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Sarah Burton, the Woman Behind McQueen

Sarah Burton gives her first interview since being named creative director of the London fashion house Alexander McQueen.

LONDON — Having spent her entire 14-year fashion career at the elbow of Lee Alexander McQueen, is it any wonder Sarah Burton could finish the man’s sentences?

This story first appeared in the September 28, 2010 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Now, as successor to the late fashion designer, Burton will have to start them as well.

In her first interview since being named creative director of the London fashion house last May, this bright and earnest woman gives the impression of someone with plenty of her own stories to tell. Describing herself as a sunnier sort than McQueen — whose demons were plain in the sometimes macabre nature of his work —Burton, 35, is likely to let her imprint be felt from her first women’s show on Oct. 5, one of the most anticipated debuts of Paris Fashion Week.

“I don’t think it has to have as much angst in it. I think it will become softer,” she mused, seated at a broad white desk at McQueen’s headquarters here, which boasts a snarling, upright polar bear lording over the lobby. “There will always be this McQueen spirit and essence. But, of course, I’m a woman so maybe more from a woman’s point of view.

“There’s always got to be some darkness, because otherwise you don’t appreciate what’s light,” she continued. “I’ve had a training in darkness, but I don’t feel that it’s necessarily a personal thing to me. I’m a bit lighter.”

Burton peppers her conversation with maybes when discussing the future of McQueen, not from lack of conviction, but out of deep loyalty to the founder and his custom of taking a freewheeling approach to creation that she found endlessly invigorating. She said the starting point for a McQueen collection could be some beach mats, a matchstick figurine, a pile of shells or a study of his family tree.

“His ideas came from everywhere. It was never about, ‘Oh let’s look at the Seventies.’…Lee was about feeling, and he was a storyteller. It has to come from within you,” she said.

Burton said she intends to keep building on the watchwords of the brand he began showing on the runway in 1992, selling a majority stake to Gucci Group in 2000. She rattles off the McQueen codes with ease. “Definitely tailoring, incredible dresses, embroideries, prints — and the sexiness,” she said. “A lot of designers are afraid of sex. Lee was not. It’s about a piece of clothing you put on and you know you’re wearing McQueen.”

Another McQueen hallmark has been the theatrical, megabudget shows that brought the designer’s vision to life, be it ravishing or terrifying. Robots, holograms, skating rinks, rings of fire: They’ve all been spellbinding elements of his productions.

But his successor doesn’t plan to go there. “That was very much Lee’s territory — the spectacular show,” said Burton, dressed in a creamy silk blouse with epaulets, and low-slung black pants caught with a studded belt. “In that way, I can’t try and pretend to be Lee.”

Yet Burton certainly shares his passion for handcrafted details, leading a tour of the design studios with its floor-to-ceiling windows and proudly showing off fabric boards heaving with rich textures, colors and patterns: from antique-look lace and golden straw to swatches of intricate prints.

Here and there on Stockmans are sculpted jackets in progress, realized first in paper, Burton explained, to be able to work out how complex patterns and jutting shapes can be married harmoniously. Some paper dresses are done in miniature, which Burton affectionately refers to as dollies.

“Lee worked in three dimensions, so you had to have that ability. Lee taught me design,” she explained excitedly. “Lee would take a piece of fabric, draw a trouser pattern, cut it out, match it up, and it would be a pair of trousers.”

In Burton’s estimation, McQueen left behind not only a rich archive, but also a gifted team of technicians, pattern-makers and embroiderers who were devoted to realizing his fashion vision, however painstaking. “The thing I learnt very early on with Lee is that nothing was ever impossible,” she said. “We push boundaries so much.”

Asked to recount some feats McQueen placed before them, Burton didn’t know where to begin. She mentioned a fully embroidered, engineered dress composed of 70 pieces that had to fit perfectly; an electric-powered “robot” dress that was switched on just as a technician warned that the model must not sweat or risk short circuiting, or one dress made of fabric used to strain particles out of water that was so fine, “sewing it was almost impossible,” she said, emphasizing the word almost.

