More Drama at Kering as Alexander McQueen Splits With Sarah Burton

LONDON — Amid a frenzy of activity over the past few months, Kering has made another abrupt move, parting ways with Sarah Burton, the longtime creative director of Alexander McQueen who took the helm of the house following the death of its namesake designer.

Alexander McQueen, which is wholly owned by Kering, and Burton said Monday they were ending their collaboration after two decades and that a “new creative organization” would be revealed in due course.

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The announcement was the latest in a series of rapid-fire moves at Kering, which is looking to reshape itself as a dynamic player in an ever-more competitive space and seek new avenues of growth as sales momentum fades at its flagship brand Gucci, Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta and Balenciaga.

Kering doesn’t break out sales for Alexander McQueen, one of its smallest brands, but it’s likely the London label contributed to Kering’s lackluster results in the first half. The brand also has a new chief executive officer, Gianfilippo Testa, who is under pressure to make changes.

Over the summer Kering snatched up the high-end fragrance house Creed for a reported $3.8 billion and then followed the deal up a few weeks later, agreeing to buy 30 percent of Valentino for 1.7 billion euros, with an option to take full control of the Italian brand by 2028.

As reported, Kering has been under pressure from activist investors to make a transformational acquisition that would put it on a more equal footing with rival LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and make it less reliant on Gucci, which accounted for 67 percent of the group’s operating profit last year.

Meanwhile, in May, Kering installed a new designer at Gucci, Sabato De Sarno, who’ll be showing his first collection for the brand later this month. Kering is also in the process of searching for the successor to Marco Bizzarri, the brand’s CEO, who is leaving after Gucci’s runway show on Sept. 22.

Kering also had a major management reshuffle earlier this year, granting wider powers to Saint Laurent CEO Francesca Bellettini. Those changes came against the backdrop of Kering’s weak performance in the second quarter that saw Gucci miss market expectations.

Sarah Burton
Sarah Burton

The company is still smarting from its “error of judgment” — in the words of François-Henri Pinault, chairman and CEO of Kering — at Balenciaga.

Last year, the brand released a campaign featuring children posing alongside logo beer glasses and teddy bears dressed in bondage gear. Another included a handbag resting on a page from the 2008 Supreme Court ruling “United States v. Williams,” which confirmed the promotion of child pornography as illegal and not protected by freedom of speech.

All of those events have made analysts’ heads spin and have sent Kering’s share price down 11.7 percent over the past 12 months. The shares were relatively flat Monday at 468.15 euros.

Bernstein’s Luca Solca said he was surprised by Kering’s latest move.

“It is remarkable that Kering is opening yet another front with the change of creative directors at Alexander McQueen. This only adds to the fish to fry — which were already very abundant,” said Solca.

He added that, in the broader context, Burton’s departure “confirms that the pace of change in fashion and luxury is accelerating. The creative director’s lifespan is shorter as competition for relevance and newness is increasing.”

Earlier this month, HSBC laid out the many challenges Kering is facing.

HSBC’s latest luxury goods report noted there is “no clarity” on the timing of a rebound at Gucci, “and doubts might remain on the duration of that rebound until a permanent CEO starts running the brand.” The bank said that while the Creed and Valentino brands both have merits, “these are not transformational at the group level.”

Others would disagree. In its report, TD Cowen said it believes Kering is “pivoting and optimizing the brand portfolio with the same force and flexibility as a start-up,” noting that risks remain and include a slower-than-expected turnaround at Gucci, management change integration, and slower trends in the U.S.

Alexander McQueen Men's Spring 2024
Alexander McQueen men’s spring 2024

On Monday, no clear reason was given for McQueen and Burton parting ways.

Pinault lauded her “experience, sensitivity and talent,” and said she continued to evolve the “artistic expression of this iconic house. She kept and continued Lee [Alexander McQueen’s] heritage, attention to detail and unique vision, while adding her own personal, highly creative touch.”

Burton thanked Pinault and the late McQueen and said she was “looking forward to the future and my next chapter.”

