The word “nice” overcomes a multitude of human complications: People can be rich, so long as they’re nice; they can be lazy at school or useless at work, but if they’re nice, it doesn’t matter. Nice is not the same as “great” or “lovely” or even “sweet” — it’s a category of well-pitched, ordinary decency, and a person who has niceness has everything. To my mind, Sarah Burton is not merely one of the world’s greatest designers, she just happens to be the nicest, and she is about to enjoy the flowering of her life. Once thought of as the diligent one, the silent one, the reliable power behind the dazzle of Alexander McQueen, she has emerged as a person with a devastating music of her own. Season after season, she produces beautiful combinations of the gracious and the eerie, giving us worlds that we didn’t know until we saw them. And now, after some dark winters and several seasons in the media sun, Burton seems free somehow, and ready to stake her claim on the future.
“性格好”这个词可以超越很多人类的复杂处境：性格好的人可以发财；不爱学习、工作上一无是处也没问题，只要你性格好就没关系。“性格好”跟“了不起”、“可爱”、“甜美可亲”之类的词还不一样，它悦耳动听、带着一种低调的体面，性格好的人就能拥有一切。在我看来，莎拉·伯顿(Sarah Burton)不仅是这个世界上最好的设计师，还是个性格顶好的人，如今她正准备享受人生最美好的时期。她曾被视为勤勉的人，沉默的人，华丽的亚历山大·麦昆(Alexander McQueen)品牌背后可靠的力量，如今她作为独立的个人而崛起，伴随着摧枯拉朽的背景音乐。一季又一季，她设计的时装集优雅与怪诞于一身，展现出我们根本无法去想像的崭新世界。经历了几个黑暗的冬天，又经历了几季媒体的曝光，伯顿如今似乎自由了，已经准备好去实现自己的目标。
It is four years since Alexander McQueen — or “Lee,” as he was called — who in addition to being Burton’s boss was also her beloved friend and mentor, committed suicide. She was heartbroken — she finished the collection, assumed the role of head designer (which she never sought) and, soon after, in the hot glare of speculation, made the wedding dress of the decade, for the Duchess of Cambridge. To do it all, to bear it, and still be nice, is to exhibit a set of capabilities that adds even more to an already first-rate talent. I didn’t know Sarah Burton, but we got together over several weeks for this story, at her studio, at restaurants, backstage at one of her shows and, finally, at her house in North London. The first time I met her, I noticed how bitten her nails were, how self-doubting she was and how vulnerable. Yet over the weeks, her strength emerged as it does in her work: determined, sure-footed, risky, humorous and ready to open her soul in order to make contact with people. She hadn’t given an interview for almost two years before this one and even then had said very little, and she found herself speaking in a new way. A portrait emerged of a brilliant woman whose nature has been tested under severe conditions. And yet the person I met could laugh for England, making life stories, and her own life story, into an elegant aria of dreaming and believing. There is depth to her niceness, and a niceness to her depth, which has not only quadrupled her company’s fortunes, but which promises a wealth of great work to come.
Burton grew up outside Manchester. Her father was an accountant and her mother was a music teacher. She has four siblings. When she described her childhood to me she spoke a lot about education, about her father feeling that knowledge was something “nobody can take away from you.” On weekends, she and her brothers and sisters would be taken to places such as the Manchester Art Gallery, where she remembers doting on the pre-Raphaelite paintings. When we talked about influences, she sometimes glanced over her own personal things, as if she might always be haunted by the things that once haunted Lee McQueen. “I don’t have that darkness,” she said to me one morning as buses roared past her office on Clerkenwell Road. “I’m not haunted or sad. I don’t have that story in my youth.”
“But some artists are lured towards their opposite,” I said.
“That’s right. Some people think the pre-Raphaelites show a rather insipid way of representing beauty. But the painting of Ophelia [by John Everett Millais] is dark and beautiful at the same time.”
“是的。有些人觉得拉斐尔前派用一种相对平淡的方式来展现美。但（约翰·埃弗里特·米莱斯[John Everett Millais]创作的）奥菲利亚油画既阴郁又美丽。”
“She’s being pulled under by what Shakespeare called ‘her weedy trophies,’ ” I said. “Literally, being sunk and drowned by her dress. That’s not going to happen to you, is it?”
