When Kate Middleton stepped out of the Rolls-Royce Phantom VI at Westminster Abbey on the morning of 29 April 2011, the world finally learned who created her wedding dress: Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen.
To most of the world, it was a well-kept secret. But Burton’s name had been floated around as a serious contender for the coveted commission for a while before the wedding.
The Sunday Times published a report on 6 March, nearly two months ahead of the wedding, stating that Sarah Burton would design the dress and that she was working closely with Kate to incorporate the future royal’s design requests.
According to the report, Jonathan Akeroyd, the then-CEO of the Alexander McQueen brand, told a colleague that their company had won the commission, but later denied it to The Times.
“I am the CEO. I would know if we were doing it,” he told the reporters. Burton herself was quoted in the report saying that “I am not doing it.”
The report also stated the reasons why Kate had decided to go with Burton and McQueen, revealing, “[Burton] was selected by Middleton, who is making increasing efforts to develop her own style, on grounds of her quirky elegance, discretion and low profile.
“A fashion source said that the dress will be a combination of Middleton’s design ideas and Burton’s deep knowledge and understanding of high fashion.”
It didn’t help matters that a disguised Burton was seen heading into the Goring Hotel – where the Middleton Family were staying – the night before the wedding.
She hid her face with a large fur hat and covered herself in a large parka, but journalists began speculating that it was proof that Burton was the designer – still the Palace and Alexander McQueen refused to confirm if it were true.
The palace only confirmed Burton’s involvement immediately after Kate stepped out of the Rolls-Royce Phantom VI:
“Miss Middleton chose British brand Alexander McQueen for the beauty of its craftsmanship and its respect for traditional workmanship and the technical construction of clothing,” the Palace revealed on her wedding day.
“Miss Middleton wished for her dress to combine tradition and modernity with the artistic vision that characterises Alexander McQueen’s work. Miss Middleton worked closely with Sarah Burton in formulating the design of her dress.”
The palace also noted that “Ms Burton’s design draws on [traditional craftsmanship using simple forms and Romantic styles of decoration], additionally giving the cut and the intricate embellishment a distinctive, contemporary and feminine character.”
In the end, Kate’s wedding dress was made of satin with an overlaid lace bodice and appliqued skirt, and featured floral lace needlework by the Royal School of Needlework.
The embroiders were also kept in the dark about the lace they were making – the only found out that their design work would be featured on Kate’s wedding dress minutes before the ceremony. The embroiders were required to wash their hands every 30 minutes and had to replace their needles every three hours.
Though she designed one of the most iconic wedding dresses of all time, Burton revealed in Interview magazine in 2012 that she won’t reveal much about what went into the collaboration with Kate.
“I’m not actually allowed to talk much about it at all. It was a precious, magical time that I’ll always treasure, and I feel like she gave me a gift in many ways. I feel incredibly privileged,” she said.
Burton also revealed, in a separate interview with Vogue in November 2011, that her involvement was so secret, her parents only learned the night before the royal wedding that she’d made the dress.
Her core team at Alexander McQueen knew about her involvement, she said, so it made it easy for her to sneak around at work.
“Because my core team knew, it was okay for me to disappear and then come back, and then disappear again. But I remember other people asking me, ‘Are you coming in on Friday?’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, yeah, see you in the morning.’ I’d be scheduling meeting knowing full well I wasn’t going to be there for them.”
The Met Gala that year was featuring a retrospective of Alexander McQueen’s career (the Scottish designer passed away in 2010, with Burton taking the helm in his place), and allowed Burton to use that as a cover, as it was happening quite soon after the royal wedding.
Burton was named as the Creative Director for Alexander McQueen in May 2010. She had joined the company as McQueen’s personal assistant in 1997, following her graduation from the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design.
She was named the head of womenswear in 2000 and worked steadily for a variety of high-profile clients throughout the decade, including Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga, and Cate Blanchett.
Burton designed the wedding dress for Sarah Buys, wife of Tom Parker-Bowles (son of the Duchess of Cornwall) in 2005, which many believe placed her firmly in Kate’s radar when it came time to choose a dress designer.
Burton attended to Kate at Westminster Abbey before she began her six-minute walk down the aisle, “I remember standing in Westminster Abbey thinking, ‘This is unreal.’ It was like a fairy tale,” Burton told Vogue.
“And all I could think was ‘I hope I don’t trip over.’ I didn’t realise the enormity of it until much nearer the wedding day. It was a magical experience.”
She said she wasn’t aware that the royal wedding was going to be the global phenomenon it turned into, and it wasn’t until she saw all the photographers outside Westminster Abbey that she realised the scale of the wedding.
Burton was named Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards in 2011, for her overall work that year, and her design of Kate’s wedding dress.
In 2012, she was named in The Queen’s 2012 Birthday Honours as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for her services to British fashion.
In 2014, Burton revealed even more about working with Kate, or rather, her reasons for not giving interviews about the process.
To The New York Times Style Magazine she said, “I know we live in a culture obsessed with fame, 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.”
She spoke of the friendship that she developed with Kate as a result of working with her, saying, “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…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. I was honoured to pick up the challenge and always will be.”
Burton has become Kate’s go-to dresser for important events on her calendar: not only has Burton designed the dresses she wore at Prince George’s, Princess Charlotte’s and Prince Louis’s christenings, but she has also designed dresses for Trooping the Colour appearances and state banquets as well.