It’s a testament to Sarah Burton’s fabled niceness that she’s so apologetic for having cancelled our first two dates. We were meant to meet a few weeks before Monday’s Paris Fashion Week show so that I could observe her piecing together a collection that’s more like couture than ready to wear. But her 10-month-old daughter stopped eating. Then her twins succumbed, even talented creative directors sometimes go home to a sick ward. A week before her show in Paris, the children are better and Burton is back at work, so I visit her studio twice — first in its HQ in Clerkenwell, then in Paris where, two days before curtain-up, there were still about 20 outfits waiting to be finished.
In between, we’d literally collided with each other in the Caffe Nero at the Eurostar terminal, Burton practically sleepwalking with fatigue. Despite the family bug, despite the brouhaha of transporting a team of 100, plus sewing machines, fabrics, accessories and countless trims to Paris, despite the fact that with two days before curtain up there are still unfinished outfits and despite the fact that each of the 41 models requires a half-hour individual fitting, Burton seemed serenely determined both times, although her nails indicate she might be a chewer.
You can tell the niceness is genuine. One of the Italian seamstresses hands her a present — a pearl necklace she has made for Burton’s daughter. “It’s small, but made from the heart,” she tells Burton. All around is quiet industry. On one table, two British girls are cutting out a panel of beaded lace before sewing on leather trim. On another they’re finishing the Indian embroideries — Burton works so closely with her team, she says she can always tell which seamstresses have worked on a piece. At this stage, she can still make a call on whether to add the charms she originally envisioned dangling from some of the loose thread. And Guido Palau and Val Garland, her long-time collaborators on the hair and make-up, may yet tweak the Lady of Shalott waves they discussed with Burton a month ago. But weeks before they arrived at this inchoate point, it began with a research trip Burton and her design team took last December, to Cornwall.
The walls of her East London studio — a former light industrial building with metal windows facing onto Victorian brickwork and Georgian spires — are covered with photographs and sketches of roiling seas and rocky promontories, churches and Burton’s beloved Pre-Raphaelites (she’s particularly partial to Jane Morris). Between them are pin-tacked swatches of extraordinary, almost feral fabrics. Some look like hair, others are scraps of tweed woven with silk ribbon, the trails of which flutter against Pre-Raphaelite portraits. The 20 or so desks are divided into leather, knitwear, embroidery and bag specialists. Don’t be deceived by the computers. This could never be mistaken for a building of accountants. Downstairs are the workrooms. On this floor, everywhere you look are rails of sample clothes she’s currently working on — patchwork chiffons, embroidered silks, fishernet knits, tulle corsets — and the exquisite paper dolls she makes for each look. I’ve never seen dolls like these anywhere else — nor a studio quite so prolifically, methodically furnished with sources of inspiration. How does the rarefied creativity that literally emanates from the walls make its way into the wide world? Casually placing one of her paper dolls on a bowl of fruit, Burton, dressed in her habitual jeans, rolled-up sleeves (and some rather gorgeous, embroidered flat mules) explains.
All these magical mood boards with photographs of your team’s recent research trip to Cornwall — cliff tops, Pre-Raphaelite paintings, King Arthur, churches, beaches and a wishing tree with hundreds of ribbons tied to it. How does any of it relate to the finished clothes?
You’d probably be surprised. The idea of Arthurian chain mail inspired us to develop a metallic yarn with a silk backing that looks like armour but feels soft. From the embroidered samplers, we made printed silk dresses. From the wishing tree we worked on this loose-ribbon tweed with the ribbons still dangling — we’re going to put charms on the end of them. Some of them will definitely appear in the show.
You mean you go to all this trouble developing fabrics from scratch, only to discard some of them?
Afraid so. We saw this seagrass, and decided to weave something that looks like hair. We showed our Italian mills, who are extraordinary, our photographs and artwork. Then I did some drawings and we produced a mirror print of it. From that they developed a lace that’s so beautiful but we’re not using it.
Now I understand why some of your clothes cost so much. Do you design with a certain kind of woman in mind?
I suppose so. It’s become second nature. When I think about a McQueen woman, she’s powerful. I don’t think she’s dabbling with power or sexuality primarily for the benefit of men. That’s the important thing. The McQueen woman is doing this for herself. It’s about an inner strength.