“No, it’s not,” she said. “Though I couldn’t always swear to it.”
“Who is your hero?” I asked.
“I think my dad is my hero,” she said. “He works so hard, and he never lies. He believes in family. He’s always been totally fair. And he treats everybody in the family equally.”
I looked for the sources of Burton’s memories of childhood, and the pictures she looked at in Manchester offer a host of beautiful, melancholy signals in abundant, colorful cloth: in “La Mort d’Arthur” by James Archer, a woman and a ghost grieve at the feet of the magical king. “The Lady of Shalott” by William Holman Hunt is drawn from Tennyson’s poem about a woman devoted to her loom and her weave who makes a fateful journey to the outside world. Yet Burton says she had a wonderfully happy childhood. The darkness was stored, and she grew up among the flora and fauna of the North — the windswept moors, the Pennine hills, the long green valleys they call the dales — which finds its way relentlessly into the best of her designs. “I’ve always loved nature,” she says. “I grew up in the countryside, and when I was a child I loved to paint and draw — that was my first love, actually. Eventually I was drawing clothes, but at first it was flowers and vegetables. So often we were outside, playing.”
我想寻找伯顿童年记忆的源头，还有她曾在曼彻斯特观赏过的那些油画，它们通过鲜艳繁复的服装传递出美丽而伤感的讯息：在詹姆斯·亚瑟(James Archer)的《亚瑟王之死》(La Mort d’Arthur)中，一个女人和一个鬼魂在那个有魔力的国王脚边哭泣。威廉·霍尔曼·亨特(William Holman Hunt)的《夏洛特夫人》(The Lady of Shalott)是根据丁尼生(Tennyson)的诗画成的，她本来是个一生都在织布的女人，如今来到外面的世界，做一次宿命的旅行。但伯顿说，她的童年很快乐。阴暗的东西都被封存起来，她是在北方的花丛与各种动物的陪伴下长大的——微风吹过原野，吹过奔宁山脉，吹过绿油油的山谷——这一切都常常在她最好的作品当中出现。“我一直都热爱大自然，”她说，“我生长在乡间，从小就喜欢油画和素描，它们是我最早喜欢上的东西。最后我开始画衣服，但是一开始我画的是花朵和蔬菜。我们经常在户外玩耍。”
“What was play for you?” I asked.
“A lot of dressing up.”
“Were you the boss?”
“Yes, always,” Burton said, laughing. “My poor younger sister, she’d get the not-so-good outfits. Fashion wasn’t something in the psyche. I learned very early on you had to go with your heart and it doesn’t matter what people say. My job is quite fearful — I don’t shout the loudest, and I’m quite shy, which was why I was reluctant to throw myself into the public eye. I love beauty, craftsmanship, storytelling and romance, and I probably don’t have the armor to survive the relentless competition that exists in this particular world. But I have my own toughness.”
You see it in her collections. There is nothing fey about them, and her bold, searching intelligence is everywhere. What she makes are couture works of art, full of a wonderful dreamlike phantasmagoria. As if the material, the organza, the silk and the leather, was alive not only to history itself but to her own personal history, the dark and the light. Sometimes her stylistic similarities to McQueen have been levied as a criticism against Burton. “What do people think I was for all those years, the cleaner?” She helped him draw out the savage brilliance that first made the house famous. For such a retiring person, Burton had no problem journeying with him into the madness of the macabre, the rigid body-contoured corsets, the gold-painted fox-skeleton wrap, the bondage pieces, the kimono-style parachute, the antlered bridal gowns. She helped give birth to these designs and is said to have kept the show on the road through many difficult episodes. But she’s ultimately a different kind of artist. It’s hard to see her sharing the dark roots of McQueen’s fetishistic damage obsession. (His famous “Highland Rape” show, which McQueen said was about the rape of Scotland by England, took place before she joined the company.)
