What Sarah Burton’s shock exit could mean for the Princess of Wales’s wardrobe

Sarah Burton and the Princess of Wales
Power pairing: Sarah Burton and the Princess of Wales

Superficially, Sarah Burton and the Princess of Wales couldn’t be more different. Kate is one of the world’s most photographed women who, in the 12 years since she married Prince William, has become increasingly sure-footed in her role as a public figure. Meanwhile Burton, the woman who has done more than any other designer to help the Princess forge her sartorial imprint for the most important occasions, has never been fond of the limelight, and seems to have retreated even further from it in recent years.

This week’s announcement that Burton is leaving Alexander McQueen, the label where she has worked for 26 years, has shocked the industry. She took over in 2010, after the celebrated designer’s death, and such was her understated brilliance, it was widely assumed she had the job for as long as she wanted it.

Burton in the studio with Alexander McQueen in 2008
Masters at work: Burton in the studio with Alexander McQueen in 2008 - Alex Sarginson

But now she has departed, there is speculation that she may take her most famous client with her. Together, she and the Princess are one of the most formidable partnerships in fashion.

It is a team that was founded in 2011, when Burton delivered one of the biggest fashion coups of the century, winning the commission to design the wedding dress of the future queen.

The Princess in her Burton-designed wedding dress in 2011
Demure grandeur: the Princess in her Burton-designed wedding dress in 2011 - Getty

The relationship between the Princess and Burton has always been veiled in secrecy, partly because designers have to sign NDAs when they work with the Royal family. But this suited the rigorously reserved Burton. “I happen to believe privacy is a virtue, and the relationship I have with my clients is private,” she said in a Telegraph interview in 2014. “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.”

2011: Bafta ‘Brits to Watch’ event
2011: Bafta ‘Brits to Watch’ event - Getty

It’s clear that over the years the blonde, ethereal, middle-class Burton and the sporty, middle-class Princess have bonded. Burton’s discretion earned Kate’s eternal gratitude. That the two also have a similar taste for the understated-yet-stately is obvious. The lace wedding dress, with its impeccable embroidery would come to exemplify both women’s respect for British history and craft. After the demure grandeur of that gown, Burton eased the new Duchess through red carpet events with drapey pastel dresses: a Bafta ceremony in July 2011, a Diamond Jubilee Tour appearance in September 2012, edging towards a more tailored style that must surely have given the new mother confidence when she arrived for Prince George’s christening in 2013.

2012: Diamond Jubilee Tour to Kuala Lumpur
2012: Diamond Jubilee Tour to Kuala Lumpur - Getty

As their working relationship developed, the designs became more daring – off-the-shoulder necklines, bolder colours and, latterly, the £2,500 McQueen peak shoulder trouser suits that have become the Princess’s favourite when she means to look business-like. Kate’s reliance on Burton was hammered home in Spare, Prince Harry’s tell-all book. He wrote that, during “bridesmaid-dress-gate”, it was Burton to whom Kate turned when Princess Charlotte’s dress didn’t fit – and Burton who advised her that all the bridesmaids should be refitted.

2013: Prince George's christening
2013: Prince George's christening - Getty

It was Burton, too, who introduced the Princess to Paolo Roversi, whose dream-like fashion photography for Vogue is a far cry from conventional royal portraits. Kate, who knows a thing or two about photography, liked what she saw and it was Roversi who took the 40th birthday portraits of the Princess wearing Burton for McQueen. The reception was mixed, but Kate’s radiance shone through. The Home Counties girl who used to dress in fraying Zara had evolved into a global icon.

2015: The Anna Freud Centre Family School Christmas Party
2015: Anna Freud Charity Christmas Party - WireImage

Behind the scenes, they have plenty to talk about. Both are mothers to three children. Burton, 49, has three daughters – 10-year-old twins and a seven-year-old. She lives in St John’s Wood, the smart north London postcode of white stuccoed terraces and red-brick mansions that look like mini-Kensington Palaces. Like the 41-year-old Princess, Burton loves the British countryside and every season would lead her design team at McQueen on expeditions to ever more remote corners of the British Isles, where they would study ancient textiles and techniques.

