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Strong Women Wear Ruffles

Strong Women Wear Ruffles

I’m going to let you all in on a little secret to spring solstice success: Cedar. Wood. Chips.

It was cedar wood chips and their attendant aroma—spunky! Raw!—that filled the inside of a Brooklyn Navy Yard warehouse on Monday evening, piled into little and big hills by the artist Smiljan Radic. Perhaps because it was the first day in New York that really felt like spring, the atmosphere seemed fresh, like we ourselves were daisies popping out of snappy green stalks popping out from the stinky rich soil. The mind starts to run wild with an overpowering scent like that: preservation. Treasured garments tucked away for safekeeping. Freshness. Earth! LIFE!

The impetus for this room of wood chips: an Alexander McQueen show. Season: Fall 2022. Celebrities like Honor Swinton Byrne (daughter of Tilda in real life and in both parts of Joanna Hogg’s auto-fiction-cinematic masterpiece The Souvenir), Letitia Wright, and Evan Mock meandered around the chips like fashion shepherds in McQueen duds. It used to be that brands dressed one or two celebrities in the designer’s most obvious clothes and plunked them all lined up next to each other like a class picture. Now, the term “friend of the house” (which is sometimes a euphemism for someone who’s paid to be there, and sometimes not) has expanded into something like community, and often they’re wearing pieces about to debut on the runway or the brand’s most eccentric offerings. Everyone from Eckhaus Latta and Collina Strada all the way up to Balenciaga has been doing this, and it has the effect of closing the loop between the runway and the audience, and reminding us how clothes exist in the “real world.”

Burton doubles down on beauty and power—her strength is, well, female strength.

The purpose of this community of wood-chip enthusiasts? Well, that part was a little more of a puzzle. It was a week after the fashion month rat race ended, and miles from creative director Sarah Burton’s London hometown. Backstage, she spoke about how Lee McQueen showed twice in New York, and how the house had always felt welcome there. The sharp tailoring and leather meanies of her collection were meant as a sort of tribute to that spirit. More to the point, though, the house held a separate show just for clients later in the evening, and a rollicking dinner the night before. And if you go into Bergdorfs or Saks, Alexander McQueen has a healthy amount of square footage. You can see why: the clothes are cut to perfection, and they have an attitude. And New Yorkers have attitude—remember?

Onto the clothes: Sarah Burton will never have the razor edge of Alexander McQueen. And she shouldn’t, and we shouldn’t ask her to. As much as I see people my age and younger pining for the late designer’s controversial, boundary-pushing runway shows (which at various times put models in African, Japanese, and Chinese-inspired clothes and often explored imagery of torture), I’m not sure we actually want them. At the very least, we haven’t nurtured an environment that encourages ambivalent ideas. Loewe, with its pagan togs and broken-egg heels, and Balenciaga, with its vast shows that smack of global menace, are the only brands who really go there any more, and the latter this season sent many young people clutching at their pearls.

Instead, Burton doubles down on beauty and power—her strength is, well, female strength. That’s a message that a male designer can’t really access. In Monday’s collection, the suits had strong shoulders that derived their power from roundness and structure rather than broadness and motorcycle jackets and dresses in thick and supple leather. Some models had long hippie hair; some had buzzed heads. She offered the first compelling women’s tuxedo looks I’ve seen leading up to awards season, one with a ruffle that exposed one shoulder and another with a little spangly tube top. (Wouldn’t it be cool for an actress to show up to the Oscars in a suit that fits her like a glove, suggesting she’s there because it’s a business obligation?).

The end of the show featured a number of dresses that seem destined for a red carpet (and perhaps the idea of putting a ton of fantastical dresses stateside in the weeks leading up to the Academy Awards was part of Burton’s thinking). There was a mushroom one with long fringes that bounced trippily; there was a mottled sequin ribcage with a tulle exoskeleton. But the stronger statement came at the beginning of the show, when wildly ruffled ball dresses in tea-length shapes, styled with motorcycle boots worthy of a real speed demon, alternated with aggro leather dresses and spiffy suits. The beauty and the beast are one–which is classic McQueen.

Ugh, “classic McQueen.” I sort of hate phrases like that; why are we still asking designers to reinterpret codes that were created long ago? Is it really worth getting angry or indignant over whether the current creative team at Dior or Balenciaga is accurately updating ideas created when you had to pick up a telephone to tell someone their art was offensive? Maybe Burton’s task is the exception. A woman of warmth and wisdom, she has a precarious and frankly unusual role to fulfill: her many customers actually remember McQueen’s work well (he was one of the first designers to have truly devoted buyers), as does the younger cohort of fashion fanatics, many of whom found their way into fashion through the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s post-posthumous exhibition on Lee. And she has to continually bring it to the fore, not as a jazzy young creative director reworking “the codes of the house,” but as a creative person intimately acquainted with her former boss’s beliefs and obsessions. Hence, for example, the graffiti-covered suits in Monday’s show, which began with Shalom Harlow in the Spring 1999 show, when her pure white dress assaulted by two demonic paint-spewing snakes in the finale. (I’m just telling you…if someone did that today…I don’t even want to think about the hot take tweets. And I’m not saying that because I find it offensive—I think it’s a mighty gesture about the demonic relationship any fashion lover has with clothing and identity!)

The clothes are always tributes, sure, but more importantly, they’re an expression of Burton’s own role as caretaker. They are almost maternal in their creation, though their effect is sophisticated and can also look lively and youthful. I loved the way those wild ruffles looked on a model with a shaved head: naughty and romantic. I can’t think of another designer who’s responsible for making fashion in such a tense but tender way; probably only Virgil Abloh’s team at Off-White knows the sensation. I would guess her clients find a lot of meaning in it—this show of strength that isn’t really muscle, but maybe more like courage and intelligence. That feels as organic as the potent scent of cedar.




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