Burton’s darkness is more masked, almost more surprising. It comes unbidden from a place of relative personal optimism and sunniness. Her hauntings are more romantic, and the materials she uses are increasingly different, more celebratory of enduring life and returning nature, despite the brutality at nature’s core. I’d also argue that a larger sense of wearability, and of lightness, of small detail and cool craftsmanship, has matched the house to a new and bigger audience. She is fiercely loyal to Lee McQueen, a fact which brought her, several times during our interviews, past the brink of tears. She loves who he was and wants the company he founded to continually honor his memory, but she has to move on. The work already has moved on, and she knows that is what McQueen himself would have demanded. There is now a feeling, I detect, that she is ready to let him rest, no matter how hard that is. All the great houses had to move beyond their founding geniuses: Coco Chanel died, one must remember, and so did Cristobal Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent. Burton took over under traumatic circumstances, and it has taken her this long to be able to truly speak. It took a little work but eventually she opened up about some of the difficulties she’d had. We sat at a large table in her workshop with dresses hanging on every side, organza puffballs, feathered slips. She spoke with love but also with an essential determination.
伯顿内心的黑暗更隐蔽，也更令人惊讶。它从个人乐观主义和活泼的个性之中不自觉地冒出来。她所执迷的东西更加浪漫，她选用的材料愈来愈多样化，歌颂着生命的韧性与回归自然，尽管自然的本质是残酷的。我想说，她设计的服装更加耐穿、更轻盈，细节更精美，做工更考究，更能适应这个品牌不断增加的新受众。她对李·麦昆极为忠诚，在我们的采访中几次差点落泪。她爱着他本来的样子，希望能让他亲手缔造的公司一直纪念他，但她也得前进了。她的作品已经开始向前走了，她知道，麦昆本人也希望这样。我发现她已经准备好，可以放手让他安眠，不管这有多么艰难。所有伟大的时装品牌都得超越自己天才的缔造者。要知道，可可·香奈儿(Coco Chanel)已经去世，克里斯托瓦尔·巴伦夏卡(Cristobal Balenciaga)和伊夫·圣·洛朗(Yves Saint Laurent)也一样。伯顿在公司备受创伤时接管了局势，她花了这么长的时间，才能把这一切真正说出口。我们坐在她工作室大大的桌边，四周挂满衣服：透明硬纱百褶裙、羽毛薄裙。她的语气中充满爱意，但也不乏坚定。
“He would sit here and I would sit there,” she said, pointing to two chairs. “Sometimes he’d call me at 3 o’clock in the morning just to talk, and we had this relationship where . . . I would do anything for him. And then when he died I didn’t want the job, but then everybody was going to leave and I thought, ‘Well, what else are you going to do?’ ” When somebody with that size of talent dies you’re blessed with this legacy, and the legacy gets more and more. “Lee is Marilyn Monroe. He’s James Dean. And to be honest, it’s taken me a while to stop being afraid and see that the company needs me to be at my best.”
“他就坐在这儿，我坐在那儿，”她指着两张椅子说。“有时候他凌晨三点给我打电话，只是想聊天，我们的关系好到……我什么都愿意为他做。然后他死了，我不想做这份工作，但当时所有人都想走，我想：‘好吧，那我还能怎么办呢？’”一个这样有才华的人离去之后，你会受惠于他所遗下的东西，这份遗产还会日益增加。“李就像玛丽莲·梦露(Marilyn Monroe)，就像詹姆斯·迪恩(James Dean)。诚实地说，我花了好长时间才不再忧虑，觉得公司确实需要我保持在最佳状态。”
“Did you feel angry at him?”
“Because he left you. Because he destroyed himself. Because you had to finish the collection. Because you had to take over. And maybe nobody gave you permission to be angry?”
“I’m not sure,” she said. “But the hardest thing is that I never really understood the pressure he was under. He could deal with all the difficult characters just by telling them to shut up. But I’m not like that. Only now am I beginning to accept the differences between us, and it’s fine. He was a painter who worked in massive brush strokes and I’m a person with tiny brush strokes.”
The media has been on her case since that sad day in 2010. Many designers with less talent would have crumbled under the pressure, but Burton, despite all the fear and all the doubt and all the grief, has established her aesthetic. She speaks a lot off the record and doesn’t want to raise her voice, but eventually she does. “Lee and I weren’t cut from the same cloth, but we often cut into the same cloth, so it shouldn’t surprise people, after all these years, that we shared some basic creative instincts. I think I’ve probably spent too much time expressing an anxiety about Lee’s influence, but that’s coming to an end now and a new period is beginning. I loved Lee, but he is gone. And the decisions I will make for this company have already been bold, I hope, and strong, and driven by a creative integrity that is finding its feet in new ways every day. Every great design house knows that legacy cannot be allowed to be a curse and must be a wonderful opportunity for invention. That’s where I am. That’s who we are.”
