Successful story after her outstanding wedding dress for the Royal Wedding – Sarah Burton – Also see her newly made wedding dresses!
It is four years since Alexander McQueen – or “Lee”, as he was called – who in addition to being Burton’s boss was also her beloved friend and mentor, committed suicide. She was heartbroken – she finished the collection, assumed the role of head designer (which she never sought) and, soon after, in the glare of speculation, made the wedding dress of the decade, for the Duchess of Cambridge .
To do it all, to bear it, and still be nice, is to exhibit a set of capabilities that adds even more to an already first-rate talent. I didn’t know Sarah Burton, but we got together over several weeks for this story, at her studio, at restaurants, backstage at one of her shows and, finally, at her house in north London.
The first time I met her, I noticed how bitten her nails were, how self-doubting she was and how vulnerable. Yet over the weeks her strength emerged, as it does in her work: determined, sure-footed, risky, humorous and ready to open her soul in order to make contact with people. She hadn’t given an interview for almost two years before this one and even then had said very little, and she found herself speaking in a new way. A portrait emerged of a brilliant woman whose nature has been tested under severe conditions. There is depth to her niceness, and a niceness to her depth, which has not only quadrupled her company’s fortunes, but which promises a wealth of great work to come.
Burton grew up outside Manchester. Her father was an accountant and her mother was a music teacher. She has four siblings. When she described her childhood to me she spoke a lot about education, about her father feeling that knowledge was something “nobody can take away from you”. On weekends she and her brothers and sisters would be taken to places such as the Manchester Art Gallery , where she remembers doting on the Pre-Raphaelite paintings. When we talked about influences, she sometimes glanced over her own personal things, as if she might always be haunted by the things that once haunted Lee McQueen.
“I don’t have that darkness,” she said to me one morning as buses roared past her office on Clerkenwell Road. “I’m not haunted or sad. I don’t have that story in my youth.”
She grew up among the flora and fauna of the North – the windswept moors, the Pennine hills, the long green valleys – which finds its way relentlessly into the best of her designs. “I’ve always loved nature,” she says. “I grew up in the countryside, and when I was a child I loved to paint and draw – that was my first love, actually. Eventually I was drawing clothes, but at first it was flowers and vegetables. So often we were outside, playing.”
“What was play for you?” I asked.
“A lot of dressing up.”
“Were you the boss?”
“Yes, always,” Burton said, laughing. “My poor younger sister, she’d get the not-so-good outfits. Fashion wasn’t something in the psyche. I learnt very early on you had to go with your heart and it doesn’t matter what people say. My job is quite fearful – I don’t shout the loudest, and I’m quite shy, which was why I was reluctant to throw myself into the public eye. I love beauty, craftsmanship, storytelling and romance, and I probably don’t have the armour to survive the relentless competition that exists in this particular world. But I have my own toughness.”
She is fiercely loyal to Lee McQueen, a fact which brought her, several times during our interviews, past the brink of tears. “Sometimes he’d call me at three o’clock in the morning just to talk, and we had this relationship where… I would do anything for him. And then when he died I didn’t want the job, but then everybody was going to leave and I thought, ‘Well, what else are you going to do?’ Lee is Marilyn Monroe. He’s James Dean. And, to be honest, it’s taken me a while to stop being afraid and see that the company needs me to be at my best.”
“Did you feel angry at him?”
“Because he left you. Because he destroyed himself. Because you had to finish the collection. Because you had to take over. And maybe nobody gave you permission to be angry?”
“I’m not sure,” she said. “But the hardest thing is that I never really understood the pressure he was under. He could deal with all the difficult characters just by telling them to shut up. But I’m not like that. Only now am I beginning to accept the differences between us, and it’s fine. He was a painter who worked in massive brush strokes and I’m a person with tiny brush strokes.”
It’s worth remembering the motto at Withington Girls’ School, where Burton was a happy pupil in the 1980s: “ad lucem” – towards the light. That is the general direction of her life and her talent. Her husband, David Burton , is also her best friend, and they have twin girls. If you’re available for optimism, as she is, then the movement towards the light will come naturally.
