Sarah Burton was a 21-year-old student when she entered Alexander McQueen’s small Hoxton Square studio in London for the first time. One of the most talented and outrageous fashion designers of his time – with eccentric and poetic fashion moments that no one will ever forget – Lee McQueen found in Burton a strong assistant, who allowed him to develop his creative genius. After years of close collaboration with the founder, it seemed a natural decision for the Cheshire-raised designer to step up as creative director after McQueen’s death in 2010.
While some designers could be overwhelmed with such an assertive heritage and the enormous shoes to fill, Burton quietly found her space in the fashion sphere. Not erasing the DNA of the label, her collections took the brand to a more feminine space, where women’s bodies and all their diverse shapes are celebrated. Look at the newest SS19 readyto- wear collection, for instance. With couture-like attention to detail, Burton winked an eye at Britain’s natural world and romantic past, with her work referencing paganism but also the corseted waist of the Victorian period. And, of course, add the so-in-demand McQueen tailoring, ideal for the boss ladies who appreciate the rigorously constructed suits that showcase Burton’s “no space for imprecision” design. There is only room for perfection.
Not a fan of publicity (in fact, this is only the designer’s third-ever interview), Burton became known to the masses after designing the wedding dress of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge in 2011. Now, she makes headlines in the Arab world, with the opening of a new flagship in The Dubai Mall’s Fashion Avenue. And judging by the butterfly pattern that adorns some of the walls, something hints that Burton’s metamorphosis is not even close to being complete.
How do you create a collection? What is your process?
SARAH BURTON: It always starts with a story; a narrative – a world that I imagine the McQueen woman to inhabit each season. Inspiration comes from everywhere: an exploratory trip, a book, a painting. We gather research from such diverse places. I then bring all of that into the studio and we surround ourselves with imagery and begin to work on who the woman is and what message we’re trying to express.
How has the growth and expansion of the house, bought by the Kering Group in 2001, affected this creative process?
SARAH BURTON: It hasn’t affected it at all. It always starts with a narrative, a world, and the expression of a woman.
What was the inspiration behind the SS19 collection? The set design was also very interesting.
SARAH BURTON: It was about rites of passage and the journey of a woman’s life; the significant moments of a woman’s life. But we were also thinking about the power of nature and of our connection with the land. I have a fascination with paganism, so we went to several historic sites in the West Country in south-western England, places full of mystery and legend and traditional pagan rituals. While walking through the ancient rural landscapes of Wiltshire, we were inspired by the power of nature. The mythical, sacred site of Avebury with its prehistoric standing stones was the inspiration for the runway set design, which recalled the landmarks of our ancient past. Nature, imbued with a sense of mystery, rich in folklore and legends that seep through the British landscape, always inspire my collections.
Originally published in the March 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia
In a world that is becoming increasingly tech-savvy, why are these references to nature so dear to you?
SARAH BURTON: I would say that it’s always about juxtapositions at Alexander McQueen. Of course, it’s about nature, paganism, and history but it has to relate to what is happening today. We are interested in the juxtaposition between the natural and the technological, between man and machine. We are respectful of tradition and passionate about pushing the boundaries of digital innovation. There is a romance to the past but it means nothing without reference to the present and the future. We celebrate centuries-old craft techniques while creating new fabrics, cuts, and proportions, often working digitally to map out our designs. The contrast of hand and machine is very important to the house of Alexander McQueen.
There is almost a couture feel to your ready-to-wear collections, while many iconic fashion houses are investing in fast fashion designs. What makes you stick to a certain formality?
SARAH BURTON: Everything we do is so researched; huge attention to detail goes into the making of a fully constructed embroidered jacket, just as it does into the making of a bag, piece of jewelry, or pair of trainers. We apply the same creative process to all aspects of design.
In the past, fashion designers were known for having over-thetop personalities, as if this was important for the success of the brand. Being quite a discreet person, do you believe that the job has changed today?
SARAH BURTON: I think privacy is one of the last luxuries we have.
Going back to your childhood, when did you first realize that you were inclined towards fashion?
You’ve recently unveiled a new store-design concept in London and Dubai. How did the process of creating the store differ from crafting a collection?
SARAH BURTON: I wanted it to reflect the narrative of the collections and the shows. Architect Smiljan Radic and I spent a lot of time together at our atelier and he watched us working in 3D on mannequins. He liked the idea that there was a clearly defined Alexander McQueen silhouette. It was about stripping away the noise, so you could see the clothes, and then putting the rest of the store around it. Throughout, the idea was to reflect the values that are important to us and to the Alexander McQueen name. Our interest in nature, the most precious materials, and fine craftsmanship is expressed in the use of wood in the store. The wood is intricately engineered to fit the space in a way that echoes the engineering of our clothes. We worked with a new material called “cotton-crete:” it’s humble but beautiful, the raw and the refined. We’ve tried to remove the barriers that traditionally face the consumer and to create a warm environment. In the design studio, we’re also creating fabrics and embroideries for the windows and dressing rooms that will change every season, reflecting the fabrics in the collections. I love the idea of the space being transformed and transformative.
Photography ANTON CORBIJN
Style KATIE TROTTER