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On Sunday night, Alexander McQueen’s catwalk show returned home to London after fourteen years in Paris. In one sense, it was only a show – the company has always been based in the capital. In another… McQueen shows were never “just” a show, but the split atom at the heart of the brand’s DNA.
So much has happened since that merry-go-round (and S&M) themed show in 2001 – the brand’s last in London. Lee McQueen’s untimely death in 2010, a rather famous wedding dress in 2011, a record beating retrospective at London’s V&A, and a business trajectory that has seen turnover increase from €40.67 million on McQueen’s death to (according to market sources) around €250 million last year, with 650 employees globally. Small surprise that the British fashion industry is keen to reaffirm its spiritual ownership of the house (which in reality is owned by the French group, Kering).
“No pressure then,” laughs Sarah Burton, the extraordinarily talented 41-year-old creative director who took over the leadership of its direction and morale – both of which were mortally wounded – in 2010. It’s five in the afternoon, five days before the show and we’re in her studio in Clerkenwell, London. It is a calm space – and a notably deserted one. She has sent her team away in anticipation of my visit. Most ateliers would be on 24/7 duty this close to a show, but Burton strikes me as an unusual combination of left and right brain: pragmatic but exceptionally artistic. She’s also nine months pregnant with her third child, one of the key factors in the decision to return for this season at least. (“I really, really hope I don’t go into labour backstage.”)
She’s far too modest to say whether she senses she’s onto a winner with this collection, although the ravishing Arthur Rackam-esque floral prints and sinuous 30s dresses she shows me, make it dazzlingly clear she is. The studio is tidy and organized (how else do you juggle a show with giving birth?), high-shine desks flanked by mood-boards for Sunday’s show. Inspired by dreams and charms, there are photographs of dramatic, ravishingly dark eyed women pinned to the walls and sketches of lushly romantic finished dresses. Oh and there’s a striking, gilded black perfume bottle (designed, naturally by Burton) for the new scent which launches today.
What I at first take to be prototypes of luxurious clothes for exceptionally indulged children turn out to be scaled down samples. There’s something else I’ve never seen anywhere else: tiny versions of dresses and jackets from the collection, cut from different paper printed with miniaturised versions of the patterns. Other designers used computer programmes to assess the 3D viability of their pattern construction – but Burton is exquisitely old school.
If historicism was all there is, there wouldn’t be a brand. She has learned. There was one collection based almost entirely on the 1592 Ditchley portrait of Elizabeth 1, that seemed to have wandered into costume drama. But 2016’s winter collection is filled with seductive dresses and tailoring that will easily make the transition to modern life.
“Are you talking about the C word?” she laughs again, when I ask how she maintains a line between the majesty of shows and the 'commercial’ clothes. “We won’t produce the tattered lace dresses, but all those leather jackets and embroidered denim pieces will sell. I don’t want the clothes to be museum pieces. It’s really satisfying to me that they’re worn and loved. And we’re lucky, our customers are so educated and fabulous – they come to us for really special pieces.”
Talk of luck and team work is typical of Burton –ironic, given that the house was has had its share of terrible luck. But Burton, for all that she was a disciple of McQueen (it was her first job) is temperamentally the polar opposite.
The label is unique in having three platforms for its branding message; the catwalk, which serves up the fantasy, the Duchess of Cambridge, who wears state-appropriate, conventional looking pieces, and the red carpet. Cate Blanchett’s spectacular turn at this year’s Baftas demonstrates the fortunate position in which Burton finds herself: able to work exclusively with actresses she has a genuine affinity with. “When you work with actresses who know how much passion you put into something, they are very respectful,” she says when I ask whether Burton was concerned that the dress might end up abandoned at the last minute.
She has a gift for making people feel protective towards her on minimal acquaintance. “Although she wasn’t known outside the business, it was obvious to everyone who worked here that she would be the perfect person to fill his shoes,” says Jonathan Akeroyd, Mcqueen’s CEO since 2004. “Then when people saw that she was also incredibly talented, there was this enormous wave of goodwill.”
Like Burton, Akeroyd is a an old hand, having arrived in 2004 from Harrod’s. (“Francois- Henri Pinault interviewed me but he made it clear that if Lee didn’t like me, I wasn’t coming.”). It’s evident, even after just an hour at HQ, that he and Burton have a relaxed working relationship, despite the external pressures. So while there have been rumours that Dior courted Burton heavily and that her “package” at McQueen was subsequently renegotiated I’m not sure she’d find the culture there as congenial.
For now at any rate, her studio is on the floor above Akeroyd’s glass cube. Unlike hers, his is bare of ornament save for a severe looking grey bust sculpture that McQueen gave Akeroyd and his wife when they married. “It’s a bit…sad looking isn’t it?” He muses. “Sarah and I often laugh about it. I reckon Lee bought it for himself, decided he didn’t like it and passed it on…”
Akeroyd’s air of wry contemplation is constantly undercut with talk of expansion. The brand, again, according to external analysts, aims to hit €500 million a year in three years and double its number of own boutiques to around 90 – a target all the more noteworthy because its accessories lines are relatively niche. 50 per cent of sales are generated through clothes – at many far bigger brands it’s around 10 per cent.
It’s surprising therefore, to hear Akeroyd stress the importance of the show above every other marketing tool. “Fantasy is the heart of the brand. We’ll always do that one button jacket for the working woman and the great pair of trousers, but the fashion element is key.”
If this points to an increasing degree of catwalk literacy among consumers (thank you, social media and exhibitionists) it also speaks of Burton’s and Akeroyd’s cleverness in navigating the two. “There are 50 pieces in the show, 250 in the selling collection but the show isn’t getting any less important,” muses Akeroyd. “On the contrary, we have to do more of them, because our competitors do. The customer goes into store every week expecting to see something new.”
How then, do today’s CEOs protect their creative charges from the relentless schedule and demands on their imagination? “You give them autonomy and respect and try to ensure they have all the support and structure they need,” says Akeroyd. “You have to develop a thick skin. Reviews still matter – they can generate a snowball effect, but you have to realize you can’t be hot every season.”
The biggest challenge facing them now, he says, “is to make this a truly international brand.” Back in 2009 outside the UK, no one had really heard of it. The newly released perfume should add to profits. It also demonstrates they way Akeroyd and Burton function as team. Both went to visit Kew Gardens to begin their scent research three years ago. “It’s an amazing place,” says Burton (not much of a scent wearer, though she has dabbed on Chanel Gardenia), “because it has Darwin’s journals as well as the formulation for Elizabeth 1’st perfume”. At first Burton thought that would be her template, “but it’s actually quite a fusty smelling rose”.
Instead, the new McQueen scent is sophisticated, round, filled with tuberose, jasmine and ylang ylang. “I like the idea of them being flowers that smell stronger at night, because they’re not reliant on their looks,” she says. It’s bold but soft – like everything Burton does. Her cleverness is to have taken what McQueen did and evolve it, to lighten the original menace of his vision and soothe away its anger. Does she ever hear his voice critiquing her decisions? “No,” she looks across the empty studio, “but sometimes there’s a beautiful big black bird that flies across those windows.”Read more at:prom dresses 2016