Oh Cleopatra! McQueen's luxe party wear for a pagan princess

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The Independent Online

Alexander McQueen's autumn/ winter collection, shown in Paris last night was entitled: "In Memory Of Elizabeth How, Salem 1692". Through his mother's work as a genealogist, the London-born designer has identified the fact that he is distantly related to How and, for that reason, the notorious Salem witch trials were the central inspiration for the show.

McQueen being McQueen, however, this was never likely to be an entirely straightforward affair. With this in mind, the set was built out of inky gravel with a scarlet crystal pentagram centre stage and a 45-foot black inverted pyramid hanging overhead. Any so-called witchcraft, the designer argued, was in fact rooted in nothing more sinister than paganism and this can be traced as far back as Ancient Egypt. The clothes themselves ­ and an opening section dominated by petrol-blue and gold. in particular ­ equally referenced this historic empire.

Given that immaculately cut and proportioned tailoring and, indeed. sinuous and dramatic evening wear are by now a well-established signature, McQueen clearly saw this season as an opportunity to move on. In place of the elongated and angular design aesthetic that he is known for came a cocoon-shaped but, for the most part, still extremely narrow-waisted silhouette achieved by layering clothing over a boned gazar under-dress.

Any structural rigour was played off against the opulent couture fabrics that are central to this growing brand: chain-printed taffeta, antique metallic brocades, organza, chiffon tufted to look like fur, velvet and lace were all very much in evidence. Later came more earthly materials although on more than one occasion particularly unforgiving corsetry that rode up over models' faces toughened the effect.

The challenge for a designer such as McQueen, renowned as much for the spectacular nature of his shows as he is for the innovative look of his clothes, is to balance creativity and commerce. As if models' hair and make-up weren't high-impact enough ­ think Cleopatra fringes, kohl-rimmed eyes and turquoise brows ­ the hugely extravagant show pieces included a sequinned gold body stocking with a moulded metal breast-plate and a sheer chiffon sheath embellished with veins of black jet. More accessible and obviously destined for production were cashmere dresses with roomy hoods and others in nothing more haute than denim.

This was not a show that was as easy on the eye as some of the designer's recent outings. Instead, the effect was more challenging.

The end result, however, was just the heady mix of complex narrative, audacious showmanship and, more than ever, a dark ­ and even macabre ­ sense of romance for which McQueen is well known.