Safely sheltering McQueen's Legacy

By Kala Viches, Columnist

Reflecting on the year 2010 in fashion, one word comes to mind: disappointing. Perhaps we can blame the poor economy – from which many design houses are still recovering – but when the top fashion story of the year is a pop star in a meat dress, things are in rough shape.

Indeed, the past year seemed to be doomed from the beginning. It was only February when the fashion community was rocked with the news of British designer Lee Alexander McQueen’s suicide, a morbid scene that seemed too appropriate to be true: the designer hanged himself in his wardrobe with his favourite belt. Three years after the suicide of his mentor and muse Isabella Blow and just days after the loss of his mother to cancer, McQueen’s untimely death served as a gruesome reminder that even the most inspiring personality can fall victim to despair. When I got to school the next day, the mood was solemn; it turns out I am not the only would-be fashion student who used to sit in their parents’ den watching Fashion File, thinking, “I want to be like Alexander McQueen.”

As the industry overcame the shock of McQueen's death, the question of the brand's future nagged. The Gucci Group - which owns several fashion labels including Gucci, Balenciaga, YSL and 50 per cent of Stella McCartney's self-titled line – had bought majority of Alexander McQueen in 2000, leaving McQueen himself to govern the company as Creative Director. Although Alexander McQueen has seen a decrease in revenue over the last few seasons, the brand remains a strong player in international fashion and a valuable asset that The Gucci Group was not eager to see die with its designer. As the design team scrambled to complete an unfinished collection that was set to be shown at Paris Fashion Week – just three weeks after McQueen's suicide – the company's management scrambled to find a successor who would be able to interpret McQueen's vision without breaking the brand's momentum. Finally, on May 27th it was announced that the designer's long time assistant and friend Sarah Burton would take over – a decision that makes me feel confident that 2011 has more in store for us than 2010.

The fashion industry is no stranger to successors (the explosion of Chanel under Karl Lagerfeld’s direction, for example, is a testament to the value that fresh blood can have on a company) but what makes the McQueen-Burton transition an interesting one to watch is the relative adolescence of both the company and the respective designers. While Chanel has been going strong for the better part of the last century, Alexander McQueen’s line has only been in existence since the designer graduated from London’s Central Saint Martin’s design school in the early 1990s. And while the brand gained almost instant international success, especially among a younger generation of fashion observers, it is only now beginning to establish the kind of loyalty that has afforded other brands so much longevity.

It’s a daunting task, but one that Sarah Burton seems especially well equipped to handle. Like McQueen, Burton is an alumni of Central St. Martin’s, through which she earned a work placement with the company while still attending school. Upon graduating in 1997, she was hired to the Alexander McQueen design team, eventually earning the title of head of women’s wear in 2000. But credentials aside, the job of carrying Alexander McQueen into a new decade is one that is also highly emotional – the 35-year-old designer must both honour McQueen’s vision and prove herself as an independent designer with her own point of view, all under the scrupulous watch of devoted Alexander McQueen fans and fashion insiders alike.

2010 provided three tests for Burton, the first being the presentation of the 16-piece women’s couture collection for Paris Fashion Week, which although predominantly designed by McQueen himself, was quietly completed by Burton. In June, Burton presented an elegant menswear collection entitled Pomp & Circumstance that was both sombre and dignified, and earned a sigh of relief from critics who wondered about Burton’s appointment. But what really solidified the new designer as the brand’s figurehead was her presentation of the Alexander McQueen women’s collection in October. With a distinctly “wearable art” feel that has become a trademark of the brand, the collection was an ethereal take on women’s fashion and included embossed leather leaves, a bodice made of strands of wheat and a dress made entirely of tiny fabricated butterfly wings. There was a strong element of drama and femininity that paid homage to the late designer, but there was also a softer, more relaxed feel to the collection that was Burton’s alone. I don’t usually like to use the word “safe” because it seems to imply laziness, but in this case Burton’s safety was deeply respectful.

As she told Women’s Wear Daily, “There will always be this McQueen spirit and essence. But, of course, I'm a woman so maybe more from a woman's point of view.” I look forward to see what Burton will bring us in 2011.

Kala Vilches is a graduate of the fashion program at Kwantlen college. Because of that, as well as her notably next-level wardrobe, she is in a position to share her experiences and woes with us. Find her on Facebook. Then "like" her photos. She loves that.

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