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Gone for a Burton: what next for Alexander McQueen?

Marcus Jaye
12 September 2023

The ‘collaboration’ is over. When you’ve worked somewhere for over 26 years - been in charge for nearly 14 years - you think you’d have a more secure relationship with your boss than an ephemeral term like collaboration.

When Kering announced the departure of Sarah Burton as the Creative Director of Alexander McQueen, the luxury conglomerate said: “The Alexander McQueen fashion House and Creative Director Sarah Burton today announce the end of their collaboration after two decades together.”

Burton is a McQueen lifer having joined the fashion brand straight after graduating from Central Saint Martins in 1997. She had huge boots to fill when the designer tragically died in 2010. Alexander McQueen was more than a tough act to follow. A genius, in fashion terms, his succession was made easier when Sarah Burton, his right hand assistant, stepped into the creative role and seamlessly kept the brand alive.

It was never going to be the same.

The forthcoming SS24 collection in Paris will be her last for the British brand. Gianfilippo Testa, CEO of Alexander McQueen, said in the brand’s statement: "Sarah's contribution over the past 26 years will leave an indelible mark.”

Promising to honour his legacy, Burton steered the house in a luxurious and almost bespoke direction. Designing the current Princess of Wales’ wedding dress in 2011, the brand became globally recognised and held in high esteem.

Alexander McQueen // Sarah Burton

Sarah Burton designed the Princess of Wales’ wedding gown (Suzanne Plunkett/PA)

But, Burton designed herself into a corner. The clothes became so dressy and OTT that as the fashion world slid into casual and designer sportswear, Alexander McQueen started to look out of step. A lot of fashion is about it feeling ‘right’ and picturing an opportunity and place to wear it. A man’s suit completely covered in hand embroidered gold dragon flies would look overdressed even in a 7-star Burj hotel in Dubai.

The clothes weren’t real in the same way McQueen himself could balance the fantasy and theatrical with clothes that were a pleasure and delight to wear. It became less about fashion and more about technical craft and finishes under Burton. The latest Bond Street store did a very good job of illustrating this when it first opened.

The McQueen brand became too clean and polished. It forgot its East End roots. McQueen would always leave a little dirt under the finger nails no matter how coutured the garment.

The brand has grown though under Burton. Turnover in 2021 was reported to be between €700 million and €800 million. Kering doesn't break down sales for individual brands of the “other houses” division, which also includes Balenciaga, Brioni and jewellery houses. In June 2022, it suspended its slightly tacky McQ secondary line.

Kering is having a rejig with its other luxury brands at the moment, Gucci is anticipated to unveil its new direction at Milan Fashion Week, and clearly doesn’t see Burton capable of taking McQueen past the important billion euro threshold. The brand is stuck in a rut and her design legacy is lacking in much innovation, especially in the money makers such as leather goods and fragrance. Her tenure was more caretaker than innovator and was firmly rooted in ready-to-wear. Scrolling on the brand’s website it is hard to recognise a single handbag by name.

Sarah Burton

Sarah Burton is set to depart Alexander McQueen (Ian West/PA)

Interestingly too, Burton's departure also comes at a time when Gen Z is discovering the brand with McQueen's signature skull print scarves now trending in the resale space. So it appears there is a new market waiting in the wings and ready to be converted but Kering would appear to think that Burton is not the person to do that.

Burton has lead the house for as long as she worked with McQueen himself. With three children, she can quite rightly take a break and see what the future holds for her. She said in the announcement: "I am looking forward to the future and my next chapter and will always carry this treasured time with me.” It would be surprising if she started her own brand or went to work for somebody else. A Christopher Bailey-type retirement could be more attractive for her.

That leaves the big question of, who will take over? Luxury ‘houses’ are really struggling to fill creative director roles or making them stick right now. McQueen’s shadow is huge and it would require somebody who understands the balance between the street and couture. It would also be great to have a trained tailor who knows how to cut clothes and understand how Alexander McQueen started his process. That’s a big ask. Alexander McQueen was a one-off. The brand will sell, regardless of who is at the helm, but it would be nice to get some of the old magic back.

Main image: AW23 campaign

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