Why Kate adores the designer who creates ‘soft armour for women’: She made the Princess of Wales’s wedding dress, now Sarah Burton presents her last McQueen collection
- Sarah Burton, designer of Kate’s bridal gown, took helm at Alexander McQueen
- Plum Sykes profiles the designer who she turned to for her own wedding dress
The first time I met Sarah Burton properly was when Alexander McQueen was making my wedding dress. It was the spring of 2005 and I was a writer at American Vogue.
Alexander was then at the height of his genius, and we’d become friends since meeting in the early 1990s. He had a charming studio in Islington, North London, a beautiful space in a Victorian building flooded with natural light.
He also had a brilliant team around him — including one Sarah Burton, his then 30-year-old head of design for womenswear, who’d joined his entourage as a 21-year-old intern in 1996.
It would be Sarah who would make my dress, to one of Alexander’s hastily sketched designs. Little did I know then that his prodigy would soon make another, rather more famous wedding dress — for Kate Middleton — forging a partnership that has become one of the most powerful in fashion.
Recent news that Burton is stepping down from the helm of McQueen, a role she’s held since Alexander’s sudden death in 2010, has shocked the fashion world. Burton was so intertwined with McQueen’s vision, it is hard to imagine the brand without her.
Birthday belle: Kate’s official portrait to mark her 40th birthday saw her sporting one of Burton’s creations
Rare talent: McQueen creative director Sarah Burton (left) with supermodel Kate Moss
READ MORE: ALL THE TIMES KATE’S STYLE INSPIRED OTHERS – FROM IVANKA TRUMP TO MEGHAN MARKLE
She is in many ways the industry’s best-kept secret — a designer’s designer who shuns the limelight herself, but whose creations for the Princess of Wales have made headlines the world over.
For many years, Kate has relied on Burton for her big, high-profile public occasions. At successive Bafta awards she has worn flowing, chiffon McQueen evening gowns reminiscent of 1940s movie stars’.
For formal walkabouts and meetings, she is rarely out of a smart McQueen coat or suit, and for the most significant royal events, she chooses Burton’s designs time and again.
Kate looked impeccable for her sister Pippa’s 2017 wedding in a dusky pink McQueen dress of heavy silk crepe with exaggerated cuffs. For Prince Harry and Meghan’s wedding the following year, she wore a simple but immaculately cut cream coat dress.
At the christening of Prince Louis, it was an ivory V-neck dress with puffed shoulders, and for the Trooping the Colour in 2018, a baby-blue square-necked dress.
For her 40th birthday portraits, taken by legendary fashion photographer Paolo Roversi, Kate wore three McQueen gowns: a dramatic red dress with a billowing sleeve and pockets; a white one-shoulder dress; and a fairy-tale ballgown of tulle and organdie.
For King Charles’s coronation in May, both Kate and daughter Charlotte wore McQueen. There is clearly a bond of incredible trust between the Princess and Sarah.
From my own first fitting with her, I knew I was in talented hands. The design was a traditional corseted gown. It had a tiny waist, long skirt and intricate embroidery on the bodice, with layers of hand-ruched silk net delicately stitched onto the dramatic train.
Game-changing gown: Burton fixes Kate’s train as she prepares to walk down the aisle on her wedding day in 2011
READ MORE: KATE MIDDLETON’S GREAT BRITISH WARDROBE FROM BEULAH TO ALEXANDER MCQUEEN AND EVEN M&S
My first fitting involved trying on a ‘toile’ (a prototype that couture houses use to perfect a design). I remember Sarah as an unassuming young woman with translucent skin, a smattering of freckles and dark blonde hair with a long fringe that she tended to hide behind. She had been brought up in the North-West, and generally dressed in jeans and a white shirt, always with a pin-cushion on her arm.
She was focused and determined to make me the perfect dress.
I remember being amazed that the toile was made of the same silk taffeta as my gown — it’s more usual for toiles to be made of an inexpensive fabric in case of mistakes. But Sarah explained that Alexander often made toiles in the same material as the final piece, however costly, because that way he could be more precise.
By the time my wedding dress was ready, Sarah had made a total of nine toiles over several months, created an incredible corset and commissioned the most beautiful embroidery. No doubt Kate would have gone through an even lengthier process for her wedding dress.
Sarah’s attention to detail was formed from the earliest stages of her career. She tweaked, she refined, she got as excited about the wedding as I was, and even commissioned a pair of silk shoes with embroidery to match the gown.
Needless to say the final dress was exquisite, and she had made sure a tiny, pale blue silk bow had been sewn inside it so that I had ‘something blue’.
The bill for such a dress would normally have been vast, in the tens of thousands of pounds, but Alexander made it for me at ‘cost’, and did not take a profit.
