Sarah Burton on Alexander McQueen and Designing Kate Middleton's Wedding Dress

07 March 2012 by

Sarah Burton Alexander McQueen Autumn Winter 2012 Paris show.jpg

When a superstar actress with a genuine passion for fashion interviews one of the most talked about designers of the moment, there are going to be fireworks! Yep, Sarah Jessica Parker has turned journo (move over, Carrie) to interview Sarah Burton, Creative Director of Alexander McQueen, for the latest issue of Interview magazine (y'know, the one with Katy Perry on the cover).

The fashion industry has kept a pretty close eye on Burton in the two years since she took over the label from Lee McQueen after his tragic death in 2010 - and she has not dissapointed. First, she completed his unfinished Autumn Winter 2010 collection, then she designed the most talked about wedding dress in the world for the Duchess of Cambridge, before helping co-ordinate the “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” retrospective, which was one of the most-visited exhibitions in 142 years at the gallery. Oh, and in between she's knocked out two incredible collections for the brand - we were wowed by the Autumn Winter extravaganza last night - as well as making a triumphant return to London Fashion Week with a mesmerising McQ collection.

The interview is a real treat to read, as it is obvious that both SJP and Sarah have a real respect and admiration for the brand as well as the man behind it. We've brought you the highlights below...

SJP:  Where are you in the process of designing your next collection?

Sarah Burton:  I’ve literally just started on the next show today. We’re trying to find the right feeling and the right spirit for what to do, which is fun but also a bit daunting.

SJP: For those of us who aren’t privy to these things, what is the process like?

Sarah Burton:It’s very organic. I sit with my team and we throw ideas around. I speak with Camilla Nickerson, the stylist I work with, and together we come up with who next season’s woman is and where she exists. Then we all just look at fabrics and prints and colour.

Alexander McQueen Autumn Winter 2012 Paris show.jpg

Alexander McQueen's Autumn Winter 2012 show

SJP: One of the things that we’ve talked about in the past is that what distinguishes the McQueen line is that you develop your own prints, and not every designer has that opportunity. That’s something that was really important to Lee.

Sarah Burton: Yeah, exactly. 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. 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.

SJP: Who is the McQueen woman and where does she exist?

Sarah Burton: She is a strong woman and she is a powerful woman, and when she puts a McQueen jacket on, she feels different. the way she stands is different. The way she moves is different. It’s almost like the clothes are slightly empowering. There’s this emotion that goes into the clothes. and I try to keep it as true to . . . you know, Lee was such a genius that I can never pretend to be him, but I am very aware that I’m designing for a house that he created, and I try to keep it as true to that as possible.

SJP: You were here for a long time, and so you can feel some confidence. I would guess that he would say, “Sarah, trust your instincts.”

Sarah Burton: He would. Lee taught me that if you don’t believe in it, then you shouldn’t do it because you can’t stand behind it. He was brilliant because he would always say, “Things don’t stand still. It has to go forward,” or “Oh, don’t bring that old jacket out again. That’s been made before.” So I’m very conscious. I’ve got to move it because otherwise it stays still and it becomes stagnant.

SJP: One of the stories that really stands out as a perfect example of what it was like when you first came to work for him is when he left you with a dress that was barely completed. He just said, “I’ll be back tomorrow,” and you were meant to finish it and you called your mother. Do you mind telling that story?

Sarah Burton: I remember he pinned it on the stand, and it looked amazing. He had sort of half sewn it and he said, “Oh, I’m going out now. You can finish that.” and I remember thinking, I can’t possibly do that! I called my mum immediately. I was like, “Oh my god, well, how am I gonna finish this?” and she said, “Just get on with it.” What was so amazing about him is that he made you think that anything is possible. He made you challenge yourself all the time, which is why I loved working for him. Nothing was ever impossible. And that was amazing to be around. Completely inspiring.

SJP: Now that you’re in charge of the company, do you get to do the things that you used to do? Do you get to sit in front of a sewing machine? How different is it to run the whole business? That kind of responsibility can take you away from the creative side.

Sarah Burton: If I’m honest, I had no idea of the size of the job. I had no idea of the other sorts of pressures that he must have faced. The great thing that Lee established is the ready-to-wear. It’s about the clothes. It’s not necessarily a bag- or shoe-driven company, it’s about this woman . . . In a funny way, I haven’t really stopped doing my old job.

