It would be a considerable understatement to say that the past 15 months have been a turbulent ride for the Alexander McQueen brand.
The suicide of its founder — the inimitable designer known to friends as "Lee" McQueen — in February of last year left the fashion world devastated by the loss of one of their most irreverent and precocious talents. Then, just a mere month later, the house revealed its Fall 2010 collection in Paris, a beautiful showing that introduced even industry insiders for the first time to Sarah Burton, McQueen's longtime right hand, who was named creative director of the company in May 2010.
Now, in a surprising twist of fate, it is the modest and little-known Burton who has presided over two of the brand's greatest publicity coups to date: the design of Kate Middleton's bridal gown, seen by billions in what will surely be remembered as one of the most iconic royal weddings of all time; and the opening of a landmark McQueen retrospective, "Savage Beauty," at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute. That exhibit was feted last week at Vogue's annual Met Gala, one of the New York social calendar's most glamorous affairs.
And so far, even with the high stakes involved, Burton has more than held her own.
At the Met Gala, Burton appeared in an Alexander McQueen dress of her own design. While the flowing white gown was more evocative of Burton's softer style than her predecessor's love of flamboyant and often disconcerting contrast — such as the infamous bumster trousers, origami frock coat and exaggerated gothic silhouettes showcased in "Savage Beauty” — it made its own unique statement.
Meanwhile, even as the brand is inextricably linked to the unique genius of Lee McQueen — one beloved by stars like Lady Gaga, Sarah Jessica Parker and Madonna — the few Burton-led collections produced thus far have revealed her to be a sublime craftsman whose vision complements, yet doesn't slavishly imitate that of her mentor.
The royal wedding dress was a singular masterpiece that combined a signature McQueen silhouette with historical detailing and Burton's own modern touch. And while fashion houses have sometimes floundered without their namesake designers, it could be that Gucci Group, Alexander McQueen's parent company, will appreciate a slightly more commercial take on the label's particular blend of dark romance (the company only turned a profit in 2007, seven years after Gucci bought a stake in it). That is, if Burton sticks around — rumor has it she's in the running to fill the post left by John Galliano at Dior.
But perhaps the ultimate confirmation of Burton as a worthy successor to fashion's enfant terrible came from Daphne Guinness. Known for her love of spectacle and high-drama ensembles, the style icon dressed for the Met ball in the windows of Barneys, in full view of Manhattan pedestrians. For one of the most photographed events of the year, Guinness chose a pale gray duck and ostrich feathered frock from Alexander McQueen's Spring 2011 collection. It was a showstopper — designed by Sarah Burton.