An unblinking eye peered out from the asymmetric folds of a black dress, setting the tone for Alexander McQueen’s spring/summer 2023 collection, First Sight. The motif was drawn from Ridley Scott’s 1982 film, Blade Runner, where eyes are the ultimate differentiator between humans and robots.
“This collection is about searching for humanity and human connection,” Sarah Burton, Alexander McQueen’s creative director, wrote in her show notes. “The eye is a symbol of that humanity, a register of emotion, an expression of uniqueness.”
It was also, perhaps, a reminder of the need for us all to be more conscious of the world around us as we emerge from the ravages of the pandemic. Oversized eyes reappeared in red on a beautifully draped white dress and louche white suit, while miniature pupils were peppered across a voluminous ankle-length dress. But the leitmotif was perhaps most powerful when rendered in abstract on a black mesh bodysuit covered in sequins and crystal embroidery, showcased on the runway by an inhumanly youthful-looking Naomi Campbell.
The new collection was unveiled within a transparent bubble designed by architect Smiljan Radic (the man behind the brand's London and Dubai flagship stores). The structure made its debut last year for the unveiling of McQueen’s spring/summer 2022 show, when it was placed at the top of a multi-storey car park in Wapping.
This time around, it was transposed on to the grounds of the Old Royal Naval College, a Unesco World Heritage Site in London's Greenwich that was once a favoured retreat for Henry VIII and is now home, in part, to the University of Greenwich. Perched on the banks of the Thames, McQueen’s sculptural cloud-like structure stood in stark contrast to the sturdy baroque buildings flanking it.
Inside the buildings and on the site’s grassy grounds, students gathered to catch a glimpse of the show’s celebrity guests, cheering at the sight of Janet Jackson, Lara Stone, Letitia Wright, Maria Sharapova and crowd favourite Hero Fiennes Tiffin.
The reuse of the custom-built venue was a nod to the label's commitment to sustainability and provided a welcome antidote to the Insta-grabbing, novelty-driven gimmicks of some brands during recent fashion weeks. This consistency was carried through to the collection itself. Burton continued her exploration of artfully deconstructed suiting, most strikingly in a black one-shouldered dress with an exposed corset and a skirt that looked as if a tuxedo jacket had been slashed up and reassembled at random. Tuxedo suits were reworked into structured jumpsuits in black and red, with necklines that plunged down to the waist and backs that were left entirely bare.
There was a more sensual element to the clothes, with strategically placed slashes on skirts, suits and bodysuits providing flashes of skin, while retaining McQueen’s trademark edginess. A skintight bodysuit in red intarsia wool with transparent panels on the thighs and slashes at the shoulders encapsulated the bold sensuality that threaded its way through the collection. Thick belts, glossy black leather jumpsuits and a “galactic blue” dress with an asymmetric drape skirt and matching opera gloves recast Burton’s models as heroines worthy of their own Marvel movies.
Accessories included knit boots with a transparent, barely-there Perspex wedge heel, creating the impression that models were floating down the runway. Jewellery was bulky and solid, with ear cuffs, rings and cuffs crafted from polished silver, black varnish and dark stones. New for the season was the Peak bag, which expands on McQueen’s trademark four-ring closure detailing by setting inserts for the fingers into the bag’s leather frame. The famed Skull Clutch was reimagined with crystal eye embroidery.
As is her wont, Burton delved into the archives, reviving Lee McQueen’s “bumster” trousers from the 1990s, so-called because of how low they hung on the hips. While Burton kept things slightly more PG than her predecessor, flared trousers in black wool barely grazed the hip bones, and were paired with cropped jackets to reveal lashings of skin.
Burton drew inspiration from the works of Hieronymus Bosch, which she described as “at once dark and beautiful”. This, too, presented a note of nostalgia — Lee McQueen also took inspiration from paintings by the 15th-century Dutch artist, whose dense, complex works feature symbolic figures, iconography, demons and machines to portray the evil of man. Much like Bosch’s paintings, which need to be seen up close for their darker narratives to reveal themselves, Burton’s homages were rendered in painstaking detail. Multi-hued human and animal forms were hand-embroidered on to leather skirts and thigh-high boots or, more subtly, as whitework embroidery on the slashed bodice and calico tulle skirt of the show’s final look.
“Our clothes are designed to empower,” Burton said. “They are stripped back, dissected and focused on cut, drape and silhouette.”
From the impeccable tailoring to the hard-edged glamour and archival references, there was plenty here to keep the most die-hard McQueen fans happy, but also enough new ideas to bolster the company's growth ambitions as it evolves into a truly international luxury brand.