In her autumn/winter show for Alexander McQueen , Burton set all this to life. A strange, misty moorland – not unconnected to the landscape of her childhood – was the setting for the combination of beautiful tailoring and wild imaginings that characterise the house. There was a sense of romanticism-in-crisis, of the Brontë sisters, of Heathcliff haunted by the cold hand of death scratching at his window, of owls, dreams and the poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whom Burton cites. The dresses came with capes, fur hoods, bell sleeves and delicate, small embroidery, frilled and frayed hemlines. Burton brings to the McQueen brand an English tendency towards dark pleasure as opposed to dark pain. She is a prettier designer than many, but always alert to the mysteriously perverse.
Not everyone has obvious demons. With Lee it was skulls, shipwrecks, hospital inmates and birds of prey. But Burton’s instinct might be more subtle. Her instinct might be to see the fly in the ointment, the crack in the teacup, the little details that make the ordinary strange.
“When I went to Saint Martins [art school] “a lot of the people there were these flamboyant characters. I thought, ‘God, I’m not like them.’ I thought, ‘What’s going on? I’m really normal.’ But my own demon is the fear of failure. My obsessional addiction is work and there’s a possible twistedness in always putting myself last, you know?”
“Were you never really interested in being a star designer?”
“Honestly, no. There have been times when, if I could have disappeared from this industry, I would have. I had to battle with it. I don’t look like a fashion person, I’m not cool, and I always just loved people who are good at what they do.”
Someone who works with Burton told me about the pressure she came under to accept the job at McQueen. She was approached for the creative directorship of another big fashion house at the same time and this person told her she’d regret not accepting the offer. “You’ll always be haunted at McQueen,” she said. After Lee’s suicide, the co-worker remembers Burton burning a candle in Lee’s room and leaving off the lights: “There was just this candle. Sarah had this giant decision to make. And we were all relieved when she took the job. We always knew she had a whole vision of her own that helped Lee’s vision but was peculiar to her.”
Burton told me she was relieved to be able to talk again about the basics of design and inspiration. She felt she’d been tossed around in a sea of media obsessions – the hunger for news about her relationship with the royalsstill persists, and a few days before we first met, the media camped on her doorstep again, convinced she had designed Kim Kardashian’s wedding dress, which she hadn’t. With me she became more relaxed, saying it was nice to be back on dry land, talking about ideas, trying to define her way of doing things in a job she loves.
“What have clothes to do with emotion?” I asked.
“Oh, everything,” she said. “They can describe a moment in your life or a feeling that is completely instilled in you. Feeling the texture of the material and seeing how it moves on the body, well, that is emotion – it’s emotion-in-motion. It might interest you to know that the clothes that sell best in our shops are the most extreme stuff – people want to express something about themselves and they find an enabler in us, and that’s emotional.”
One of the reasons Burton has shied away from the media is because certain quarters of it have pursued her. Her biggest project to date,making the Royal wedding dress in 2011 , meant the press stalked her for months, and the stress of trying to keep the secret and trying to deal with bogus stories came fast on the heels of Lee’s death. When I first brought the dress up with Burton, she wanted to wave the subject away. But during our second meeting she appeared resolved to put the matter to rest.
“I know we live in a culture obsessed with fame,” she said, “but I happen to believe privacy is a virtue, and the relationship I have with my clients is private. Some people like to think I’ve been too shy or that I’m afraid to speak up about the happy experience I had creating the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress, but I can tell you that is nonsense. I have never been a shrinking violet or a person who is ruled by fear. I loved making the dress, I loved adapting my ideas to suit the person and the occasion, and we put our hearts into it. I respect the intimate nature of that lovely project and I respect the friendships that were forged during it.”
When I popped backstage to see her after her recent menswear show in London, there was a queue of international glamour types lining up to praise what she’d done. It was quite a show – long, lean coats with flashes of red lining, made in Prince of Wales check or hound’s-tooth, with abstract kabuki patterns lifting them out of England – but she waved off the praise, then smiled broadly when the elderly mother of the show’s hairstylist came up.
Everybody who knows Burton admires her, and many of them have waited patiently for her to speak out without being hesitant, to embrace the success she’s having, and to let the light of Alexander McQueen shine equally on the past and the present. She now has her own legacy to think about.
“We’re in the enchantment business,” she said. “Fashion will never stagnate so long as there are teams of people willing to tackle the soul of the culture. That’s what we do here at McQueen, that’s what we’ve always done.”
Follow Stella Magazine on Twitter and Facebook
For more stories go to telegraph.co.uk/stella
© The New York Times 2014