Anna Wintour is a) the editor-in-chief of American Vogue and b) according to Forbes, the 51st most powerful woman in the world. Or, if you are in the fashion business, she is c) God. So when Wintour asked Sarah Burton if she was designing Kate Middleton’s wedding dress, the planet paused in its orbit. Burton was designing the dress, but she was also sworn to secrecy. What could she possibly say?
"I am", replied Burton, "not designing the dress."
The story came out last year to the sound of a worldwide fashion shriek. Burton had lied to Wintour and was still in the business/alive! Wintour, it is said, later remarked that if Burton ever needed a new career, she should take up acting.
Her sang-froid under fire was all the more remarkable for the fact that, only a year or so earlier, Burton was scarcely known even to the most scholarly scanners of the fashion glossies. She was the ultimate backroom girl at the London atelier of Alexander McQueen, the quiet sensible big sister to a wayward punk couturier. Though she had worked with McQueen—Lee to his friends—full-time since 1997 and had been his head of womenswear since 2000, there were still people who knew the company who didn’t know her at all.
Lee McQueen killed himself in February 2010, aged 40. Three months later Gucci, the parent company, named Burton as the new creative director of the label that bore his name. She has now completed three years in the job; it is almost exactly two years since the world saw the Middleton wedding gown.
The minute she was bequeathed the label, Burton was A-list. After the royal wedding, she became A+. Such was the success of the dress that she was approached by Dior, offering her the job forcibly vacated by John Galliano after his drunken, anti-Semitic outbursts. She had become fashion royalty.
Burton herself seldom comments on this or any other matter. She gives few interviews, and the ones she does give are unrevealing. In an industry that feeds on exposure, she is an enigma wrapped in…if not mystery, then certainly modesty. This is all the more peculiar because she succeeds one of the most flamboyant designers the fashion world has seen. Lee McQueen’s shows were more like installations or theatrical performances.
Burton has changed this tradition, but also, in essence, continued it. "She understands Lee’s vocabulary deeply," says Inacio Ribeiro of the fashion house Clements Ribeiro. "And she is very accomplished in an artistic and technical way. She is essentially working in his universe, but she has an intrinsic detachment which makes her able to use his vocabulary in a very refined and sophisticated way…she can appropriate his ideas and, at the same time, inject her own sensibility."
What, then, is Burton all about? Is she McQueen Lite, or her own woman? Those who know her speak of a sense of humour and a gentleness combined with a quiet steel. She is also, plainly, a domestic creature. Few leading designers would have cancelled an appearance at fashion week because they were pregnant. But that is what Burton just did—she didn’t take a bow at her AW2013 show in Paris in January because, after some years of trying with her husband, the fashion photographer David Burton, she was expecting twins.
Her domesticity extends, according to the fashion writer David Vincent, to popping down the shops, and feeds back into her work. "She loves buying clothes, she loves shopping. And she is much more interested in fashion than McQueen ever was. It’s almost an obsession. She knows everything about the industry, she’s out there at weekends looking in shop windows. I don’t think you could ever say Lee did that."
The details of Burton’s life are unremarkable. Born Sarah Heard in Cheshire in 1974, she moved through Withington Girl’s School to Manchester Polytechnic and from there to study print fashion at Central St Martin’s in London, where, in her third year, she was offered a year’s internship with McQueen. So an ordinary, if gifted, girl found herself with the extraordinary and gifted McQueen.
His personality defined the company’s aesthetic. "What made Lee singular as a designer," says Andrew Bolton, the curator of a record-breaking exhibition of McQueen’s work at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 2011, "was that all his collections were intended to evoke some visceral reaction in the viewer. His work always touched on the sublime and was extremely oppositional—there was heaven, and hell. He wanted to be the Edgar Allen Poe of fashion."
All of which made the Burton succession the more improbable. First there are the differences in temperament—a character further from McQueen’s is hard to imagine. "Sarah is very private and gentle, very soft and funny," Bolton says. "She’s a highly intelligent woman, well-read, and there’s always something light-hearted about her…Most of the time we’re together we are laughing."
There also seems to be a deeper conceptual divide. "She always said," David Vincent points out, "that Lee McQueen was an artist who used fashion as his medium, while she was a fashion designer, not an artist." But it is sentimental to think that art and business are mutually exclusive. McQueen was savvy in his own way, notably by his underpinning of his catwalk shockers with formidable couture virtuosity. Burton may be more conventional in that she knows and respects the marketplace, but she also has her own vision and taste. And she shares—or has inherited—McQueen’s technical skill: "There’s almost a fetishism about her obsession with the techniques of haute couture," Bolton says.
Timing, too, has played its part. Both McQueen and his contemporary Galliano made their names with flamboyantly theatrical shows with bold themes and strong narratives. These were not just about showing clothes, they were stand-alone, one-off artworks. But when the financial crash came there was a feeling that they were out of tune.
"Fashion has changed," says the fashion writer and curator Bronwyn Cosgrave. "It’s become really toned down. Most shows are now just about presenting the clothes." So the handover to Burton, brutal though the circumstances were, had a certain timeliness. Her sensibility is softer and less sensational; her touch soothes rather than enervates.
"McQueen," says Andrew Bolton, "has become much more refined under Sarah’s hand. She has continued the themes of Lee’s work but they are much softer. What’s different is that McQueen was very autobiographical, he was a confessional poet in a way. Sarah is very different, very private. The bees show [for SS2013] was a celebration of sex and birth and nature, a constant theme in McQueen’s work. That’s something Burton revisits in most collections. She is not punk or dark in the way that he was, she’s romantic in a softer way."
The label, all agree, is safe in her hands and will remain so as long as Gucci and PPR, the French parent company, acquiesce. Aesthetically, the test for the future will be whether Burton can continue to keep the McQueen flame lit while developing her own sensibility within the clothes—to stay the same by changing. The deft way she has so far pulled this off is impressive. But what happens as the years pass and the memory of Lee fades?
Fashion is a fun and foolish business. Extravagant and absurd, it feels like the most expendable of all the products of affluence. And, most of the time, it is. But look closely at McQueen’s and now Burton’s clothes. There really is something going on here, some genius that transforms ordinary matter into something higher and finer. These are not mere "luxury goods", they are distillations of contemporary sensibilities.
No wonder Sarah Burton lied to Anna Wintour with such actorly accomplishment. The real power—that of art—lay with her.