2016: Royal tour to Vancouver
2016: Royal tour to Vancouver

It’s a far cry from Paris, where the McQueen shows take place twice a year, and anyone paying close attention might have spotted that herein lay a possible dissonance. While Burton eventually began granting interviews to a handful of journalists, it was always clear she found them stressful. I’ve visited her airy studio in Clerkenwell, central London, numerous times – the exquisite 3D paper dolls she made to represent every design she was working on were testament to her passion for the nuts and bolts of her job. But pose an unscripted question about anything other than technique and you’d be met with a panicked eye.

2017: Baftas
2017: Baftas - Getty

Burton admitted that she had been forced to confront her tendency to introversion. “There have been times when, if I could have disappeared from this industry, I would have,” she said. “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.”

2020: Visit to a defence medical rehabilitation centre
2020: Visit to a defence medical rehabilitation centre - Getty

Off the record she was chatty and dressed habitually in a pair of old Levi’s, a shirt (not tucked in) and with a black blazer invariably over the back of a chair somewhere. She seemed to enjoy doing one-on-one previews before the shows in Paris. But perhaps that wasn’t the case. Post pandemic, the previews mostly stopped. The interviews have become vanishingly rare. The last time I saw her, a few months ago, she was with her daughters at the David Hockney show in London. We smiled, waved and moved on: family time is family time.

2023: Launch event for Bafta
2023: Launch event for Bafta - Getty

She will have more family time initially, because while the official announcement from McQueen came with fond words from François-Henri Pinault, chief executive of Kering and her ultimate boss, Gianfilippo Testa, McQueen’s current CEO and Burton herself, there is no hint of where she may go next.

On the other hand, all parties might be ready for a change. The clamour for Louis Vuitton accessories after Pharrell Williams’s debut menswear show for the brand has reminded executives everywhere of the power of loudhailer tactics. And while there can be no better advert for traditional glamour than the Princess, other brands generally have a number of ambassadors who can appeal to different tastes.

2023: Visit to HMP High Down
2023: Visit to HMP High Down - Getty

“Kate’s such an icon but it’s limiting,” says Fflur Roberts, head of luxury at euromonitor.com. “Not everyone wants to dress like her. Kering may want to diversify now. To be a big player, McQueen needs to amp up its fragrances and launch make-up. It’s going to be so interesting to watch.”

Even if a Pharrell-like appointment as her successor is unlikely, Pinault may want someone who engages more with the impetus of fashion. Close Burton observers think she may step back from the coalface for a while and turn her energies to helping young designers and artisans – possibly through Sarabande, the charitable foundation launched by Alexander McQueen in 2006 to do just that.

2023: The Coronation of Charles III
2023: The Coronation of Charles III - Getty

There will be tears at her final show in Paris in three weeks. They were always moments of luminous beauty. But there will also be anticipation – who will replace her and take McQueen to the next level as a true global super brand? And as for Kate? Burton’s departure is a sartorial blow, especially after the triumph of the white dresses she and Charlotte wore to the Coronation. It was Burton, too, who made the connection with Jess Collett, the milliner who designed those scene-stealing non-tiara tiaras.

So who will dress Kate now? She won’t be entirely bereft; Erdem, Roksanda, Roland Mouret, Emilia Wickstead and Jenny Packham are among the British-based contingent who have done her proud, even if none has such close ties as Burton. Besides, initially, it’s almost certain Burton will continue to advise her from the wings, according to Roberts: “In the short to medium term, Burton’s relationship with the Royal family will continue because it’s more about her than the brand. She’s so trustworthy and consistent”. There is a real possibility that Burton could continue to dress the Princess under her own private label, too, if she chose to follow that route.

The Princess has acquired deep reserves of insight into what looks good – as well as a vast wardrobe. When she stepped out yesterday on an official visit to a prison it was business as usual – in a Burton for McQueen trouser suit.