Since Alexander McQueen's death on 11 February this year, speculation has been rife as to who would have the requisite talent and insight to continue the designer's legacy – or even if the company would survive his loss.
Industry whispers came to an end yesterday when it was announced that his right-hand woman, 35-year-old Sarah Burton, was to be propelled into the spotlight, taking over as the creative director of the label. Up until this point, Burton has been a behind-the-scenes force to be reckoned with but outside McQueen's intimate circle is little known. Given that McQueen's output was unusually personal, however, it would have been a daunting – if not futile – prospect for a big name to take on. Burton was closer to McQueen creatively than anyone else and her designs are therefore likely to remain faithful to his vision. Indeed, that will doubtless be her primary concern.
The critical decision as to who would succeed the great designer was made by executives at Alexander McQueen as well as the Gucci Group (and parent company PPR – Pinault Printemps La Redoute) which has controlled McQueen's business since acquiring a 51 per cent stake in it in December 2000. The deal marked the transition from independently owned, insider label to globally recognised brand in only a decade.
Sarah Burton, who was McQueen's first and only ever design assistant, was promoted to head of design following the acquisition. She worked with the designer on everything from one-off pieces crafted for the likes of Bjork, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Lady Gaga and Sylvie Guillem, to his main line women's wear collection – the one shown on the Paris catwalk every six months – pre-collections, small accessories lines and more.
Burton, it is widely acknowledged, was also always responsible for translating McQueen's more extravagant ideas into a clearly commercial reality. If McQueen's position was that of brilliantly innovative creator of increasingly refined clothing, not to mention wildly imaginative showman, it was Burton's role to assist him in realising any goals as well as ensuring that his work became accessible to a wider audience, although the label remains a primarily elitist concern.
"1996-present Alexander McQueen," read the biography that was sent out as the news broke. And that brief statement says it all. Burton, who was born and grew up in Manchester, first worked alongside McQueen as an intern while still studying fashion at London's Central Saint Martin's. She never left, completing her MA at the famous college in 1997 – McQueen finished the same course at the same college only five years earlier – before joining the company full time.
In March this year, and only weeks after McQueen committed suicide, it fell to Burton, and the unusually small and tightly-knit team that she now presides over, to complete the collection that he had started. She did so displaying both a profound sensitivity to the sadness of the occasion and knowledge of the hugely complex creative and technical process that drove the designer. It was no small achievement.
Like everyone who worked closely with McQueen, Burton was his friend and the discipline required to rise to this task under such difficult circumstances displays the sort of courage and determination that McQueen himself possessed and of which he would have been proud.
It's small wonder, then, that since that time she has been most often cited as likely to take creative control of the brand.
In fact, the story of a relatively young designer installed as creative director of a well-known label once its founder has either died or retired has played a large part in defining fashion over the past 15 years and more. McQueen himself was famously appointed chief designer at Givenchy in October 1996.
Prior to that, Tom Ford set about transforming Gucci into the status label to see and be seen wearing. Add to the list Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton. Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga, Christopher Bailey at Burberry, John Galliano at Dior... The list goes on, resembling a suitably elaborate and at times somewhat theatrical game of designer musical chairs.
The fruits of any such movement within the fashion industry have proved wildly inconsistent. Those who have benefited from the smoothest transition share in common the fact either that quite some time has passed since a house's namesake has departed – as is the case at Balenciaga where Ghesquière was named creative director in 1997 almost 30 years after Cristobal Balenciaga retired – or that the luxury goods name in question was previously known for accessories only, as with both Gucci and Louis Vuitton before the aforementioned Ford and Jacobs added clothing to their portfolios. In both cases, a designer is able to put their own stamp onto a name and to use any heritage without being over-burdened by it.
More than a few such appointments have proved controversial, however. McQueen's four-year tenure at Givenchy was an unhappy one as the outspoken designer was always quick to confirm. In 1999 when the Gucci Group bought Yves Saint Laurent, Alber Elbaz, personally chosen by that house's founder, was unceremoniously ousted and replaced by Ford again. Both sides were characteristically polite – in fact, characteristically silent – but it's no secret that Elbaz took a hard knock.
He disappeared and spent a year travelling before, in 2001, he took over at Lanvin – the couturier Jeanne Lanvin died in 1946 – that, in his hands, became one of the success stories of the new millennium. When it was Ford's turn to step down, in this instance from his position as creative director of the entire Gucci Group in 2004, having failed, incidentally, to make a mark at Yves Saint Laurent, it is widely believed that Alexander McQueen was offered the creative directorship of that great French name and that he turned it down.
It is perhaps unfortunate – if inevitable – that only days after McQueen's death the rumour mill began turning. It was argued, variously, that the company might be best advised to suspend production on the one hand – the business was struggling to establish itself financially and it was nonsensical to put another name at the helm. On the other, designers including, most persistently, Gareth Pugh, were name-checked as possible contenders where taking over was concerned. To his credit, Pugh went on record to deny that he was in talks with the label.
Founded in 1992 by the designer, Alexander McQueen is certainly still a young brand, and also one defined up until this point, by the personality of its founder. With this in mind, Burton, who has an intimate and intuitive understanding of the man she worked with for so long, is McQueen's only convincing successor.
"Having worked alongside Lee McQueen for more than 14 years, she has a deep understanding of his vision which will allow the company to stay true to its core values," Alexander McQueen CEO, Jonathan Akeroyd confirmed."
"The creation of modern, beautifully crafted clothes was at the heart of Lee's vision. I intend to stay true to his legacy," Burton said.