Eight years after Lee Alexander McQueen’s untimely death, designer Sarah Burton continues to move his beautiful legacy forward into the light.
By MAX BERLINGER
Photography CHLOÉ LE DREZEN
When Lee Alexander McQueen took his own life in 2010, the fashion community not only mourned the loss of a complex and deeply brilliant man, they mourned the loss of a singular talent. During the course of his too-short career, McQueen channeled his turbulent moods and rebellious spirit into clothing that was shockingly modern, darkly intelligent, and stunningly beautiful. He made incredible clothing, yes, but he also made fashion that reflected the strangeness of the world, and pointed toward a new future.
When it was announced that then-unheard-of Sarah Burton, McQueen’s longtime colleague and head of womenswear at his brand since 2010, would take over the house as creative director, some had to ask: Who? It was risky to appoint a relative unknown to head up a brand that traded on runway revolutions, but also one that made sense. In her former position, Burton was intimately acquainted to McQueen’s creative process for many years and was, in many ways, the one tasked to transform his dramatic impulses into wearable works of art.
In the time since she’s taken over, the McQueen brand has flourished — she was responsible for Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress — and no place is that more clear than in the brand’s invigorated, exciting menswear offering.
The Alexander McQueen brand, of course, is quintessentially British at its core, and Burton honors that and mines the rich history of things like Savile Row and punk, but is never too deferential or self-serious. Slim suits with cinched waists and flared pants in traditional men’s patterns — windowpane checks, businessman pinstripes, argyle schoolboy sweater vests — have an undeniable McQueen swagger. Overblown paisleys and grandma florals are proof that the renegade spirit is still alive, and a cheeky one at that.
“I think what’s amazing about McQueen and what was amazing about Lee was that he created this process where it was never really about fashion,” Burton said. ‘It was always about a feeling and telling a story. And I think he sort of trained us all— trained me—to try to tell a story and to find a world that doesn’t necessarily relate to what everybody else is doing and to believe in your own instincts. And that went for everything. Lee really did believe in creating things that were unique to him and very special to the house. A lot of the prints and embroideries and jacquards are specifically designed not just for the collection, but for each garment.”
That feeling of specialness has moved from the women’s offerings — which is the heart of the brand — and transcended to mens in recent years. Burton mixes classic menswear with more forward-thinking fare with references as diverse as the tailors of Savile Row to the styles favored by the kids of Ireland. It’s a sensual journey of the elegant modernism of the British male where the classic British wardrobe is subverted and the codes of tailoring are renewed featuring romantic hand-painted English roses inspired by folkloric florals and a magnified monochrome paisley jacquard. Together, it has that aching beauty and sense of wistfulness that McQueen is known for.
It’s eight years later and Burton has more than proven she’s up for the task of taking McQueen’s brand and moving it into the future, deftly blending traditional menswear with more eccentric styles, creating a full wardrobe for the modern man, no matter how he dresses. And while she’s already done so much, it sounds like Burton has much, much more planned. “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.”
Taking over for one designer and making a name for yourself under his name makes one thing of legacies, remembrance, and heritage — how could you not. It’s something that has weighed heavily on Burton’s mind. “Lee was very much his own person so it's impossible to know quite what he would have thought but part of the reason for me staying is that I believe he always wanted this to be a house that would be here forever, that he never wanted his name not to mean anything any more,” she said. “And I want that too. I want Alexander McQueen to continue. Then, in a hundred years time, there will still be this house that he created, this great place that represents modernity and creativity and beauty and romance and all of those things. That, I think, would be amazing."