When the news broke two weeks ago that Sarah Burton, who took over as creative director at Alexander McQueen less than four months after his passing, and who had worked at the house for 26 years, would be stepping down, there was a collective moment of grief felt throughout the industry. Here was someone directly tied to the history and legacy of one of our greatest modern designers, who in the last 12 years had established her own visual language at the label, softer perhaps, but no less fierce and unafraid of the new, just like Lee had. It’s truly the end of an era.
And so McQueen’s spring 2024 show which will take place in Paris tonight, will be Sarah Burton’s last. In her time at the helm, McQueen became known for—among other things—being a go-to red carpet label for a variety of very cool actors, models, and musicians (and of course, there’s the small matter of Burton being responsible for the wedding dress worn by Kate Middleton, Princess of Wales, when she married Prince William in 2011; an indelible image that lives on in the memory of millions of people around the world).
We asked a few of our favorite McQueen-wearers to write a few words about what Burton and her creations have meant to them. Their responses highlight not only Burton’s genius and creativity, but her sense of family, friendship, and wicked sense of humor. They paint a picture of a woman that is truly one in a million.
Sarah and I first met 15 years ago when she came to see a play I was doing at the Royal Court Theatre. She had such an instant, open warmth and brilliant, self deprecating sense of humour that it was impossible not to adore this human being. It was at the Met Ball, a few years later while Hannah and I were still quite early on in our relationship that our friendship with Sarah was cemented. The Met is the most extraordinary evening and at moments it can be completely overwhelming and bonkers- its almost too much for any human being to take in- but that evening Sarah, Hannah and I sat in a corner for almost the entire thing, eyes on stalks and putting the world to rights. We laughed until our stomachs hurt. I’ll never forget it. She is so staggeringly talented and yet wears that genius so lightly. Her self deprecation belies her utter and unique brilliance.
Soon after Hannah and I were engaged, we called Sarah and asked her if there was any chance that she would consider designing Hannah’s wedding dress. Her response was instant and impassioned, which was everything you dream of when getting married. I didn’t see the dress beforehand, of course but, my god I will never forget the moment I first saw Hannah. There was a fire pit outside the church, and as she walked in, it was like a pre-Raphaelite vision. I was dressed in a very, very beautiful McQueen morning suit, but Hannah wore this utterly dumbfounding creation interwoven with intricate embroidery. The image of her in that dress will forever be etched on my retina and I feel so grateful to our brilliant friend for creating that for us.
Over the years, we’ve been lucky enough to get to know the whole team at McQueen. Usually we are meant to go for a fitting but end up having to be turfed out at the end of the day. It is a place you never want to leave and that is because of the people. It’s a testament to Sarah’s brilliance both as a designer and as a person that she has assembled this unique and wonderful loyal team- Judy, Nicki, Harley and Nawfal, the list goes on- people we have known from those early days when we would first venture into their old Clerkenwell offices. The word family is bandied around a lot but in Sarah’s McQueen it truly does feel like that.
One of the unexpected joys of my job is that I get to wear beautiful things made by brilliant people, but the process of it can, at times, be a bit unnerving. Red carpets are theatre, but they’re also odd spaces; you’re standing in front of a barrage of photographers just… literally standing there with zilch to do but stand. It’s a very odd interaction. And never gets less odd. The thing that Sarah does, certainly for me—and I know for Hannah as well—is to create clothes that make you feel stunningly elegant but they also have a sense of armour about them. You feel emboldened wearing them. There’s a deeply woven classicism yet anarchic spirit in them, and you always feel ready to take on the world.
Just over a year ago, I found myself stressed and jet lagged in a hotel room in Venice asking the all too familiar question “what am I gonna wear?!” Except this time, the question was prompted by stakes a bit higher than a birthday party or a first date…this time it was the Venice Film Festival, and I had yet to settle on a gown that fit the bill. My stylist and I had torn through racks of beautiful options, but there was one last minute contender yet to arrive. The night before the event, I tried on a dress of your design, and immediately [realized] we had a winner. While it was the most eye catching, extravagant dress I’ve ever worn, I still felt like myself. I felt comfortable and confident, like I’d somehow owned the dress for years and had been saving it for the perfect occasion.