It’s worth remembering the motto at Withington Girls’ School, where Burton was a happy pupil in the 1980s: “ad lucem” — toward the light. That is the general direction of her life and her talent. Her husband, David Burton, is also her best friend, and they have twin girls. If you’re available for optimism, as she is, then the movement toward the light will come naturally, with all the opposing shadows existing like ghosts on a glass negative. In her fall show for Alexander McQueen, Burton set all this to life, like a magician of selfhood. A strange, misty moorland — not unconnected to the landscape of her childhood — was the setting for the combination of beautiful tailoring and wild imaginings that characterize the house. There was a sense of romanticism-in-crisis, of the Bronte sisters, of Heathcliff haunted by the cold hand of death scratching at his window, of owls, dreams and the poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whom Burton cites. The dresses came with capes, fur hoods, bell sleeves and delicate, small embroidery, frilled and frayed hemlines. Clothes like these don’t make themselves, and legacy doesn’t make them either. Some designers are driven not by what is flamboyant in them but by what is recessive. Burton brings to the McQueen brand an English tendency toward dark pleasure as opposed to dark pain. She is a prettier designer than many, but always alert to the mysteriously perverse.
20世纪80年代，伯顿在威辛顿女子学校度过了快乐的小学时光，她还记得学校的校训：“ad lucem”——迎着光明。她的人生与创作也大致是朝着这个方向。她的丈夫大卫·伯顿(David Burdon)是她最好的朋友，他们有一对双胞胎女儿。如果你像她那样充满乐观精神，一切就会自然而然地走向光明，身后的那些阴影就和显影底片上的幽灵没什么两样。在伯顿为亚历山大·麦昆推出的秋冬时装秀上，她为这一切赋予了生命，就像一个展现出自己人格的魔法师。秀台背景是一片雾气弥漫的奇异荒原，仿佛连接着她的童年风景，时装有着精心的裁剪和品牌标志性的疯狂想像力。有种危难时刻的浪漫主义，就像勃朗特(Bronte)姊妹，就像希斯克厉夫(Heathciliff)，被那只在他窗口抓挠的冰冷的死亡之手所困扰，就像猫头鹰、梦境与塞缪尔·泰勒·柯勒律治(Samuel Taylor Coleridge)的诗句，伯顿曾经引用过他的诗。这些裙子有斗篷、皮毛兜帽、钟形袖和精美的小小刺绣，还有流苏和做旧的底边。这样的衣服不是凭空而来的，也不是来自遗产。有些设计师被它们内部隐含的东西吸引住了，而不是它们表面上张扬的东西。伯顿为麦昆品牌带来的是一丝英国式的黑暗欢愉，而不是黑暗的痛苦。她比许多设计师要聪明，但一直都对那种神秘的变态怀有警惕之情。
Not everyone has obvious demons. With Lee it was skulls, shipwrecks, hospital inmates and birds of prey. But Burton’s instinct might be more subtle. Her instinct might be to see the fly in the ointment, the crack in the teacup, the little details that make the ordinary strange.
“When I went to Saint Martins” — the art school she attended — “a lot of the people there were these flamboyant characters. I thought, ‘God, I’m not like them.’ I thought, ‘What’s going on? I’m really normal.’ But my own demon is the fear of failure. My obsessional addiction is work and there’s a possible twistedness in always putting myself last, you know?”
“Were you never really interested in being a star designer?”
“Honestly, no. There have been times when, if I could have disappeared from this industry I would have. I had to battle with it. I don’t look like a fashion person, I’m not cool, and I always just loved people who are good at what they do. I’m not interested in going to parties. I hate having my picture taken. When the Met Ball is happening I want to go through the back door. When the giant McQueen show was on there” — which became the biggest draw in the history of the museum — “I didn’t want to go up the red carpet because . . . it’s embarrassing. I’m shy. When celebrities tap me on the shoulder I think they’re asking me to move out of the way. And you know: It doesn’t bother me. I smile about it with my husband, we’re secure. And to me the only story that is worth telling is the story of the work.”
