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Sarah Burton at a red carpet event with Florence Welch and Cate Blanchett.
Sarah Burton (right) with Florence Welch and Cate Blanchett. EPA/Justin Lane

As Sarah Burton leaves Alexander McQueen, an expert explores her legacy through five iconic designs

Sarah Burton, the creative director for Alexander McQueen, has announced that she is leaving the fashion house after two decades. The spring/summer 2024 collection, launching at Paris Fashion Week on September 30, will be her last.

Burton, born in Macclesfield, initially joined McQueen in 1996 as a placement student, while studying at Central Saint Martins in London. Following her graduation, Burton took up a permanent post, becoming head of womenswear design in 2000. After Lee Alexander McQueen’s tragic death in 2010, Burton became his successor as creative director.

During her 26 years at McQueen Burton has made a significant contribution to both the fashion industry and to the legacy of the fashion house. In 2012 she received an OBE for services to the fashion industry. These are five of her most celebrated designs.

1. Kate Middleton’s wedding dress, 2011

Kate Middleton and Prince William after their wedding.
The royal wedding dress designed by Sarah Burton. EPA/Ian Langsdon

The V-neck, ivory lace dress with a nine-foot train that Burton created for the marriage of Kate Middleton and Prince William was one of her earlier designs as McQueen’s creative director.

Middleton chose Alexander McQueen to design her dress because of its reputation for craftsmanship, traditional workmanship and attention to the technical construction of clothing. Hand cut from both English and French Chantilly lace, the dress was handmade at the Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court Palace and reportedly cost £250,000 to make.

Burton’s design included a floral motif that commemorated Great Britain. It is believed that seamstresses working on the dress had to wash their hands every 30 minutes to ensure it was kept clean and that the needles they were using were replaced every three hours.

Kate Middleton arrives at Westminster Abbey wearing Sarah Burton’s design.

The choice of designer remained a secret until the day of the wedding. Following the royal wedding, sales at Alexander McQueen reportedly increased by 29%.

Over a decade later, the design continues to influence bridal dress trends, with celebrity taste-makers like Kim Kardashian favouring a long sleeved lace gown, similar to the Burton design.

It is not only the significance of the occasion and the wearer that ensures the longevity of this dress’s iconic status. Its artistry reflects the creativity of Burton and her passion for craftsmanship, storytelling and romance, while ensuring the legacy of Lee Alexander McQueen. Burton herself has stated that while legacy can sometimes be seen as curse it is also a “wonderful opportunity for invention”.

2. Gisele Bündchen at the Met Gala, 2011

Blonde supermodel in a red flowing, strapless gown.
Giselle wears Sarah Burton’s design at the 2011 MET Gala. EPA/Justin Lane

During her tenure, Burton has been responsible for the creation of many memorable designs worn by celebrities for events such as the Met Gala and the Oscars.

Burton dressed Gisele Bündchen – a top supermodel of the 1990s and 2000s who often walked McQueen’s runway shows – for the Met Gala. The red, dropped waist gown paid tribute to Lee Alexander McQueen, referencing his passion for tailoring and drama with the cascading skirt.

The theme of the 2011 Met Gala, Savage Beauty, was inspired by the Alexander McQueen exhibition at The Costume Institute in New York. Paying homage to McQueen, attendees reflected upon his unorthodox genius. In 2015, Forbes named Burton’s dress for Bündchen as one of the most unforgettable Met Gala dresses of all time.

Nicole Kidman in a black and silver sparkly dress.
Nicole Kidman wears a Sarah Burton design to the 2016 MET Gala. EPA/Justin Lane

3. Nicole Kidman at the Met Gala, 2016

The theme for the 2016 gala was Manus X Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology. Burton’s design for Nicole Kidman was an art deco-inspired celestial gown that had been adapted from the 2016 runway collection.

The design included a sheer cape which showcased the designer’s skill in embroidery through embellishments of beaded moons and stars.

With its geometric shapes and celestial imagery, the dress echoed the work of the art deco artist Erté (1892-1990), reflecting the McQueen label’s interest in historical references.

4. Lady Gaga, A Star is Born premiere, 2018

Lady Gaga on the red carpet in a gold and white dress with a ruff round the neck.
Lady Gaga wears a Sarah Burton design to the Star is Born premiere. EPA/Neil Hall

Lady Gaga is well known for her eccentric approach to fashion and she was a great fan, and personal friend, of Lee Alexander McQueen. In 2018, Gaga wowed the crowds at the London Premiere to her Star is Born movie. She was dressed in an archival look which had been designed by Burton in 2013.

This extravagant design paid homage to the Elizabethan era with a corseted bodice, pearls, decorative ruff and exaggerated sleeves. Burton’s design showcased the intricate attention to detail and romance that the designer embodied. The 2013 collection was inspired by the Anglican Church and each garment took two weeks to make.

5. Lady Gaga, the Oscars, 2019

Lady Gaga on the Oscars red carpet in a sleeveless black dress
Lady Gaga wears a Sarah Burton design to the Oscars. EPA/Etienne Laurent

It was a black McQueen dress that Gaga chose to wear to the 2019 Oscars, when she was nominated for best actress and best song for A Star is Born. Burton’s design had an exaggerated silhouette with padded hips and a long train, reflecting the designer’s skill for combining tailoring with drama.

Gaga accessorised the McQueen gown with a 142-year-old Tiffany diamond, that had only been worn three times and was worth USD$30 million (£24 million).

Burton’s departure from McQueen comes as the label’s parent company, the French luxury goods group Kering SA, is restructuring. What the future may hold for Burton is unknown, although there is some speculation that she may start her own label.

Burton’s iconic designs and creative flair will leave a lasting imprint on the house of Alexander McQueen, one that its late founder would undoubtedly have been immensely proud of.

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