4 NOVEMBER 2004
SARAH BURTON, THE VISIONARY
Sarah Burton is a Woman of the Year because... "Only Sarah could continue McQueen's legacy. She pushes the boundaries between fashion and art, creating the most incredible clothes every time." —Kate Moss, model.
The first question designer Alexander McQueen asked Sarah Burton when he interviewed her 18 years ago for an internship: "Do you believe in UFOs?" Strangely, she did, and he did too. And with that, and a lot of other right answers, the print-design student at London's Central Saint Martins University of the Arts got the gig. On the job Burton learned everything from how to put a zipper into a bias-cut dress to how to make coffee, and once she graduated, she joined full-time, rising from McQueen's design assistant in 1997 to head of women's wear in 2000. Ten years later, upon McQueen's tragic suicide, the quiet, press-shy Burton was made creative director. It was a no-brainer maybe to everyone but her. Says Vogue editor-in-chief and Condé Nast artistic director Anna Wintour: "She was very much his hidden secret weapon."
Then a certain future royal needed a wedding dress, and Burton's days of flying under the radar were over. An estimated 2 billion people watched Burton dart onto the red carpet at Westminster Abbey on April 29, 2011, to give Kate Middleton's McQueen gown a final tweak. Over the next 14 months, Burton, then 37, was named one of Time's 100 most influential people in the world and appointed an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Prince Charles. But the most palpable mark of success: The company's revenue has sky-rocketed, with sales up over 20 percent in 2013 alone. More than that, Burton's rising tide has helped lift the British fashion industry.
"She's building this company as no one did before," says François-Henri Pinault, chairman and CEO of McQueen parent company Kering, who calls Burton "a volcano of creativity, an ocean of emotion." Burton's interpretation of the brand manages to be both loyal to her mentor's aesthetic DNA and visionary in her own right. The leather harnesses and floral face masks may still be there, but Burton has added a softness that appeals to women from Michelle Obama to Kate Moss. "It's equally stunning, inventive, and brilliant," says Wintour. "But it's new."
Burton, who had wanted to design clothes since she was a girl, has always believed in the psychological protection of attire: "You see women putting on McQueen, and they stand differently," she says. Her leadership style is low-key but demanding: "If I come into the office at the weekend, I expect my team to come in," she says. And she gets results. Under her watch, the label puts out 14 collections per year, including women's wear, menswear, and the diffusion label McQ. McQueen sells in over 50 countries, with boutiques just added in Vienna, Monaco, and Tokyo.
But will it ever be The House of Sarah Burton? Forget it. Ever since she reluctantly accepted the top job (studio and factory workers threatened to leave if she didn't) and blew away any doubters with that first show—wheat-sheaf corsets and the poignancy of The Jackson 5's "I'll Be There" for the finale—she has deflected attention. "I don't understand designers' wanting to be famous," she says. For her bow, Burton appears for a nanosecond, a sheet of hair forming a curtain over one eye. "She is so humble," says Wintour. "A significant part of her success is that warmth." Burton—who has 22-month-old twin daughters with husband David—gives motherhood some of the credit: "Having children gives you balance. It's only fashion."
And the true key to her success, Burton insists, is passion for the creative and the commercial—and spending time working for someone else before breaking out on your own. "It's important to be in the chorus before you're a soloist," she says. But then, in many ways, she feels the presence of her beloved boss "Lee," as friends called McQueen, has not gone. "There's a black bird that sits on the window ledge, and sometimes I think that it's him, which is comforting." If it were him, goodness, would he be proud.