Born in Cheshire in the north of England, one of five children of an accountant father and a music teacher mother, Burton was fascinated with clothes from an early age, despite what she describes as a “fairly traditional background” and her attendance at a “rather academic” school. “I always drew dresses,” she said between sips of coffee. “I remember loving Richard Avedon’s early Versace campaigns. I used to plaster my whole walls with them when I was a kid.”

Her interest led her to enroll in the renowned London fashion school Central Saint Martins, where she specialized in print design and was recommended by a tutor to get some work experience at McQueen before graduation. It was 1996, and McQueen was an explosive talent on the London scene, on the cusp of being recruited by French luxury giant LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton to become the new couturier at Givenchy. “I went and this was when Hoxton felt like the middle of nowhere,” Burton recalled of the East End London neighborhood where McQueen was based in the basement of a nondescript building. “It was a very small team.”

Indeed, “Lee did absolutely everything: cut the patterns, chose the fabrics.…I remember him teaching me how to put a zipper in,” she recalled. “You had to know exactly how a pattern was cut, exactly how a print was laid out, or else you could never go forward.”

Landing the Givenchy contract was a godsend for McQueen’s makeshift, cash-strapped company. With a laugh, Burton recalled that “the first thing that happened was that we could actually get central heating, and chairs that reached the table,” describing a comically high pattern-cutting table that reached their chins when seated. “I would have to hand in my college projects, but then I would be flying to Japan to do the licensing that week with the handbags and handkerchiefs,” she recalled.

McQueen hired Burton straight out of school in 1997, and her design responsibilities grew organically, ultimately extending to men’s wear, accessories, footwear and other categories. “It was like a family,” she recalled, a smile spreading over her face. “It was just so inspiring. There was a real lack of hierarchy here, which I loved about Lee.… You had the freedom to be creative. To me, it’s about a team.”

Considering herself shy, Burton said she was content working in the shadows as design director of women’s wear. When McQueen took his own life last February, she initially resisted the idea of succeeding the founder, but was won over by the prospect of honoring and building on his legacy.

She excitedly describes “massive” opportunities in handbags and shoes, and for the entire McQ second line, produced by the Italian company SINV SpA since 2006. “When you look at all of Lee’s early collections, there’s so much: the torn denim, bumsters, lacquered lace, the tire prints,” she said, calling all those elements “raw, very London and very McQueen.”

That said, Burton plans to reinforce the positioning of the main line as “the jewel in the crown, and it has to remain beautiful and precious.” She cited strong demand for couture pieces, including special designs done for private clients.

A self-described workaholic, Burton said she considers McQueen her hobby, though in spare moments she loves to take in art exhibitions, particularly photography, and read. “That makes one switch off,” she noted. Recently, Burton also took up needlepoint to busy her hands while watching television.

Asked about her personal style, Burton said she has a soft spot for McQueen dresses — “I’ve got rooms full,” she demurred — but dresses more casually in the studio, “as I’m likely cutting hems and scrabbling on the floor,” she said with a laugh. “It’s in my blood, this place. I absolutely love it. You really have to live McQueen “

Burton lamented that McQueen was often stereotyped for making fantastical runway designs and not wearable clothes, an injustice she hopes to correct. She noted there were always commercial collections inspired by the runway and full of character. Making the wearer feel “beautiful and empowered” is a hallmark of a McQueen design, Burton noted. “It has to make you feel something,” she said. “What saddens me in a way is that Lee had these incredible shows, but always under that there were amazing pieces you could wear, but somehow nobody every believed it was wearable. There’s this myth that it’s an unwearable house, but that’s not true.”

She likened her commitment to the late designer to a marriage, even though she is married, to photographer David Burton.

“He was such a lovely man, and his mind never switched off.… He was so important to me. You just wanted to make him happy, look after him,” Burton said. “Although I felt that I protected him, now I feel that he protected me.”