Someone who works with Burton told me about the pressure she came under to accept the job at McQueen. She was approached for the creative directorship of another major fashion house at the same time and this person told her she’d regret not accepting the offer. “You’ll always be haunted at McQueen,” she said. After Lee’s suicide, the co-worker remembers Burton burning a candle in Lee’s room and leaving off the lights: “There was just this candle. Sarah had this giant decision to make. And we were all relieved when she took the job. We always knew she had a whole vision of her own that helped Lee’s vision but was peculiar to her.”
Burton told me she was relieved to be able to talk again about the basics of design and inspiration. She felt she’d been tossed around in a sea of media obsessions — the hunger for news about her relationship with the royals still persists, and a few days before we first met, the media camped on her doorstep again, convinced she had designed Kim Kardashian’s wedding dress, which she hadn’t. With me she became more relaxed, saying it was nice to be back on dry land, talking about ideas, trying to define her way of doing things in a job she loves.
“What have clothes to do with emotion?” I asked.
“Oh, everything,” she said. “They can describe a moment in your life or a feeling that is completely instilled in you. Feeling the texture of the material and seeing how it moves on the body, well, that is emotion — it’s emotion-in-motion. It might interest you to know that the clothes that sell best in our shops is the most extreme stuff — people want to express something about themselves and they find an enabler in us, and that’s emotional.”
One of the reasons Burton has shied away from the media is because certain quarters of it have pursued her. Her biggest project to date, making the royal wedding dress in 2011, meant the press stalked her for months, and the stress of trying to keep the secret and trying to deal with bogus stories came fast on the heels of Lee’s death. The dress was universally admired and it made Alexander McQueen a household name, but there are critics who say she has been too silent. “I had no idea it would be as big as it was. Only the night before, seeing all the photographers outside the abbey, did I think, ‘Oh, my God. This is massive.’ ”
When I first brought the dress up with Burton, she wanted to wave the subject away. But during our second meeting, she appeared resolved to put the matter to rest. “I know we live in a culture obsessed with fame,” she said, “but I happen to believe privacy is a virtue, and the relationship I have with my clients is private. Some people like to think I’ve been too shy or that I’m afraid to speak up about the happy experience I had creating the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress, but I can tell you that is nonsense. I have never been a shrinking violet or a person who is ruled by fear. I loved making the dress, I loved adapting my ideas to suit the person and the occasion, and we put our hearts into it. I respect the intimate nature of that lovely project and I respect the friendships that were forged during it. This is the era of blab, but we’re strong-minded here at McQueen, we always have been, and we’re proud of what we do. There are people in the media who will always want to invent sinister reasons for people’s discretion, but an instinctive, intelligent, imaginative young woman’s wish for a beautiful wedding dress — or any kind of dress — is the most natural thing in the world. And I was honored to pick up the challenge and always will be.”
So there you have it. Does that sound like a frightened artist to you? Like someone playing second fiddle to anyone? She made the most famous dress in the world and survived to tell us that the tale is hers. It provides a perfect antidote to the prurience of our times and shows Burton to be willing not only to take her values into her workplace, into her home life, but now, after a season of rain, into the sunny uplands of her public image.
When I popped backstage to see her after her recent men’s wear show in London, there was a queue of international glamour types lining up to praise what she’d done. It was quite a show — long, lean coats with flashes of red lining, made in Prince of Wales check or houndstooth, with abstract Kabuki patterns lifting them out of England — but she waved off the praise, then smiled broadly when the elderly mother of the show’s hairstylist came up. “Oh, you’re the belle of the ball, so I won’t keep you,” the lady said. “But how’s the kids? Great. Well, let’s be seeing you before long, darling — you’re looking lovely.”
“Would you sooner come back as a butterfly or a bee?” I asked her.
“Oh, a bee,” she said, her Northern accent suddenly obvious. “I think I’m more of a worker than I am a painted lady.” Everybody who knows Burton admires her, and many of them have waited patiently for her to speak out without being hesitant, to embrace the success she’s having, and to let the light of Alexander McQueen shine equally on the past and the present. She now has her own legacy to think about. “We’re in the enchantment business,” she said. “Fashion will never stagnate so long as there are teams of people willing to tackle the soul of the culture. That’s what we do here at McQueen, that’s what we’ve always done.”