Label of love
'I didn't want people to think that I could ever pretend to be him or replace him ... but the thing was to keep the spirit of the brand alive,' says Sarah Burton, discussing her decision to fill the shoes of Lee Alexander McQueen as creative director of his eponymous label.
'I was very reluctant to take the job. When you lose someone you love, who is so inspiring that you can't even imagine beginning to take on what he did - well, I almost didn't.'
McQueen committed suicide in February last year, just days after his mother's death. Three months later, Burton was appointed creative director of his label and, in September last year, she presented the first Alexander McQueen womenswear collection she had wholly created.
'It was really hard. Yes, there was a fear [when stepping out to take a bow after her first runway show]. It was terrible and just tragic. But I think the team all felt we had to be together, carrying on doing what he wanted us to do.'
Succeeding one of the era's fashion greats was never going to be easy, but Burton already has people won over. Since taking the reins, the 37-year-old British designer, who had spent all her working life at Alexander McQueen, has won consistently rave reviews and critical and commercial success.
In April, she took her place among designer royalty when Kate Middleton walked down the aisle of London's Westminster Abbey in an Alexander McQueen dress designed by Burton. Waiting for Middleton was the heir to the British throne, Prince William. Awaiting the label and its new creative director was a level of cultural clout that could make any couture house envious.
So, when it was announced that Burton, who was last month named designer of the year by the British Fashion Council, would be visiting Beijing for the opening of the first Alexander McQueen store in the mainland, regional fashion editors scrambled to get face time with her.
BURTON BREEZES INTO the Beijing Sanlitun store, blond hair swept across her face and gently framing slender, ethereal features and pale blue eyes. Clad in a chic black Alexander McQueen suit, Burton is immediately all smiles and apologies for being late. She melts a tense group atmosphere with a chirpy: 'Ask me anything.'
Although friendly, Burton is obviously not yet accustomed to being the centre of attention. 'Lee always pushed us to be more creative, but the difference now,' she says in an accent betraying her roots, in Macclesfield, northwest England, 'is that the buck stops with me. I can't hide behind anyone else anymore.'
Which could be a problem, given that, thanks to the royal wedding dress, she has achieved a level of exposure that eluded even her mentor.
As the world watched the event live, we were treated to a minute-by-minute commentary detailing everything about the dress, from the Chantilly lace covering Middleton's arms; to the d?colletage; the pinched-in waist; the slightly exaggerated hips; and the ivory buttons running down the back, giving way to the glorious sweep of the white and ivory silk skirt. The creation was judged demure yet perfectly regal for the occasion.
'Obviously the wedding was an incredible honour and an amazing experience,' Burton says. 'I feel incredibly lucky to have been part of that.'
Two days after the wedding, she crossed the Atlantic to preside over the Costume Institute Gala at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, otherwise known as the Met Ball, and a McQueen Retrospective. The likes of American Vogue editor Anna Wintour, model Naomi Campbell and socialite Daphne Guinness joined the event to pay homage to their late friend.
'The retrospective was very moving and very sad, but also a celebration of something that existed,' Burton says. 'It showed that his work resonates with so many different types - not just fashion people. I know grandmothers who went to see it and were inspired.
'We never looked towards what was 'in fashion' when designing a collection ... so it had this very universal beauty.'
Burton says she will be keeping it 'about the clothes rather than about the designer. The house will be here, hopefully, long after I'm gone, so it's really about the spirit of the house'.
It is perhaps a clich?to call a designer 'surprisingly down to earth', but the description fits Burton perfectly. She is the polar opposite of the high-fashion caricature, shying away from the limelight and taking quick, furtive bows at the end of runway shows.
'I'm not good at the pictures, parties and the press things. They're not my natural comfort zone,' she says. 'The thing that I love about the job is really creating the clothes with the team ... I don't even look good in pictures.'
Burton even gets a little embarrassed when journalists gush over a dress or a collection. 'It's not just about the designer,' she keeps reminding us, almost pleadingly. 'It's about the pattern cutter and the embroiderer. It's not just me, there's a whole team of amazing people [behind every creation].'
Like McQueen, whose father was a taxi driver, Burton's journey to the coveted catwalks of Paris was an unlikely one. One of five siblings, she grew up in Prescott, near Macclesfield, south of Manchester - most definitely not a fashion capital - and attended the prestigious, very academic Withington Girls' School between the ages of eight and 18.
She bought fashion magazines and went clubbing with her friends, wearing 'strange, crazy and probably very uncool' outfits. But hers was more of an artistic upbringing than a fashion-oriented one, with family trips to galleries and museums. She almost studied fine arts but instead chose fashion and attended Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, in London.
Art and fashion have been an enduring combination for Burton.
'Lee was a genius and an artist. What was so inspiring about him was that it wasn't just about fashion, it was about images of all kinds: paintings, photos, all visuals ... it was very much like working for an artist.'
In 1996, while still studying at Central Saint Martins, Burton secured an internship at a small, independent brand called Alexander McQueen. At the interview, she says, McQueen asked her whether she believed in UFOs. She said she did and he gave her the job.
McQueen was about to land the head designer job at Givenchy and, after she graduated, Burton was hired in 1997 as his personal assistant.
'The company really started from zero,' Burton says. 'It was a terrible workroom and a small space. When I first came we were designing a menswear collection. The chairs were super short but the table was super high. We had no central heating and mice used to come in and sit in the middle of the floor. Lee's dog used to eat my packed lunch right out of my bag.
