Nothing gets San Francisco closets riled up like a good designer. And judging from the dapper dandies who dressed up to meet milliner Philip Treacy, Alexander McQueen chief designer Sarah Burton, and Saudi fashion retailer Princess Reema Bandar Al-Saud, the riling was unrivaled. Thrilled to be meeting two stalwarts of the British fashion elite and a princess as well, the ladies and gents pulled out their best bib and tucker for a luncheon held in the dazzling Cannery aerie recently colonized by Academy of Art University.
The talented trio was in town to receive honorary degees from the AAU School of Fashion, which is becoming its own force in the world of design. The school holds a special connection to Burton in particular- Simon Ungless, now Director of the School of Fashion, attended Central St. Martin's University with Lee Alexander McQueen, and then joined him in the earliest days of his radical, revelatory fashion house. It was Ungless who discerned Burton's talent when she was a student and offered her an internship with the startup fashion designer, then working from a cramped London studio. The path from there to designing Kate Middleton's royal wedding dress was a long one, but appears not to have rendered the soft-spoken Burton any less gracious and self-effacing, making her prodigious talent all the more appreciated halfway around the globe.
McQueen also worked closely for many years with Treacy, a major force in British hat design whose flights of feather are equally recognizable on the catwalk and wherever fancy hats are worn. (Ascot, anyone?) A favorite of the crowned and uncrowned heads of Europe, he has covered the notable noggins of Camilla Parker-Bowles for her marriage to Prince Charles, along with Boy George, Lady Gaga, Victoria Beckham, and many others. (And let's not forget that hat at a recent royal wedding.) As talented as the two are at putting outfits on others, there were no putting on airs for either, nor for the third honoree, Princess Reema Bandar Al-Saud. The hardworking member of the Saudi royal family manages international retail brands in her country, and has devoted herself to educating Arab women about breast cancer. Just a few days after the luncheon, she embarked on a Himalayan trek to climb Everest with a group of breast cancer survivors.
AAU President Dr. Elisa Stephens warmly welcomed the guests of honor, and introduced the distinguished consuls general and elected officials, including the most fashionable Mayor emeritus Willie Brown, accompanied by a chicly McQueen clad Sonia Molodetskaya. Herald Tribune superlative scribe Suzy Menkes and NYTimes crackerjack columnist Cathy Horyn, both previous honorees, were also in attendance, as were Cameron Silver of Los Angeles, the Fine Arts Museums' Jill D'Alessandro, and McQueen mavens Suzy Dominik, Deepa Pakanathian and Christine Suppes.
Just as lunch was beginning, fashion illustrator Gladys Perint Palmer, who also manages to clone herself as the Executive Director of the AAU School of Fashion, unveiled three original illustrations she had created as gifts for the honorees: a runway depiction of looks from Burton's Fall 2012/2013, vibrantly colored" with neon paint that is widely used for road repairs," a jaunty portrait of Treacy that he had asked at one point to purchase, "but now you may have as a gift," and, for Al-Saud, the illustration of an elegant woman in profile which had graced the catalog and invitations for this years' Graduation Fashion Show and Awards Ceremony, to be held the following night. The dessert was also fashioned in their honor: individual vanilla cakes in the shape of a hat for Treacy, decorated with white frosting lace for Burton, and embellished with roses and pink breast cancer ribbons for Al-Saud. Just as they were tucking in, Mayor Ed Lee popped in to add his decidedly down-home welcome, his impromptu speech delivered with his hallmark enthusiasm. Pointing to the Cannery's bridge-to-bridge views, he remarked how lucky we are to have a school of art in such an inspiring setting, and to have Academy of Art "filling so many empty buildings." Burton, in particular, seemed touched that the Mayor made a point to stop by.
When the dapper Treacy was asked why he enjoyed San Francisco, he immediately replied, "The people make San Francisco. It seems that they manage to enjoy the culture and the surroundings in a very relaxed, considered way. They are very balanced, not so tightly wound as New York." His elegant partner Stefan Bartlett agreed, affirming that San Francisco is, "an enthusiastic, receptive population who remain open to creative possibility." Bartlett also reiterated how impressed he was with the caliber and creativity of AAU students, who had participated in a hands-on master class with Treacy earlier in the day. "What Gladys and Simon are doing here is remarkable. Truly."
Over lunch alongside her pal Ungless, Burton continued to downplay her four lauded collections, and to reaffirm the profound influence of her mentor McQueen, who received an AAU honorary degree in 2006. "He changed the way women dressed, really. Think about how he moved women's pants down to the hips in the mid-'90s. And his jackets always made women look strong. You put one on and you could conquer the world. Still." She also reiterated the timelessness of his designs. "McQueen wasn't about fashion, what is in this season or that. He worked nonstop. He didn't care about what anybody else was doing. His fantastic runway pieces were good for show, but he made real clothes that feel accessible to a woman. His work is entirely relevant. Still."
After lunch, Tatiana Sorokko scooted over to show Burton an iphone photo of herself modeling of the final looks of a long-ago Givenchy fashion show, dazzling in a white draped goddess gown embellished with gold embroidery. Sorokko shared the story of taking McQueen's arm, coercing him on the runway to take a reluctant final bow, and then "going off to a corner and talking for hours about fashion history and Marie Antoinette's love of grosgrain ribbon." Burton smiled at the recollection. "I remember that show, " smiled Burton. "I was backstage dressing Eva Herzigova, but I probably helped put on your shoes."
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