June 12, 2019 | News | No Comments
Sarah Burton calls the clothing she designs at Alexander McQueen a “soft armor for women.” Since assuming the creative director position in 2010 after Lee Alexander McQueen’s untimely death, Burton has built each of her pieces of armor as a balance of dichotomies that will be instantly relatable to every woman out there: fragile and functional, laden with history and free to sprint into the future, strictly posh and proper, yet aggressively wild and punk.
Her runways are some of the most diverse in Paris, bringing women from around the world together—many ages, shapes, and sizes—to walk as warriors and princesses. The full picture, completed by custom sets and music, is so rich with meaning and drama, it could make your head spin were your eyes not glamoured by the sheer beauty of it all. Most of all, Burton’s work is beautiful. Some would argue that in a time of anti-choice legislation, a time of Brexit, a time of Trump that beauty has no merit because beauty can’t save us.
Those people have clearly never quietly fastened themselves in to one of Burton’s dresses, kissing each button into its closure in a secret, sensual dance. Yes, the clothes she designs are empirically beautiful, but her vision of beauty is not an imposition. As much as her work is about fantasy and phantasms and olde magick, it’s also about the real world, real women, and lace-up black leather boots that you can walk in from the subway to the office comfortably.
A master tailor, she can cut a gown made of magical ruffles, a savvy but never strict cinched suit, and everything in between, her oeuvre reading like an index of wardrobe musts for a thoroughly badass modern woman. As woman designer standing with women, Burton creates this validating, embracing beauty with a deft hand, a seemingly endless arsenal of historicism and romanticism, and a deep-seated appreciation of craft and English heritage.
She will be the first to tell you that she learned the importance of these values from Lee Alexander McQueen, the house’s storied founder. It was 1996 when Burton, just 21 years old, arrived to McQueen’s atelier on internship placement from Central Saint Martins. More than 20 years later, she is still there, now the leader of a strong, close-knit team of craftspeople, many of whom have been on the job for nearly as long as Burton herself. She carries Lee’s work and passions deep within her, and, in a way, in every collection she creates. “He will always be such a huge part of who I am and such a huge part of me creatively, because I grew up with all of his beliefs and creativity,” she says. But in assuming the role of creative director, she’s grown intent on bringing out aspects of herself on the runway.
Her autumn/winter ‘19/’20 collection, presented in Paris this March, was her most introspective yet. She took her team up to the North of England, where she was raised, around Yorkshire, to commune with the area’s mills, looms, and hillsides. Each look borne from this trip is rich with narrative. Consider a dress that turns traditional looming heddles into whooshing sequins that shimmied and whirred as the model walked down the runway, the sound itself a callback to the hubbub of a factory at its busiest hour. Elsewhere, studio scraps are made into embroideries; snap closures are used as embellishment along the long lines of a knit dress; Northern symbols like the owl of Leeds, the seagull of Blackpool, and the cormorant of Liverpool wrap around a cascading skirt in lace; and bias-draped, tailored jackets proudly display a “Made in England” label.
The most resplendent of all are the three rose dresses in black, fuchsia, and red, each cut and draped from a single piece of fabric. In Middle English, the language of the War of the Roses, a second meaning of the word flower was “the best state of things” or “its prime.” Beautiful, thorny, regal, and delicate, these best-in-class dresses draw inspiration from the White Rose of York and the Red Rose of Lancaster, symbols of England’s warring houses of yore, and from the Northern tradition of crowning a local girl the rose queen during springtime spectacles. You could also say that these stately dresses were drawn from all the unsung rose queens who have bloomed and wilted up in the Pennines and in Scotland and on this earth since Margaret of Anjou sat by the throne, ruling in her husband’s absences and suffering through a war when she did not produce an heir for her madman spouse.
It’s never been easy to be a woman. Burton is keenly aware of this. Lucky for the rest of us, she has constructed each of her McQueen collections to be the scaffolding that will help keep us upright, inspired, and emboldened. It is this that has made her the de facto couturier of Catherine the Duchess of Cambridge, whose wedding dress she designed in 2010, and of powerful women the world over. To get real British with it: Alfred Tennyson wrote in an 1842 ode, “A simple maiden in her flower/ Is worth a hundred coats of arms.” With Burton, you don’t have to choose. You can be a maiden and a king slayer in cinched blood red leather tailoring or a marine blue corset with lace paneling. The promise of Sarah Burton’s Alexander McQueen is that you can be, always, in the flower of your life.
