"His ideas came from everywhere. It was never about, ‘Oh let's look at the Seventies,'" says Sarah Burton. (Why, whoever could she mean?) "Lee was about feeling, and he was a storyteller. It has to come from within you."
Burton has perhaps one of the least enviable jobs in fashion right now. She was appointed to succeed her boss, Lee Alexander McQueen, by Gucci, which owns the brand he founded. Young designers who take over storied houses are under fairly extraordinary pressure even in ordinary circumstances, but thanks to the tragic circumstances of McQueen's death in February, these are not ordinary circumstances. While widely — and deservedly — renowned for his astonishing facility with color, cut and above all concept when he was alive, since his suicide, her late boss has been commonly elevated to "genius" status:
"McQueen was the great genius of his generation in British fashion," wrote the Guardian. "He was a genius," said designer Katharine Hamnett. "His genius with clothes catapulted him out of a grim East London estate," wrote the Telegraph. "About 1,000 people, some in homage plumes, nearly all in raven black, gathered here on Monday under the soaring dome of St. Paul's Cathedral to celebrate the life of the renegade designer Alexander McQueen, whose genius remained resiliently set against the minor and the conventional," wrote New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn. "He was a modern genius," said British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman. Stella McCartney: "Lee was a fashion genius. I don't say that lightly." Giorgio Armani: "The world has lost a very talented young man whom I have always respected for his outstanding genius." Suzy Menkes: "I had no doubt — and nor did he — that he was an artist who just happened to work with clothing." François-Henri Pinault: "His genius, sometimes provocative, admired and saluted by all, constantly opened new perspectives."
Rest assured, then, that countless eyes are on Burton, to see what new perspectives she will open up when, this week in Paris, she presents her first fashion show entirely without Lee Alexander McQueen.
Burton tells Women's Wear Daily:
"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."
Burton oversaw the completion of an abbreviated version of the collection McQueen had been working on at the time of his death back in February, and has since designed a Resort collection on her own, but Resort lacks the cachet or impact of a Spring/Summer or a Fall/Winter, and isn't presented via the shows McQueen was so famous for. This is her first time doing a full seasonal collection, with a show, without Lee.
She says not to expect a McQueen-style mise en scène. "That was very much Lee's territory — the spectacular show. In that way, I can't try and pretend to be Lee."
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.
Burton worked for McQueen for 14 years, including most recently as his director of women's wear. And she has earned the support of major industry figures. Before Gucci's decision had been handed down, Cathy Horyn publicly argued for hiring Burton in the pages of the New York Times. But such patronage can shrivel up in fashion virtually overnight, and designers get very few chances to prove themselves.
Burton hasn't commented on the pressure she must be feeling. But she does say, of her perspective on design and the future of the house, "I don't think it has to have as much angst in it. I think it will become softer...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."
The McQueen show is scheduled for Tuesday, October 5th, at 7:30 Paris time.