As Sarah Burton takes her final bow at Alexander McQueen today, it’s time to celebrate who she is—the designer, the woman, the incredibly discreet character who has led the London house on the international stage since 2010. Likely, she’ll do it just as she has from the beginning—in jeans, shirt and trainers, with her pin-cushion strapped to her arm. Because that’s what Sarah’s been doing backstage—perfecting everything, hands-on, right up to the last moment.
The one thing Sarah Burton’s stubbornly bad at is tooting her own horn. Eddie Redmayne, who got to know her 15 years ago, says, “her self-deprecation belies her utter and unique brilliance. She is so staggeringly talented and yet wears that genius so lightly.” A private client who came to McQueen for her wedding dress says, “she does drama and romance at an incredible level, yet she has zero ego about it.”
It’s the factor that means that—despite all of Sarah’s achievements and accolades—she is still one of the most anti-famous of famous designers. Should she fancy a second career, her honorable ability to keep a confidence might qualify her as a member of His Majesty’s Secret Service. In 2011, she persisted in saying a convincing point-blank “no” to every journalist who asked if she was making Catherine Middleton’s wedding dress. The next thing, an aerial shot’s being beamed around the globe from Westminster Abbey clearly showing Sarah Burton kneeling to fix Catherine’s almost nine-foot train—a dress made with the utmost subterfuge, with the extraordinary atelier and embroidery expertise at McQueen, to huge success.
The Duchess of Cambridge, now the Princess of Wales, has been a McQueen client ever since. Sarah’s custom designs for state occasions have struck a note of neat, modern formality—her impeccably-fitted coat-dresses a speciality. The latest triumph was the Princess of Wales’s long white dress for the coronation in May—and a perfect, tiny white caped coat for her daughter Princess Charlotte. It was another unforgettably well-judged image contributed by Sarah Burton to the history of the British monarchy.
That important role, of course, is quite aside from the spectacular and emotional collections Sarah began showing when she became creative director in 2010. In the traumatic aftermath of Alexander McQueen’s suicide—she had been at his right hand since she joined him directly from Central Saint Martins in 1997—this was a courageous thing to take on. It was true to her character, her sensitivity and connectedness to nature, that her first show had tiny shoots of grass growing between the floorboards of the set. It read as a gentle signal of hope and renewal, led out by a beautiful white 18th-century tailcoated trouser suit.
Sarah’s love of the British countryside and history, her total dedication to researching narratives and developing textile techniques—and her loyalty—made her Lee McQueen’s ideal helpmate in producing his spectacular feats of fashion theater throughout the 2000s. She also appointed herself chief archivist—methodically storing every pattern, fabric swatch, and embroidery experiment as they went along “because you’d never know when Lee would think of something he’d done before, and want to see it.”
Sarah’s way of working with the extraordinary atelier—built up to rival Paris couture standards, in the east end of London—and encouraging specialist teamwork at McQueen has added immensely to the archive, not a place ever regarded as a museum, but as a living resource. Her collections flowed from a place which talked poetically about nature, female stories, ancient legends, paganism, and gardens.
In spring 2017, she was talking about “sisterhood, women’s milestones and rituals; birth, christenings, weddings, and funerals,” In spring 2020, there were dresses inspired by the blue flax flower fields she had taken her team to see blooming in Northern Ireland. Humanizing fashion, and encouraging craft and community steadily became more of a mission. “I love the idea of people having the time to make things together, to meet and talk together, the time to reconnect with the world,” she said after her fall 2019 show.
Little was seen or understood of this until that same year, when Sarah initiated a free exhibition space at the top of the Alexander McQueen Bond Street flagship store, a gallery where workings of the design studio, research photographs, and the spectacular dresses and tailoring from her own collections are displayed. The current exhibition “Roses,” has her humongous pink petalled dress from fall 2012, the mind-blowing whorl of red-rose taffeta from fall 2019, the flax-flower spring 2019 dress, and more, with all the design inspirations, the technical work, and love that went into them.
Her vision encompassed actively passing on the joy of creativity, skills, and hope to young people. Simultaneously, she launched workshops for school children and fashion students, organized an outreach project for young people in a deprived area of Wales, and distributed surplus fabric to schools, community groups, and fashion colleges around the UK. Some of it enabled the young designer Steven Stokey-Daley, a working class student from Liverpool, to make his graduation collection—which Harry Styles then wore in his “Golden” video.
That’s just part of the magic the kind, inspirational and philanthropic Sarah Burton has caused to happen around her. Being her unboastful self, she’s never really spoken about it. Tonight, she will leave her collection to speak for itself—as it most certainly will. But whatever the very private Sarah Burton chooses to do next, she’s built a legacy of which to be incredibly proud.
This article was originally published on Vogue.com.