McQueen dream: Kate in a chiffon ballgown
Over the next few years, Sarah was a constant presence at the house of McQueen. She was Alexander’s right-hand woman, but she never had airs or graces about her. She was simply the quiet force behind the throne.
The company later moved to glamorous offices in Clerkenwell, and whenever I was in London, I would pay a visit, either to see Alexander or occasionally to borrow a dress for an event. Sarah was the sort of person who would pop down from her studio, no matter how busy she was, to say hello.
Of course, we always talked about the fashion business, but we often chatted about our children, too. She is not only a highly successful career woman but, just as importantly, a wife to photographer David Burton and mother to three children — ten-year-old twins and a seven-year-old.
When Alexander died suddenly in 2010, aged only 40, Burton was devastated. But there was little doubt who would take over from him, and she was named as his successor almost immediately.
Still, she knew she was following in the footsteps of a genius and was (sensibly) intimidated by the prospect. After she had been offered the role, she told me, she telephoned Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour in a panic and asked for her advice. She said Anna simply told her ‘You have to do it’ — and that was the end of that.
It wasn’t long after Burton became creative director of McQueen that Kate Middleton commissioned her to design the dress for her marriage to Prince William in 2011.
The soul of discretion, Sarah kept the whole thing secret until the very last minute, although there were whispers that Kate would wear McQueen after she had apparently admired Sara Buys’s exquisite wedding dress, also designed by Burton, when she married Queen Camilla’s son, Tom Parker Bowles, in 2005.
Writer Plum Sykes pictured in a stunning Alexander McQueen dress on her own wedding day
With its nipped-in waist, dramatic skirt, nine-foot train and delicate lace sleeves and shoulders, Kate’s wedding dress was a magnificent piece of work, which catapulted Burton into another league.
The gown redefined and softened the famously sharp McQueen silhouette for a fresh era.
Burton’s take on the McQueen look would henceforth be a softer, slightly more feminine version of what at times had been too edgy and extreme for some women.
In one of her rare interviews, Burton called her style ‘soft armour for women’, which very high-profile females such as the Princess of Wales might well find useful as a sartorial philosophy.
‘You can be dominant in a quiet way,’ Burton told British Vogue in 2018, of her working practice in the office and cutting room.
After the royal wedding, she attained a new level of global fame as a zeitgeist-defining designer. Yet the attention didn’t change her and, most admirably, there was no suggestion that she would use her relationship with Kate to promote herself.
There is no diva here; just a woman whose talent and work speaks for itself.
From that moment, it seems that Kate was hooked on the look. But it’s not just Burton’s royal connections that impress. She has also built the McQueen brand —still relatively young when she took the helm — into a hugely successful business, with 100 stores around the world and an annual turnover of £600-700 million.
Since 2010, Burton has produced two stunning collections a year. She is able to make everything from dresses, suits, evening gowns and jeans, to shoes, handbags, jewellery and sunglasses, all with that cool, desirable McQueen look — the sharp shoulders, the impossibly tiny waist, the long torso that transforms a woman into a warrior.
Over the years she has dressed some of the most iconic female stars on the planet, including Hollywood A-lister Cate Blanchett, models Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell, and musicians Florence Welch and FKA Twigs. Lady Gaga never looked more stylish at the Oscars than in 2019, when she wore a stark black McQueen 1950s-inspired dress.
And when former child star Elle Fanning stepped onto the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival this summer in a corseted pale pink McQueen ballgown with flowing chiffon skirt, she exuded grown-up movie-star glamour.
Still, Burton was never just about celebrities and models. When Francois-Henri Pinault, owner of the Kering Group, which acquired a majority stake in the McQueen brand in 2001, threw an amazing candlelit dinner party in London to celebrate the opening of the flagship Alexander McQueen store on Old Bond Street in 2019, I was not surprised that the guest list for the party was as inclusive of the team in the studio as it was of the most important people in the fashion world.
It was true to Burton’s working ethos that seated among the likes of the then British Vogue editor Edward Enninful and supermodel Naomi Campbell were the pattern-cutter, corset-maker and other technicians from her atelier.
On Saturday, at Paris Fashion Week, she will present her last collection under the McQueen brand. Fashion’s VIPs will no doubt gather to see it, and I imagine a tear or two will be shed, for it really will feel like the end of an era.
I hope that, after a much-deserved rest, Burton, still only 49, starts her own label and does not quit the fashion business entirely.
She is one of those rare people who has flair, determination and technical skill in equal measure, and who quietly rose to the top on talent alone.
And there’s no doubt that if she does carry on designing, the Princess of Wales will be one of her very first customers.
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