Sarah Jessica Parker McQueen purple dress.jpg

Sarah Jessica Parker wearing McQueen to the CFDAs

SJP: Do you want to talk a little bit about the Met exhibition and the process of putting that together?

Sarah Burton: It was so raw in everybody’s minds. When we looked at the pieces, there was such sorrow. But it was also an amazing celebration of what Lee had done. It was really hard to pick the pieces that told the story of Lee because there were so many incredible ones.

SJP: With limited space, you can’t put everything in. Were there any disagreements about which pieces to include?

Sarah Burton: There was real agreement. Andrew (Andrew Bolton at the Met) did a selection from the archive, and then we would say, “Well, which piece was really important to Lee?” and maybe I said, “oh, Lee didn’t really like that piece.” Andrew did an amazing selection, and each of the rooms took you into another world. I mean, nobody knows what Lee wanted because Lee was so much his own person, but you sort of knew what he loved and what he did feel strongly for. I think that the rooms told a story but each of the garments had their own story and their own character and you could remember how they were made. Sometimes looking at them again, you couldn’t believe the pieces, and it was, like, “Oh my god, that’s amazing.” The number of people from different walks of life that I’ve talked to who went to see and who were really inspired by it. It was phenomenal.

Kate Middleton in Wedding Dress Designed by Sarah Burton mcqueen

Kate Middleton in her McQueen wedding dress

SJP: If I have the time-line correct, while you were preparing for the show, you also had a perfectly kept secret about a certain royal wedding dress that had to be made. What was that period like for you and the handful of people who knew and were working on Kate Middleton’s dress?

Sarah Burton: Um, I mean . . . I’m not actually allowed to talk much about it at all. It was a precious, magical time that I’ll always treasure, and I feel like she gave me a gift in many ways. I feel incredibly privileged.

SJP: I want to talk a little bit about the Spring 2012 collection. What was the inspiration? I think you’ve said “extreme beauty,” but what does that mean? Where did that come from?

Sarah Burton: I think there is a romance to it, but it is slightly hard and more fetishistic. I think that we wanted to do something that was really about hyper-femininity. It was a difficult show as well, because the third show is always a tricky show. I had a sense that I wanted to make it very couture, very worked. Really about the way a woman is sort of an object of desire, but she’s an object of desire for herself, and the way that we adorn ourselves. The idea of heightened embellishment. And so we looked at all kinds of goddesses, and we kind of went to the sea and looked at the inside of shells and at colors that maybe could’ve been a little bit sickly. We used pinks and corals, and almost took it to an extreme of femininity, really.

SJP: Is expanding the contemporary McQ label part of the discussion with your team? (read more about the latest McQ collection here)

Sarah Burton: Definitely. Because I feel that it’s very clear who the McQueen woman is, and I really feel that McQ has to have its own story to tell and its own woman. there’s no need to do a second line that is a poor-man’s version of the main line. It has to be different because there’s nothing worse than seeing a one-button jacket in a cheap fabric that’s an imitation of the main line. The pieces have got to be special in their own right. There is more of an ease to McQ. there is a world that is similar to the McQueen spirit and essence, but the pieces are not necessarily for a customer who buys the main line.

SJP: And how do you feel if somebody says, “It’s more feminine now that Sarah’s there.” Is that a fair characterization? Is it just something that happens because you’re a woman?

Sarah Burton: You are obviously conscious that it has to be McQueen, but like you said, I am a woman. And there’s always been romance in McQueen and I think people sort of miss that it wasn’t wearable before, but there have always been great pieces to buy.

SJP: I found his collections incredibly feminine, incredibly sexy, and I wonder if it wasn’t just that people just didn’t notice those qualities as much because he was a man, and with a woman designing them now, they seem more feminine. But I always thought he was very feminine and sentimental, in some ways. I always thought, “This is somebody who loves women.” When I put on a jacket and it fit so perfectly—

Sarah Burton: Completely. I do think that Lee was incredibly romantic. There was always a quasi-Victorian way and a sort of dark romance, wasn’t there? You know, a love of the cycle of life—death, birth, love, marriage, all that. Lee was such a romantic in so many ways. I do think that Lee always surrounded himself with very strong women. How he cut for a woman, made for a woman, accentuated all of a woman’s shape—it was about the extreme accentuation of a woman’s shape. It’s always about strong women here.

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