Interview with Sarah Burton, artistic director of Alexander McQueen
Alexander McQueen is going stronger than ever, and has just opened a new flagship store - its biggest – in Paris. Numéro spoke to the brand’s artistic director, who has brilliantly continued the founder’s legacy.
You started out at Alexander McQueen as an intern, while you were still a student at Central Saint Martins. How did the firm seem to you back then?
There was a lot of noise about McQueen, so I had this idea that he was very groundbreaking, doing what nobody else was doing, that it was all about creativity and passion. Through my tutor, who was friends with Lee, I went there and met him and got taken on as an intern. And it was exactly that – it was a tiny company, but full of excitement. Lee constantly had all these ideas. It was before he became head of Givenchy, so there was absolutely no money, and the headquarters were down in a basement. I was very lucky because I stayed on and grew up with him as the brand developed.
How did you feel when you were asked to become artistic director?
It was a terrible decision to make, because I’d just lost someone I cared about passionately. At the beginning I just wanted to keep his legacy intact, to keep telling the stories. I thought I’d be capable of finishing his stories, but I didn’t know if I could tell my own. You’re with somebody all the time and then that person disappears who was this driving force... You wonder if you could ever be that driving force yourself. His collections were so personal, they recounted everything he felt about life and society, whereas I have a different approach since I’m talking more about the clothes.
Among your recurring motifs are flowers, something that’s quintessentially Victorian, since in those days the lily and the rose were metaphors for feminine duality – the saint and the seductress.
The flowers represent the cycle of life and death, things being reborn. I grew up in the countryside, and I know there is a beautiful side to nature but also a very harsh one. The last show was really about this story of beauty and decay – I really wanted to talk about the fact that young women can be perfect beauties, but that there’s beauty in age also. And I think that the clothes, too, aren’t just for one season, they’re clothes that you continue to love throughout your life, things that should be treasured.
Alexander McQueen was long considered an “emerging” brand in the Gucci stable, but has now reached maturity. In this context, is the opening of your Paris store in the Rue Saint-Honoré an important step for you?
Yes, because when you have your own shop, you can basically define your image through the store. It’s really exciting, especially to be doing it in Paris, because we show there and this is really the city where I want to have an important store. We waited so long to find the right spot, and there was no way we could open a small shop after all these years. And the Paris store is in fact our biggest in the world.
There was a lot of pressure because the architecture is so amazing in Paris. So we have marble and onyx, vintage furniture, and also a cabinet de curiosités. Alexander McQueen is primarily about clothes, not accessories, which is rare. Lee built the foundations of a unique world view, and there’s no other brand that’s come out so strongly in just 25 years, in a context where everyone tends to put their money on heritage brands. So I’m very happy to be opening this store that allows us to speak to all those who are passionate about Alexander McQueen. You saw that passion with all the thousands of visitors who went to see the Savage Beauty exhibition in New York and London.
Read the full article in issue 166 of Numéro, currently available at newsstands and on the iPad.
By Delphine Roche