Taking her friend and mentor Alexander McQueen’s eponymous label to new heights, Burton continues to surprise and delight with her opulent, romantic designs. Andrew O’Hagan salutes the British fashion powerhouse.
THE FIRST TIME I MET SARAH BURTON, my favourite designer, she showed me a rail of iconic frocks and shed a few tears over memories of things past. She was honest. She was brilliant. And I felt there was a new woman standing in front of me, someone with a natural talent not only for making clothes but for making them sing and dance and rock with suggestion. I love how eager she is to embrace her contradictions and keep moving onwards and inwards, discovering new things in herself and new things in the world around her. With her blonde hair and gentle features, with her ready laughter and a sense of infinite jest, Sarah can be viewed as one of those pioneering English women who establish their genius quietly, but after much darkness. When I left her that first day, it seemed obvious to me that Burton was on the cusp of a great new period. “Clothes change our view of the world,” said Virginia Woolf, “and the world’s view of us.”
The darkness I spoke about diminished, after a while, into a new dawn for Sarah. Her annus horribilis was 2010, the winter her great friend, mentor, and long-term working partner (Lee) Alexander McQueen killed himself, at the age of 40. She mourns him every day, but part of the spirit they shared was the instinct to get on and do it. She is always keen to preserve his reputation, and is putting a lot of effort into Savage Beauty, a show of McQueen’s work that will open at the V&A in March. “It’s going to be an amazing exhibition,” she says. “There was such a magic about Lee, and the show is going to capture it. I want everybody to see it. Someone asked if we could end the exhibition with the wedding dress I made for the Duchess of Cambridge, but I said no. This show is about the brilliance of Lee.”
But what has also become clear in recent times—and what makes her the perfect choice as 2014’s Designer of the Year—is that Burton’s own brilliance, her own sensual, hauntingly elegant work, with its decadent undertones, subtle references, and dazzling ideas, has come into its own in a timely fashion. She has always had an insightful way with materials and patterns—one of the reasons Lee McQueen loved her so much—but time has brought out the deep and wayward romantic in Burton. She is now making clothes that define for an international audience what it means to believe in the previously unthinkable, and has become, of all the creative charmers, a woman with seemingly limitless reserves of enchantment to call upon. Her hugely anticipated shows are more varied and the ideas are more durable than those of a great number of her contemporaries.
Perhaps it’s the fact that she doesn’t start from an outlandish place in the first instance: Her imagination has the natural allure of the everyday English girl of style, yet is wreathed in supernatural tempests. Not long ago, I asked her about the paintings she saw in her childhood at the Manchester Art Gallery, all those PreRaphaelite masterpieces full of English pageantry and brutality