Sarah Burton's debut collection for Alexander McQueen was perhaps the most eagerly awaited fashion follow-up in a decade. But oddly, what the fashion world wanted from this debut show wasn't fireworks, but for Burton to show she was the right woman for the job, silence any naysayers and offer a collection that secured and strengthened the McQueen legacy.
For S/S 2011, Burton offered just that, albeit with some traces of her own distinct voice. Most manifest was the scaled-back presentation stripped of the Sturm und Drang integral to McQueen's own shows. It was one step up from the quiet salon show she favoured for her menswear - but Burton said that McQueen's trademark theatrics were not her thing, and this quieter, calmer presentation set the stage perfectly for her first fully-fledged Paris outing as official Creative Director of the brand.
The clothes themselves toyed with classic McQueen shapes and details, his tailcoats, his military embellishment, his intricate printed, jacquard or brocaded fabrics. Burton tweaked them, but only just, giving movement to those stiff little skirts with jutting fins of fabric and scissoring open the sleeve-heads on jackets. Those felt as if they were letting something in rather than letting something out, just as her unfinished hems were left to gently unravel rather than aggressively shredded. Delicacy was a leitmotif, the gently gathering of chiffon on a full-sleeve or a floor-length, unstructured ivory dress, gowns crafted from thousands of trembling fabric flowers and balances on intricately carved heels like flowers. There was, undoubtedly, a savage grace to Burton's offering, but hers softer than that of McQueen himself, and arguably more tender. There was a new fluidity to the trademark McQueen show-stoppers, in degrade layers of chiffon like a forest-floor plant or the quivering movement of thousands of ostrich or pheasant feathers crafted into skirts. Those were direct homages to McQueen's ornithological obsessions - indeed, the collection itself was fixated on nature, reworking motifs of butterflies in leather, intricate raffia macrame and fringing in hair, bodices woven from glittering golden wheatsheaves.
Those wheatsheaves, those butterflies, those harvest motifs of flora, all indicated rebirth, renewal, something growing afresh. Life must continue, as must the McQueen label - and fashion by its very nature is in a constant state of regeneration. The consensus? Burton delivered exactly what was needed - a beautiful, well-judged and impeccably executed show created under unique and extreme circumstances. It was about Burton laying her cards on the table, rather than taking McQueen somewhere new. That, however, will be the really fascinating thing to watch in the years to come.