Lane Crawford caught up with Sarah Burton, Creative Director of Alexander McQueen, in Beijing last week, where she launched the brand’s first boutique in China, in collaboration with Lane Crawford’s sister company, JOYCE. Burton’s stunning Autumn/Winter 2011 creations, worn by top Chinese models, impressed, while her veritable grace touched the hearts of all who met her.
“Beijing is so
exciting. It’s very
inspiring seeing all
the different kinds of people wearing McQueen and
putting it in their
own style.”– Sarah Burton
"Ask me anything," Sarah Burton says warmly, on her first-ever trip to Beijing. As the Creative Director of Alexander McQueen since May 2010, Burton has worked with the late Lee McQueen for more than 14 years, and continues to propel the brand forward with an otherworldly beauty and craftsmanship that universally transcends boundaries. "I can’t hide behind anybody anymore," she says.
Full of presence, spoken eloquence, and completely unpretentious, Burton’s not as soft spoken as her seemingly hard-guarded entourage would have you believe. Similarly, Burton designs for a confident woman who knows herself. The McQueen woman has a woman’s shape and wears clothes she believes in. "I know when I put something [McQueen] on, you actually stand in a slightly different way," says Burton, who is excited to see her Autumn/Winter 2011 pieces re-assembled on an all-Chinese model cast — including Ji Li Li, Li Dan Ni, Liu Xu and Zhang Xu Chao — to mark the opening of the brand’s first store in China. "Beijing is so exciting. It’s very inspiring seeing all the different kinds of people wearing McQueen and putting it in their own style."
Not trapped by ephemera or dogma ("Lee would never look at other designers"), Burton is so presently of this moment. When asked what period in history she would like to be transported to, Burton says, "Now, definitely now." Her "progressive nowness" can be seen with each collection, where she manages to expand the brand’s repertoire whilst staying true to the McQueen core, which she helped to create. "There will always be tailoring, dresses, show pieces, gowns, embroideries and handcraft," she remarks.
Today, the McQueen studio on London’s Clerkenwell Road still works in exactly the same way as when Lee was alive. "We have an open studio, so a big room, and it’s very visual," Burton explains. "On the wall, there are just hundreds of images from all different kinds of periods and fabrics. Lee taught me to do things in a three-dimensional way."
Lee also taught Burton how to harness inspiration. "I remember him saying to me, ‘I watched "Friends" last night, did you see the shirt that Joey was wearing?’" she laughs. "But then, he would get a Van Eyck book out, so it was this kind of mad mix. There’s no snobbery to it. He had this way of making you look at everything for inspiration so you didn’t just go, ‘Ok, we’re doing Seventies’."
When speaking of her personal relationship with Lee, Sarah beams with the joy one feels for an incredible friend. "He had a hilarious sense of humour, very normal and not fashion-y. And he had a really brilliant, dirty wicked laugh that was kind of infectious." She adds wistfully, "Lee’s dog used to eat my packed lunch out of my bag."
The small, intimate nature of the McQueen studio allowed Burton to delve deep into design’s many facets, from fabric research to sewing and putting on a show. "Lee used to always say that you have to know all the rules to be able to break them," she says. What resulted was a complete nourishing of her creative intuition, instincts and skills.
Now, Burton continues to look for that obsession in others. "We have many students from China in the studio and they are the best with their technique and stitching. You’re very lucky here that you have that passion and dedication to detail." She laments the loss of handcraft in design. "Everyone wants to be the designer, and it’s just as great to be the pattern cutter or a print designer or the embroiderer. It’s about a team of people."
Burton also believes that consuming fashion shouldn’t be about buying for the sake of buying: "It should be that the thing you buy is so precious, you want to have it forever. For me, I have Victorian jackets and pieces in my [personal] collection from 10 years ago that are just as cool and relevant now as they were then."
Admiring Rei Kawakubo, Azzedine Alaïa, Nicolas Ghesquière and Miuccia Prada — because "they all do things for so many different women" — Burton still stands out against her contemporaries. Why? There’s her inner, obsessive geek (geeky in her love for fashion since early childhood, ""My room used to always be plastered with Richard Avedon pictures and Versace"), her desire to continuously learn and craft things (“I painted, I drew, I went to Saint Martins and I did print”), and a commitment to an all-consuming romance with her perfect match: Alexander McQueen.
"Romance has happy or sad endings," Burton says, pausing as if contemplating her incredible journey and all that is still to come. "It’s very McQueen to feel that there are two endings to a story."
Alexander McQueen is available from Lane Crawford in Hong Kong and Beijing, as well as online.
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