While Kering’s move may have seemed abrupt, the group does have a reputation for granting significant power and autonomy to its creative leaders and then terminating the relationship if the business stalls, or a fashion trend runs its course.

It’s also an open question whether Burton and a succession of managers managed to transform Alexander McQueen from a designer label into a luxury brand.

A few years ago, Kering also admitted that its plan was to focus on mega-brands rather than smaller labels. It sold Christopher Kane and Stella McCartney back to their respective designers and ended its partnership with Tomas Maier for his signature brand shortly after the designer gave up the creative reins at Bottega Veneta. (Maier was succeeded by Daniel Lee, who made Bottega a hot brand during his tenure but was abruptly pushed out for undisclosed reasons only to land at Burberry, where he is now the British brand’s creative director.)

McQueen is different from those other smaller brands as Kering owns 100 percent, having purchased the remaining stake from the designer’s family not long after his death.

With a sale or spin-off unlikely, the new creative organization could mean the arrival of another British designer, which will mark the start of a new era. Whomever it is will not have worked directly with the late McQueen, who remains a legend worldwide for his distinctive silhouettes, inventive designs and couturier’s hand.

Grace Wales Bonner, with her tailoring expertise and eye for detail, might be a candidate. At the same time, Kering has a reputation for taking risks on second-in-command profiles, as it has done at Bottega Veneta and Gucci twice, and at McQueen with Burton.

Burton spent her whole career at McQueen. After studying print fashion at the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in the late ’90s, one of her instructors, Simon Ungless, introduced her to McQueen in 1996.

Alexander McQueen RTW Fall 2023
Alexander McQueen RTW fall 2023

He offered her an internship at his design house. After she graduated, Burton became McQueen’s personal assistant and was promoted in 2000 to head of womenswear.

Following McQueen’s suicide in 2010, Burton was named creative director, keeping the designer’s aesthetic alive with poetic runway shows, a ravishingly dark aesthetic and pin-sharp tailoring.

She added a certain delicacy to the lavish, embellished and painterly men’s and women’s collections, and represented a sure set of hands.

She also portrayed herself as a couturier, with a big pair of scissors in the pocket of her faded jeans and straight pins at the ready, piercing the trademark navy wool sweaters she wore here and there.

She leaned into the intense craftsmanship and tailoring prowess for which Lee McQueen was known, and drew heavily on English inspirations and traditional fabrics, materials and techniques.

But she steered clear of provocation, and McQueen’s reputation for being at the cutting edge of the zeitgeist and the social conversation. The late designer was the first to cast an amputee model, tackle the issue of mental illness head-on, and livestream a fashion show. Lee McQueen’s theatrical shows in London and Paris in the ’90s arguably were the pioneer of today’s runway extravaganzas, featuring everything from indoor rain to fire to robots painting a model’s dress and more.

A quiet person who chose to live behind the scenes, rarely gave interviews and, equally rarely, if ever, took a bow at the end of the show, Burton spent her long tenure championing young designers and students.

Alexander McQueen RTW Fall 2023
Alexander McQueen RTW fall 2023

She created a special space for them on the top floor of the brand’s Bond Street store, donated piles of deadstock to their collections and encouraged school-aged children to express their creativity with special projects during lockdown.

While she has long been an insider favorite and a designer’s designer, she catapulted to fame in 2011 after designing the wedding dresses for Kate Middleton, now Princess of Wales, and her younger sister and maid of honor, Pippa Middleton.

For the evening reception, Kate changed into another design by Burton for Alexander McQueen, a satin dress with a sweetheart neckline and beaded belt.

Burton has remained the princess’ go-to designer for special occasions. She often opts for brisk military style jackets with the signature McQueen sharp shoulder.

Following the royal wedding, Burton received the Designer of the Year Award in 2011 at the British Fashion Awards and a year later took home the royal honor of OBE or The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, for her services in the fashion industry.

At the CFDA Awards in June 2019 Burton received the International Award.

– With contributions from Miles Socha, Paris

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