This month marks a decade since Lee Alexander McQueen’s death on 11 February 2010. Drapers explores how the designer’s eponmyous brand has prospered in the competitive luxury market despite his loss.
It is a luxury fashion house founded on rebellion and an irreverent anti-establishment mentality that has won the loyal patronage of the royal family: Alexander McQueen is a brand like no other.
This month marks a decade since Lee Alexander McQueen, eponymous designer of the label he founded, was found dead at his London home. The news devastated the fashion industry and forced his long-time right-hand woman, Sarah Burton, to step up to complete his final collection.
Over the intervening 10 years, she has taken the brand from strength to strength – not least propelling Alexander McQueen into the world’s gaze after being chosen to design the Duchess of Cambridge’s lace wedding dress in 2011.
Losing its visionary founder could have spelled the end of the brand. At the time of McQueen’s death, it was difficult to imagine the brand without the man. Rumours swirled about which high-profile name would replace him – fellow London Fashion Week designer Gareth Pugh was said to be in the running. Industry observers questioned whether anyone would be able to measure up.
Filling the top creative position at a fashion house – particularly amid tragedy – is a notoriously tricky business. Burton, however, has been able to carve a future for Alexander McQueen without relying on its past. On the one hand, she has continued McQueen’s reputation for outlandish creativity and razor-sharp tailoring. Hallmarks of the house – cinched waists, statement shoulders and a skull motif – have been reinvented.
On the other, she has grown the important commercial categories, such as footwear and accessories, that are a luxury brand’s bread and butter. Karl Lagerfeld’s successor at Chanel, Virginie Viard, will be hoping to achieve a similar level of success when it comes to stepping into the footsteps of a prolific designer.
A Central Saint Martin’s graduate, Burton secured an internship at Alexander McQueen while still studying in 1996. She went on to work alongside McQueen for the next 14 years – rising to head of womenswear in 2000 while still in her twenties – and was named creative director after his death. Today, she oversees the creative direction and development of all the brand’s collections: women’s, men’s and accessories.
“What Burton has done is amazing,” Bruce Pask, men’s fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, which stocks Alexander McQueen, tells Drapers. “This is a rare case where somebody who worked so closely with the original designer, who had such a clear DNA, also has such a level of talent and inventiveness in her own right. That combination is such a rarity and has made the brand successful and viable even without him. Her sartorial skills are impeccable, and she is outrageously creative.”
He adds that the brand is particularly well placed to capitalise on changing trends in the menswear market, which is turning to a smarter aesthetic after the long dominance of streetwear: “Our customer is a huge fan of the brand’s statement tailoring for evenings and occasions. All of the elaborate beaded jackets and sharp tailoring does very well for us. We’re experiencing a shifting time in fashion right now when a more polished, elevated aesthetic is returning, and McQueen is perfectly placed for that market.”
Burton has maintained McQueen’s “rebellious, British sensibility”, adds Tiffany Hsu, fashion buying director at Mytheresa: “She has respected the brand’s core values of punk and gothic. Whereas Lee’s collections were more about the beauty of decay, Sarah’s are more about a strong femininity. She has kept a lot of the key categories that have been a big focus since Lee’s time: the tailoring, the knit dresses and the leather elements of the collection.”
Helen Brocklebank, CEO of luxury sector body Walpole, of which Alexander McQueen is a member, agrees: “The brand has always had a very specific point of view – a clear and original vision. Burton’s is a different, softer perspective that is less iconoclastic but no less audacious than McQueen’s. Her work is extraordinarily beautiful and champions UK artisans who are at the top of their game.”
Another factor in Alexander McQueen’s success over the past decade has been the backing of one of fashion’s most powerful conglomerates: Kering. The French powerhouse, which also controls Gucci and Bottega Veneta, first took a stake in Alexander McQueen in 2001 and has fully owned the brand since 2010. Although it did not reveal exact figures, Kering pointed to a “very strong performance” from Alexander McQueen in the first half of 2019.
The stewardship of a luxury heavyweight like Kering is a boon for the brand, says Luca Solca, managing director of luxury goods at financial adviser Bernstein: “Kering is able to give each brand its own identity, and let it stand clearly against competitors. This is true for all of its luxury brands: they all have a sharp and well-defined identity. That comes from matching the right creative talent with the right brand DNA, and complementing all that with the appropriate merchandising and marketing activities. Alexander McQueen is no exception.”
Walpole’s Brocklebank agrees, and also points to the guiding hand of Alexander McQueen’s CEO, Emmanuel Gintzburger, who was appointed in 2016. He has overseen the development of a new 11,000 sq ft flagship store concept on London’s Bond Street, which opened in early 2019 and has been used as a template for further stores in Dubai and Shanghai.
“The leadership of Gintzburger is exciting – he’s a retailer through and through,” she adds. “Coming from a retail background [he was previously worldwide retail and wholesale director at Saint Laurent] means he is focusing on the brand’s boutiques and understands that the stores need to be about experience and really giving customers a peek into the brand’s creative mind.”
Flavio Cereda, equity research analyst covering luxury goods at investment bank Jefferies, tells Drapers: “Alexander McQueen is a small brand in the Kering stable, but punches firmly above its weight. It has adapted to market demand for new product categories, but has, on the whole, remained true to the label’s original standard and legacy.”
Chief among those new product categories have been footwear and leather goods. Kering’s Activity Report for the full year of 2018 – its most recent – points to Alexander McQueen’s strong growth in these two key categories. Meanwhile, famous faces including Naomi Campbell and model-of-the-moment Kaia Gerber have already been spotted sporting the structured Story bag from the brand’s spring 20 pre-collection.
The real success, however, has been footwear. A pair of exaggerated-sole sneakers with a contrasting heel panel have been a huge hit for Alexander McQueen, and brought it to the attention of streetwear fanatics. First released in 2016, they have proved to have vast appeal. The style was named the most popular sneaker of last year – no mean feat given current consumer hype around trainers – by fashion search platform Lyst. Users searched for the sneakers every two minutes on Lyst’s platform in 2019, and general searches for Alexander McQueen were up 41% year-on-year.
“The sneakers are a completely new development for the brand,” adds Bergdorf Goodman’s Pask. “It is not a legacy product. It has been a hit around the globe, and creating a product that catches on so successfully is a really hard thing to do. Without question, it opens the brand up to a new audience.”
Mytheresa’s Hsu agrees: “She has brought a more casual element into the collection that didn’t exist before, like the well-known sneaker and luxury denim items.”
This ability to harness the brand’s existing strengths – originality, craftsmanship and a one-of-a-kind handwriting – whilst continuing to evolve has helped the reign of Alexander McQueen. The brand is now targeting growth by expanding its retail footprint and bolstering categories outside of ready-to-wear.
No part of today’s fashion industry is an easy place to be operate, even in the luxury sphere. To weather the next 10 years, Alexander McQueen will need to continue its reputation for creativity while attracting young luxury consumers to the brand.
A blockbuster retrospective of McQueen’s work, held by London’s V&A museum in 2015, demonstrates just how powerful the designer’s legacy is. Titled “Savage Beauty,” it illustrated not only the fashion industry’s but the wider world’s fascination with the designer. More than 493,000 people poured into the retrospective, which was open during the night for its final two weekends for the first time in the V&A’s history to accommodate “unprecedented demand.” Savage Beauty became the museum’s most visited exhibition of all time during its 21-week run.