To be a trailblazer is a double-edged sword in fashion – a creative industry that demands innovation and change but that is tied, paradoxically, to its own commercial proviso.
Luxury fashion has surpassed its 20th Century mandate of selling exclusive quality to the rich and famous. It’s now a multi-billion-dollar concern reaching the four corners of the globe, myriad avenues of the internet, and the minds and hearts of anyone who knows their Balenciaga from their Bottega Veneta.
And originality has had to segue ground to concepts like brand identity, marquee value and customer retention.
So, when innovation does happen, and when it sticks around to prove itself more than just a passing trend, it’s worth paying attention to.
In the early 21st Century, Lee Alexander McQueen stood as a beacon for the kind of revolutionary ideas that moved (arguably dragged) the business of fashion forward.
McQueen was never just about materials or messages. In his heyday, clothes design was essentially an architectural awakening of his own darkest thoughts – dream fragments, anxiety, sexuality, religion – all spilling out in razor-sharp rock ‘n’ roll creations that wowed the critics and public alike.
But how would his legacy continue after his departure?
Burton proved herself more than just a safe choice. More than a safety buffer between the tumultous past and the brand’s vision for the future.
In 2011, a year after McQueen’s tragic suicide, the job of trying to answer that question fell to his prior assistant and brand ambassador Sarah Burton who, no matter how well she revisited and restructured the template, was never going to be the legend.
Instead, she’s continued to be herself.
It has helped that Catherine Princess of Wales chose an Alexander McQueen dress, designed by Burton, for her wedding to Prince William in 2011. She has since worn McQueen on innumerable occasions, including King Charles’ Coronation, and other high-profile events this summer.
The slimmer, single-color presence that Catherine often radiates is symbolic of the way Burton has interpreted the house style – stripping back some of the confrontational pomp for sleek, proto-punk femininity.
For Pre-Fall 2023, Burton continued to listen to her core patrons, translating McQueen’s austere and fantasy creations into something that gives them a bold female identity and a singular voice.
Burton announced that her tenure at the McQueen will come to an end following the label’s Paris Fashion Week show this September.
The reasons for her departure are not completely clear. 20 years at a label is a very long time in fashion and holding company Kering is undergoing a broader reshuffle, with the departure of Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele last year seen as a move to restrengthen that marquee brand.
McQueen remains a fashionable anomaly – harder, darker, smarter than other British concerns. But its aesthetic singularity has been embraced by other major labels including Gucci’s own idiosyncratic anti-fashion silhouettes.
Likewise, the increased intergration of non-comformist styles and the wider appeal of luxury mean that McQueen’s edgy exlusivism is more ubiquirously achieved by other brands under the Kering or LVMH banner.
Burton’s legacy will be that she consolidated and advanced the brand’s reputation through the 20th Century. but it’s McQueen himself that Kering will look to channel in their next hire – a rock star (literal or otherwise) who will push beyond the limits that felled the eponymous designer. Burton never fell. That was her strength but also her weakness.