I recall that night when I think of my relationship with you and McQueen, as it marked the beginning of my favorite fashion endeavor to date.
A few months later, I had a real “pinch me” moment when asked to join the Spring/Summer 2023 campaign. If I was a fan of your work before, I became a SUPER-fan after meeting you. Any intimidation or uncertainties I felt towards stepping into a brand as iconic as McQueen were completely eased within our first introduction. You welcomed me with such a familiar warmth, making it feel as though I’d known you for years. The entire team at McQueen carried this quality, and I know it can all be traced back to you and the environment you create.
You’ve made such a lasting impression on me. You are a creative force so talented and accomplished, but most importantly so caring, grounded, and genuine. For these reasons, I am truly inspired by you, and so grateful to know you. Thank you for your generosity and kindness, and for sharing your genius with the world. I deeply cherish the time I’ve spent with you and the McQueen family.
Sending all my admiration and congratulations,
The first time I met Sarah Burton I was 26 years old. I was in London for the premiere of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Sarah had invited me to the studio to meet and take my measurements, to possibly make something in the future. I was a little terrified to go there, I was still afraid of fashion people and I had long loved Alexander McQueen. They were the provocative, romantic, gothic, punk house my (still at the time) angst-ridden heart was made for.
When I met Sarah I was taken back by how kind she was. How unassuming. How gentle. How un-scary and welcoming.
Since then Sarah has made some of my most cherished things I have ever worn. I wouldn’t be able to choose just one outfit to be my favorite. There are too many.
A few years ago Sarah made a dress for something I had to go to when I was newly pregnant. I don’t think I had even told some of my closest friends, but I had confided in Sarah because I wasn’t sure how my body would change between the fitting and when I had to wear it, and I was self conscious about certain things. Sarah was generous and understanding. No judgment for any of my silly insecurities. She went above and beyond to make sure I would feel my best. Their whole team worked tirelessly, practically remaking the dress for me overnight.
Not too long ago Sarah invited me to the studio to come and try on some archival dresses so that we could get inspiration for a dress they were going to make for me. They brought out some of the original Alexander McQueen dresses, as well as my favorite dresses from Sarah’s debut collection as Creative Director. It was a magical experience. We played dress up for hours. I got to pretend to be “The Girl Who Lived In a Tree” and Sarah and Judy regaled [me with] their tales of when the dresses were originally made. Tales of cutting and shredding them last minute before they went out onto the runway. They draped them over me and pinned them here and there, adding this or that. Trying to remember where they tied the original knots. I got to put on some of Sarah’s most beautiful creations. Adorned in cascading ruffles of tulle and embroidered lace.
I often feel conflicted about fashion. I have a love-hate relationship with it. I often find it to be over the top and ridiculous. I often feel guilty about the excess, about the suffering that is inherent to so much of it. But when I am with Sarah, when I am in this room full of these garments, I know that this is art. Pure and simple.
I feel emotional when I see Sarah’s clothes. I feel a quiet strength when I wear them, a strength that allows me to soften. I will cherish Sarah’s shredded lace forever. But more than that I will cherish her kindness and her tender, rebellious spirit. Sarah’s McQueen will forever be the fashion of my dreams
I remember walking into the McQueen atelier for the first time; wide-eyed, nervous, and excited. I remember the exhale as I was greeted by you with a smile and a hug. I stood astonished while you built a sculpture on my body. You taught me that art flourishes within a home. That when we create a safe environment, we may allow our artistic expression to roam wild and free. Working with you always felt like home.
Sometimes in the labyrinth of genius we can forget to be kind, but you never fell into that trap. In fact, I believe that kindness always lived, wholly embodied in your creations. I always felt like your heart was represented in your designs. Beautiful and delicate and strong, with intricacies woven throughout. An attention that only comes with time.
In your 26 years at McQueen, you carried the torch with the utmost grace, attentiveness, and creativity. You dreamt for all of us and brought those dreams to life. Your designs felt like a gentle armor, like a thoughtful articulation, like a warm hug. Like they were made for us. And dear maestro, they were.
This article was originally published on Vogue.com.