If you want proof that automation has subverted the artisan class, look no further than Northern Ireland where mills once powered the economy. They represented industrial expansion, but then they became obsolete as better, faster, and cheaper methods of textile production emerged. An area that is one-sixth the size of the UAE is now home to over 3,000 abandoned mill sites, mills that used to create huge amounts of damask linen, spun flax, and “beetled” fabric (fabric which has been beaten by wooden blocks to a glossy finish).
Artisans were once the source of everything in fashion, but nowadays they are relegated to the realm of specialist. For Alexander McQueen Spring/Summer 2020, Sarah Burton continued her quest to investigate and preserve lost and disappearing textile arts by creating a collection dedicated to and made with the help of Ireland’s last remaining mills. Her collection wasn’t just about the clothes, but about the people and the stories behind their production.
While a good portion of the collection relied on Burton’s now-familiar signatures – edgy tailored suits and pretty peasant frocks – there was an increased focus on fabrication. Namely, how disparate elements, like doily lacy and glossy “beetled” leather, played together. There was also a lot of linen in the show, but used in the most magical ways possible. Burton employed linen that had been bleached by the sun and the moon (who knew that was a thing?), and transformed it into a remake of the famous ‘Eshu’ dress from Fall/Winter 2000. One version was a powdery blue and the other a soft rose pink, and both looked alive – electrified by the ombré effect of the elemental bleaching. A frisson of thrill filled the room as these pieces passed, their movement amplified by a soundtrack composed by Isobel Waller-Bridge, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sister (who also scored Fleabag).
Burton made the show more than just about her or its namesake forebear.
Another sonorous moment belonged to Stella Tennant, who wore a magnificent linen dress embroidered with images of dancing girls. Everyone on the McQueen team contributed a stitch (or more) to the embroidery, and signed their work. At the end, they all came out to take a bow alongside Burton. In elevating her team, the artisans, and the sources of the fabrics from which her incredible creations derived, Burton made the show more than just about her or its namesake forebear. She showed us the universe of McQueen in a way that was both humble and awe-inspiring, placing real people and real craft front and center.