Fashion & Beauty / Behind the Pages

Celebrating Sarah Burton's OBE

After her includion on the Queen's Birthday Honours List, Sarah Burton, will receive her OBE from Prince Charles at a ceremony today, for her services to the British fashion industry. To celebrate, we revisit Susannah Frankel's interview...

Alexander McQueen S/S12
Alexander McQueen S/S12 Styling by Cathy Edwards, Film Stills by Catherine Sullivan, from AnOther Magazine S/S12

After her inclusion on the Queen's Birthday Honours List for her services to the British fashion industry, Sarah Burton will receive her OBE from Prince Charles at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace today. To celebrate, we revisit Susannah Frankel's interview with Burton in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of AnOther Magazine, charting her journey from Central Saint Martins to creative director at one of the most respected design houses of our time.

Sarah Burton was born in 1974 in the village of Prestbury, near Manchester. Her mother is 
a music teacher, her father an accountant. She has two sisters and two brothers. She attended Withington Girls School which she describes as “very academic. It was an all-girls private school and they really made you feel that you could do anything, that particularly as a woman you could do anything you wanted.” Burton was a high-achiever across the board but she excelled especially in English, history and art. “I remember I was the only person in my year doing art A Level,” she says, “and that everyone wanted to go to Oxford or Cambridge.” Although she was offered a place at the former – at the Ruskin College of Art – following a foundation course at Manchester Polytechnic, she came to London and to Central Saint Martins to study fashion instead. “I used to draw a lot. I’d always drawn clothes, dresses. I remember buying Vogue from a very early age. I would tear out 
the pages and put them on my bedroom wall. 
The early Calvin Klein pictures, Avedon pictures… My art teacher said: you have to 
go to Saint Martins.”

The powers that be at the world’s most famous fashion school advised Burton to study fashion design and print: “I used a lot of colour and loved silk-screen printing.” Among her teachers was Simon Ungless, a close friend of Alexander McQueen’s who had known and worked with him since the very early days. With his guidance, in her third year, Burton took up a work placement at McQueen, then far from the internationally recognised business it is today and located in a far from well-equipped basement in Hoxton Square.

"I used to get goose bumps when I watched [Lee] in fittings. Even in recent years, he’d cut out 
a sleeve and then he’d go downstairs and sew it up"

Despite its modest beginnings, “it was beyond inspiring”, Burton says. “I felt it was a privilege to be there. Lee had this energy and Katy (England, McQueen’s creative director until 2007) did too. They worked very closely together and were both just the most awe-inspiring people. I was really young, and very shy. I was one of only a few students and because the company was so small we actually made a lot of the pieces. Lee would cut the patterns and we would make them. I remember the first week 
I was there, he pinned a wedding dress on a stand and then went home asking me to finish it. I phoned up my mum in a panic. I wasn’t great on a sewing machine so I did the entire thing 
by hand.”

It almost goes without saying that Burton was a fast learner. “I realised almost immediately: pattern-cutting, that was what it was all about. As the stories go, you’d go home in the evening and come back the following morning and 
there would be these incredible things that Lee had stayed up all night to make. It was like 
a baptism of fire. Saint Martins taught me 
a lot but in a year at McQueen you discovered 
the whole process.”

With McQueen’s blessing, Burton went back to Saint Martins to complete her degree but returned immediately after. That was in 1997. She never left. The turning point in her career came, she says, in 2000 when Sebastian Pons, McQueen’s then first assistant, left to start his own label and she was promoted. “Lee really did teach me everything,” Burton remembers. 
“I used to get goose bumps when I watched him in fittings. Even in recent years, he’d cut out 
a sleeve and then he’d go downstairs and sew it up. A lot of designers just come in and tweak but he really created those clothes. I don’t think there are a lot of people who can do that and 
I remember the students all looking at him 
like I once did. Oh my God. You’d never seen anything like that before.”

This text by Susannah Frankel, appeared in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of AnOther Magazine. See Catherine Sullivan's McQueen film here.