In advance of receiving the CFDA’s International Award, Burton chatted with Vogue about her fashion past, present, and future and revealed the making of one of her majestic rose dresses.
I’d like to start as close to the beginning as we can, without making this a 10-hour conversation!
You first took the helm of the brand in 2010, which was almost a decade ago. How did you feel at the time?
“Well, really, I was so lucky to work for Lee. I started to work with Lee in 1996, and I had this amazing time of my life. He was this incredible man, and I very much grew up with McQueen. I started when I was 21 and I continued there until he died. It was all-encompassing; it was this magical place focused on storytelling and creativity, and very, very personal and like a family.
The initial thing that I thought [when I assumed the creative director role] was that Lee was this storyteller and I was kind of good at finishing his sentences, but I realised I had to begin the sentences and it had to be about my stories. Lee always said to me, “You have to make things your own, you have to believe in it, and it has to be an emotional thing, what we do.” I think at the very beginning I was wondering, Okay, how do you make it yourself? So much time has passed since the years Lee was here, but he will always be such a huge part of who I am and such a huge part of me creatively, because I grew up with all of his beliefs and creativity. We were finding how to be true to what McQueen is—which I didn’t ever find a problem with because I was a part of Lee’s world—but, yet, make it our own. That was the challenge.
The collections had to, for me, remain very strong [around] creativity, empowerment of women, craft and technology, man and machine. It has evolved as time goes by, but it always stays true to that. What was amazing was that [Lee] was very clear, black and white, about what McQueen was. He always defined that. The breadth of the house is huge: there’s tailoring, couture dresses, there’s denim, there’s punk, there’s everything. You have a such a rich history to play with; that’s what is so incredible about McQueen, you have all of these worlds and you know who the woman is—it’s so clear who the woman is. Each season is about finding a way to tell her story in a different way or a different part of her story. The way that the team works together is very much like a creative community, and we have a big breadth of stories that we try to tell. I really feel quite lucky.”
Do you feel like your approach to designing each collection has grown or changed over the past 10 years?
“I think, yes, it has. About three years ago I started doing a lot of research trips. So much is done on computers now, and when you Google something, everybody gets the same image. I really, strongly believe that the great thing about McQueen is that [we believe] creativity comes from everywhere and inspiration comes from everywhere, so by going to, say, the Yorkshire mills, you would experience something that someone wouldn’t see from looking at a book and definitely not from looking at a computer. I think that [creativity] is very, very embedded in emotion and what an individual or my team gets from that experience of going somewhere and talking to people.
Also, in a way, my approach is changing because you grow up and you become very aware of what you want to say. It has changed in the way that we’re becoming more personal. The last collection was so personal for me. It’s always looking at the McQueen stories from [your own] point of view, and then the last collection was really being about going home and making it […] about my story within the McQueen world.”
How do you choose where to go on these research trips? In reading the four- or five-page show notes from the autumn/winter ‘19/’20 collection, which was borne from a trip to Yorkshire, I learned so much about England and mills and birds and roses—it’s better than a history book. Do you know these histories instinctively or are you also constantly researching different places in England?
“Well, I’ve always had a fascination with nature. Last time [for spring 2019] we went to Wiltshire, to the chalk horses; I used to go there as a child. Shetland, I’d never been before, but I knew Scotland was part of Lee’s heritage, so it made me want to go there [for the spring 2017 collection]. When we went to Manchester, I knew about the suffragettes, but I’d never been to their houses before and learned all about them. You know things before you go, but you learn so much more from being there.
What I love about doing a research trip is that when you go on these journeys, not only do you go on a physical journey, but you also kind of go on a journey with your team. I have a team from all over the world. They all focus on different things, and I learn as we go. It’s really very rich, from a personal point of view to do these research trips, and I find it like social history as well; maybe you see things that you wouldn’t have noticed if you didn’t go to that place.
