How Alexander McQueen has found inspiration in Irish linen
Paris Fashion Week: Sarah Burton worked with Ireland’s oldest linen producers to create an outstanding collection
Alexander McQueen: Irish linen and crochet was at the forefront of the fashion group’s spring summer collection
Linen and crochet from some of the oldest surviving mills in Ireland are central to the outstanding spring summer collection for Alexander McQueen, shown as part of Paris fashion week. “A lot of the fabric industry is endangered so it was this idea of catching things before they disappear,” said Sarah Burton, the creative director of Alexander McQueen. References to flax flowers and endangered lace powered the whole collection.
Burton and her London studio team of 15 designers, led by Kim Avella, head of fabric development, spent two days in Northern Ireland last July on a field trip, learning about the region’s historic connections to linen. Visits were paid to landmarks like the Linen Museum in Lisburn, Mallon’s flax farm in Cookstown, William Clark in Co Derry, the oldest linen mill in Ireland, and Thomas Ferguson in Banbridge, the last remaining double damask linen weaver in the world. Burton, who worked closely with the late Alexander McQueen and carries on his name, is known for her perfectionism, craftsmanship, sharp tailoring and for making Kate Middleton’s celebrated wedding dress.
Clark’s beetled linen opened and closed the show, held at an orangery in Paris’s Luxembourg Gardens. The first item, a puff sleeve dress in “moonlit” ivory linen was a reference to the fact that linen was bleached in fields by the sun and moon. The final of more than 40 outfits in the collection was a jacket draped in toiles in beetled black linen.
“It was such a pleasure to see [the show] and so exciting,” said Duncan Neill, creative director of William Clark. He said that for many of the visitors in the McQueen group it was the first time they had seen first-hand the 300-year-old process of beetling fabric, which gives the linen a particular lustre and sheen. It was particularly interesting for the group, he said, “when the whole factory floor vibrated” while using a 150-year-old machine.
Another very beautiful item in the collection was a dress in ivory damask linen, with the lace work inspired by linen tablecloths and woven by Fergusons. Judith Neilly, design and development director of Ferguson's in Banbridge, who also own the John England linen brand, explained that the company worked extensively with the McQueen team to develop life drawings and sketches into fabrics – stripes, endangered flowers and flax fields in 100% Irish linen. “It was a very concentrated and detailed effort,” she said. Ferguson's have a reputation for both excellence and flexibility and their other high-profile customers include Game of Thrones and Star Wars. The hand embroidery on the linen is taken from sketches of dancing girls by masters’ students at Central Saint Martins in London.
Each look told its own story. “The connection between the clothes is the time it took to make them,” said Burton, who brought her whole team on to the catwalk to share her bow at the end of the show. For the once proud and powerful linen industry in Northern Ireland, rarely in the international fashion spotlight, it was a moment to be savoured and remembered.