Your shows are always very poetic and inspiring. But how does the mystical Sarah Burton/Alexander McQueen world, peopled by the Lady of Shalott or the Huguenots, relate to a woman who has to get dressed for the office, or find something knockout for a party?
Within those worlds there’s always a McQueen woman. Whatever the period or setting, the end results have to look and feel like something a woman would want to wear now. I might be thinking about Joan of Arc, but I want to know how that sense of defiance and strength would look and feel now.
How has the way women dress changed since you started at McQueen 20 years ago?
Whereas a woman might once have turned to tailoring when she wanted to look authoritative, now she can wear an amazing knit. There are so many new developments in lace and knitwear. You can do incredible things — it’s not just a jumper any more. It’s the same with pencil skirts, which we used to sell so many of. Women get the same sense of confidence these days when they were a loose, light dress.
As a designer do you feel a responsibility to react to what’s going on in the world?
You can’t not be aware. It’s very upsetting that a lot of the arguments we thought had been won are back on the table. I think one of the ways clothes can help is by being comfortable and beautiful. As far as the work environment goes, it’s very helpful to the sense of camaraderie that this is non-hierarchical. I sit in the middle of the studio — no glass box — at the same desk that Lee [McQueen] sat at.
Can an item of clothing be powerful? Or is it to do with the alchemy that happens when you put it on?
A bit of both. Our ideas of what looks and feels powerful change over time. A woman wearing a corset nowadays isn’t wearing it because she’s under social pressure and wants her waist to look tiny. She’s probably celebrating her body, whatever its curves.
So the challenge is to give her corsets and tailoring that align with modern feelings of comfort?
Yes. We do these nothing-y corsets made of translucent mesh. They look boned, but they’re not. There’s no heaviness or hardness. It’s the same with the jackets. It could be as subtle as the way the shoulder is set that gives you that sense of confidence and makes stand differently.
What engages/enrages you about fashion?
Engaging? I come to work and I’m surrounded by an amazing group of people and we can be as creative as we like. Enrages? I tend not to get too involved in the fashion world so I don’t get enraged.
There are many shows nowadays where the clothes are a very secondary consideration to the bags. Yet you rarely show bags on the catwalk. Isn’t that commercially risky?
If a bag fits in with the story, then fine. But it would look weird for a Pre-Raphaelite to wear a cross-body messenger bag. For this AW17 show, we saw these beautiful needlepoint prayer cushions in a Cornish church. So there are tapestry bags in this show — all handmade.
Is the red carpet still important, both in terms of its impact on your business and on fashion?
We only dress people we feel have an affiliation with the house. Nicole [Kidman who wore a sea foam McQueen dress to the Golden Globes] has worn McQueen for many years. And Emily Blunt [who wore black McQueen ruffles at the BAFTAs] is a McQueen kind of woman. It’s important that we have time to do lots of fittings because they’re going to be viewed from every angle in strange light, so the linings have to be right. The thing about the Nicole dress is that although it looks like something made only for the catwalk, we’d already sold three. From that point of view, it’s hard to say whether her wearing it has a direct impact on the business. From a creative stance, I never design a dress with a specific actress in mind.
Do you ever worry you’ll run out of ideas?
It’s such an amazing house. You can do tailoring, leather, knits, embroidery, dark and light. Lee was incredibly prolific. He did everything in such a short time.
Do you consider what you do fashion? Or is it something slightly apart?
I don’t really absorb trends. When Lee was alive, it was never about saying, “Oh let’s look at the Sixties or the Seventies.” That was the beauty of being in London where there’s such a melting pot of ideas. You have to be aware of what’s going on, of course. These are clothes to be worn — the team and I are always trying things on. But when minimalism was the big thing, it wouldn’t have been right for McQueen to abandon all its craft and embellishment. You have to stay true to the house.
How involved in the business side do you like to get?
I’m interested and I know what sells.
Can you talk me through what happens when you finish one show and move onto the next?
Once you’ve done a show, you’ve done it. We always start from scratch. We clear the studio, all the mood-boards, the rails — everything goes. It’s completely wiped and we start again. You have to find a new world.