When we went to the Yorkshire mills, there was a tub, a Coffee-Mate I think it was, and in it were all these heddles, which are the needles you use to weave on a loom. That became a dress. You see the unexpected things that trigger something in your imagination. When Lee was here he would pick something up from a book or a piece of rubbish on the street and it could become anything. That’s what’s so amazing about McQueen, is that ability to see something in everything.”
How do you filter what you see on these trips into the collection?
“It’s so organic. I took a picture of the coffee pot [with the heddles in it] and said to Alessandro, my embroidery designer who was next to me, “That’s a good sequin for a dress.” Then it became the dress. In my head I already knew what it was going to be. As the fabric was coming off the loom, I thought, Okay, that’s great, that can be the drape of the jacket. It’s quite immediate, actually. Alessandro saw some scraps on the floor and said, “We can make this into an embroidery on a coat.” So it is really very organised, the process. Then it’s the same back in the studio. It’s constantly evolving, [and] that’s what’s great.
We never say, “That’s it, it’s done, it’s finished.” Sometimes we design the collection before the holidays, and then we come back and feel like, “Oh, God, we want to change it all.” That’s also part of the beauty of the process, that you’re never finished. It’s very McQueen to never finish until it’s actually on the catwalk, which is sometimes a bit stressful! [laughs] There’s always work! But I really do like to express that. I learned with Lee that it’s constantly evolving and [that we are] constantly trying to improve it. It’s not about disregarding something or saying something doesn’t work. It’s about pushing yourself and your team to try different things.”
I think that is what makes your work so poignant; you can tell it’s about the process. It’s not just, “Let’s make a dress because we have to make a dress.”
“It’s exactly that, honestly … I think what I really like doing is allowing each garment to have a narrative of its own. It’s not just that we need to get a dress done, “it’s got to be knee-length” or “floor-length” or something like that. That’s why I’m so lucky that I’m allowed that creative process and that we have an amazing atelier here. You can create something, and, if you want, cut it up and turn it upside down. We’re very lucky to have that process here, to work in that way. And, like I said, sometimes you get there and it’s like, “Oh, that doesn’t work at all!” [laughs] or “That’s great!” or “Let’s save it for next season.” The process is as important as the clothing.”
It sounds delightfully fun, I have to say.
“It is fun!”
The rose dresses at the end of the autumn/winter ‘19/’20 show are all one piece of fabric that is molded together and then explodes outwards. What’s the story behind these?
“With the rose dresses, I remember as a child there was the rose queen in our village—I thought everyone had a rose queen. When I went up north, I learned it was to do with Yorkshire and Lancaster, the War of the Roses, and the [English] Church, so you learn something about your own history, combining memories and history. There was all this fabric in the studio and then there was the beautiful Egon Schiele painting that I remembered. I knew I wanted the rose to explode from her neck, and then it grew. Then it became a symbol of femininity, with the volume of the fabric molded onto the corset and then exploding out the top and bottom. And it also kind of nodded, to me, to Elizabeth I.
To make the last dress, we started off with this huge piece of red fabric. Then we stitched—I would say pin-tuck but it’s not pin-tucked because that’s too small, but we pleated and seamed about 50 seams along the width of the fabric. Then I left about two metres on each end, molded it on to a corset base, and then on the model, draped it around her neck so it created this sort of rough shape with her legs exposed. Really, what was so interesting about those dresses was that the fabric dictated what the dress did, but then it became almost pruned. I have an amazing patternmaker called Judy, so I started to create it, and then Judy almost grew these roses with me. It really took on a life of its own.
I like the fact that there’s a sense of a female empowerment, but also a vulnerability, femininity, and beauty. It’s not embellished or embroidered, and it’s actually quite light, so it was very much a lesson in fabric, working with the fabric to create the silhouette. I love that it felt very feminine but strong, but like I said they did sort of grow in the studio. Sometimes they got really big—[laughs]—and then we had to prune them back.”
We’ve talked a little bit about femininity, but what are some of the values you want to express through your collections and runway shows?