'[McQueen] had a hilarious sense of humour. Perhaps people didn't see that, but he was so funny, very normal and not fashion-y,' Burton says. 'He had a really wicked, dirty laugh that was really infectious. He was really good fun to hang out with.
'I learned everything from Lee. We were such a small team at the beginning, we had to do everything ourselves. He always said that you have to learn all the rules to break the rules - and now I know how much pressure he was under.'
Alexander McQueen was bought by the Gucci Group in 2000, providing the investment needed to give the brand a global reach.
Will the label, founded by an incredible, Savile Row-trained bad boy of fashion, last in the same way that the Chanels and Diors have outlived their founders?
'I really hope so,' Burton says. 'I think that's what Lee wanted. He created such a strong signature, which is so hard to do.'
McQueen's showmanship and proclivity for the dramatic, from the bumster pants in his 'Highland Rape' runway show in 1995 to a vision of Kate Moss in swirls of fabric slowly 'apparating' from nothing for his 2006 'Widows of Culloden' debut, was unrivalled in fashion. His irreverence earned him the title of 'the hooligan of British fashion' from the French media. But such epithets failed to capture the essence of the man and the label he created.
'The label is about romance and beauty - and romance has happy endings and sad endings. McQueen is about contrasts and both of those worlds,' Burton says. 'There is a dreamy fantasy quality to it, but it is also relevant to the streets and has this very strong personality. You really want people to feel something when they see the show. That will always continue.
'What I will bring, because obviously I'm a woman, is a more feminine, soft approach. The spirit of the brand will stay very McQueen. I've been there for such a long time, so, obviously, I was part of developing that.
'But you have to move forward otherwise you stagnate. Lee always told me that. He never stagnated.
'There are so many designers I admire: Rei Kawakubo, Azzedine Alaia, Nicolas Ghesquiere, Miuccia Prada - they all do different things for different women. But Lee's work was the most breathtaking. He could just put something on the stand and make a jacket out of a pair of trousers instantly, or a dress from a piece of old fabric on the floor. It was just magic to watch him.
'He had this way of making you look at everything in this new way, and would never just say, 'OK, we're doing the 70s.' He would never ever look at other designers, it was always about looking into a world: his world.'
This, along with subverted historical references and detailed craftsmanship, made the label a rare creature in an era of fast, mass fashion, and helped to burnish Britain's high-fashion credentials in the eyes of the world.
'What's really sad now is that there is a lost art of using your hands,' Burton says. 'The artisans, craftsmen and process of making things are being lost in the UK. That's why I think it's important to do shows where clothes are handcrafted.
'We have a lot of students from China in the studio and they are incredible in their technique and stitching. You are very lucky here [in China] that you have that obsession, passion and dedication to detail.'
BURTON'S WORK SINCE taking the reins has shown how tapped in she is to the essence of the label. Her 'Ice Queen' autumn-winter 2011/12 collection was imbued with a sense of formal pageantry and, perhaps not surprisingly, royalty. That strength and power was softened with fur while horse harnesses added a bondage edge. Noble Elizabethan touches were harnessed to zips and references to motocross: cross-country motorcycle races.
'It's a bit random,' Burton admits. 'That's the great thing about McQueen, though - taking the inspiration from the street and different worlds and making it very couture.
'I always start a collection with a story and a world and it sort of grows from there. I find inspiration everywhere and that's something Lee taught me. I remember him coming in one day and saying, 'I was watching Friends last night. Did you see the shirt Joey was wearing?' But then he'd go and get a Jan van Eyck [a 15th-century Flemish painter] book out for inspiration.
'It really was this mad mix - there was no snobbery to it.'
For spring-summer 2012's spectacle, Burton pushed her feminine agenda, but not without an underlying edge.
'It was about hyper-femininity, womanhood and how women embellish themselves to feel and look beautiful, almost to the point where it's a bit sickly,' Burton says, referring to the saccharine lilacs, pinks and baby-doll shapes she created. 'But it was also slightly dark and macabre, with those face veils.'
Oceanic references were worked for effect: dresses were engineered at the borders to give a shimmering, watery lightness. Metallic hardware gave the collection a powerful grounding.
One of Burton's favourite looks from the collection, she says, was a big apricot-pink floor-length gown with exaggerated ruffles that undulated as the wearer moved, like a 'jellyfish or anemone'. The colour was reminiscent of drops of blood in water. Other outfits featured intricate patterns but left exposed the breasts of models who wore full face masks. (Perhaps that look was not designed strictly with the street in mind.)
In McQueen's world, the Caliban is always as important as the Ariel.
'There'll always be some sort of darkness to the brand, but I don't think it's dark in a heavy kind of way - Lee always had an obsession with the Victorian, and in that period they embraced life as much as death. The label will always embrace both light and darkness,' says Burton.
To truly understand the significance of Alexander McQueen, you need to appreciate this point. It is the reason the label's aesthetic stirs up so much emotion. It is what distinguishes it from the grace and glamour of Valentino and the pioneering subversion of Vivienne Westwood.
You also have to acknowledge the difference between beauty and prettiness, for Alexander McQueen has never been a pretty brand. And, as Alexandra Shulman of British Vogue once said, 'Prettiness is the enemy of beauty. The blandness and acceptability of pretty cancels out the greatness of beauty.'
That sublime, perhaps even terrifying, 'greatness of beauty' is something Burton now commands as she tries to protect McQueen's legacy - a reluctant Prospero in a brave new world.