and propriety. In a reflection of the show, we pull out three of its key codes.
Despite its reputation for outlandish and provocative creations, the house has always rested on a foundation of the most exquisite craftsmanship, especially with regards to tailoring. Its founder did work for two Savile Row tailors during the infancy of his career after all. For AW16, Burton said she was referring to the traditional staples of men’s dress, and that extended to pieces inspired by British military garb; red coats, jackets fitted with rope cords and army jumpers with epaulette shoulders.
Still, there were silhouettes that were unmistakably McQueen, imbued with gothic elegance, like one high-collared, almost Elizabethan jacquard jacket. “The idea was that men collect things in their wardrobe, and treasure things and have things that last forever,” Burton offered, and there were notes of history throughout.
THE ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES
“It started with Charles Darwin and the idea of natural selection, and of voyage, discovery, natural history,” Burton explained backstage. The scientist’s influence crept in through butterfly and moth prints that looked as if they’d been lifted from the dusty pages of a textbook to be dotted, Hirst-like, over coats, suits and shirts. On one piece, a spider monkey swung from a tree, while one jacket came with velvet tabs down its front like a dissected ribcage.
This wasn’t a trip to the zoo – more a look around the specimens preserved in glass vitrines in some dark science laboratory. Tiny skull pins punctured collars like talismans, while snakes coiled around necks and butterfly specimens were numbered, as if they’d been captured and pinned, prize keepsakes of a collector, beautiful yet lifeless. From the horns protruding from shoulderpads to the wolves led by a caped girl down the runway, McQueen’s relationship with the animal world has always been somewhat macarbre. This was no different.
Jewellery is a critical part of the McQueen design lexicon, and this season, Burton took things punk, with oversized, heavily decorated safety pins piercing cheeks and leading, chain-like, up to the ear. The Huguenot crosses from the SS16 womenswear collection also featured, dangling from earrings and chains that were slung across waistcoats, crisscrossing harness-like under suits.
It threw the collection’s airs of tradition off with subculture, adding a dash of punkish appropriation – like when winged-collar shirts were worn bow tie-less, or had the collars left off entirely, leaving only a raw edge. One red jumper had a slice taken out of it, revealing the shirt beneath, while a knit vest was covered in a pattern that looked like splattered paint. Like the way the tearaway Teddy Boys stole the trappings of class privilege back in the 50s, there was an undeniable whiff of rebellion, amplified by the way models stalked the marble-floored, establishment settings with their red-ringed eyes. If there was one thing the show demonstrated, it was that, under Burton’s direction, the spirit of McQueen is alive and well.