“Being at McQueen, it’s always been about empowering women, it’s always been about a woman who’s strong. It’s very much a woman who is strong for herself, I feel. I really believe that a woman shouldn’t just have to dress like a man to feel strong. That’s why I really love to play with tailoring mixed with a woman’s dress. On Vittoria [Ceretti] there was a jacket with an exploded rose at the hem. It has a masculine tailoring at the top and then a very feminine rose. I want to show how important it is to be a woman still. You don’t have to take away your emotions and your feelings—it’s okay to feel vulnerable and have imperfections. I think that idea of strength and femininity are really important. I always like to say that in a way it’s almost like soft armor for women, so that you feel empowered, but not overwhelmed.”
There is also a strong current of British heritage and craft in each collection; why is that important for you to include?
“I really believe in craft. You know, Lee started on Savile Row making incredible tailored jackets, and he has always been, even in the very end, a proponent of making things by hand. I feel very lucky I started working with Lee at a time where it was like, “Okay, you sew four jackets or three pairs of trousers.” It was done in a very atelier kind of way, with the embroidery done by hand by five people in the studio. I have such a huge appreciation for what people do with their hands, whether it be knitting in Scotland or embroidery or the mills of the North. I think it’s really something that’s been lost, especially in this country, and I think people don’t really know it exists or know how important the people in the sewing room are. There are so many people that make beautiful things. It really is something that needs to be celebrated more in many ways. I think the human hand is irreplaceable.
It’s about celebrating handcraft so it’s not lost, but also finding ways that it can work for today. It was interesting, when I went to Yorkshire and saw the looms. They have to thread every heddle by hand, then it goes through the whole machine, and then at the end it comes out and there is a woman who mends the imperfections of the machine. It’s this funny way of how man and machine can work together. It’s quite often we do these hand-crocheted samples in the studio of knits, but then it goes to Italy where they can make incredible knitting that looks like lace. I feel the same about drawing; drawing is so important. Our embroideries are all hand drawn first by somebody downstairs. To be able to still do that is amazing. All those hand-printed designs we did on the leather [for spring 2019], it’s really great to have people who can do that and to preserve those skills because it’s really important.
The other thing about craft is it brings people together, it brings communities together. People come together as a family. It’s a very healing thing to do as well. I think that’s how the studio works, as a community.”
Craft is also deeply embedded in English heritage. It seems to me that some of the factories you’ve visited have existed in England since the dawn of time.
“Yes, yes, completely that. It’s very much a part of who we are as a nation. We actually have a school in Shetland where we’ve sponsored hand knitting for children because we want to encourage the children to learn to knit from an early age, otherwise, one day, it will all be gone.”
How do you balance the creative and the craft with the bottom line of running a business?
“What’s so amazing at McQueen is that it always starts with creativity. I’ve always been aware of commercial, but it’s always about the show first. The show always comes first. But the most important thing is you want those clothes to be living and breathing because we work in a world where we want women to feel empowered. We want people to wear them and think, Oh, my God, I feel amazing in this. You don’t want them to be pieces that are put away somewhere; you want them to be alive.
I’ve always been fascinated in what sells. Where we’re very lucky at McQueen is that the more McQueen it is, the more it sells. I work with a merchandiser, Karen, who has been here for almost 18 years; she is great and we discuss that it is very important that a garment looks like McQueen. We don’t sell things that are basic or don’t have the silhouette, or the fabrication, or the beauty—those are the things that people want from McQueen. They want something that is special and beautiful that you can’t find anywhere else.
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The other thing that I feel that is really important as well is a kind of timelessness. Especially in a world where we have so much of everything, I think you have to make a jacket for somebody that is different from everything else, that makes them feel a certain way, and that they can keep forever. I have pieces of McQueen from years ago; I’ve got a jacket that I still wear now and still treasure that is still as relevant today as it was 15 years ago. I think that’s really important.”
What does it mean to you to receive the CFDA International Award?
“It’s a real honour. I feel very, very honoured. I was just thinking last night that I actually came with Lee when he got his [in 2003], so it’s really quite a thing for me to get one because I remember how pleased Lee was when he got his, and coming [to New York] and celebrating that. It’s really a very, very special thing.”
This article originally appeared on Vogue.com.