LONDON, United Kingdom — “I’m not that prim woman stylist. I don’t think I’ve ever done a picture that you couldn’t actually wear,” says Francesca Burns, the platinum blond Londoner who has styled countless cool girls, from Dree Hemingway to Lara Stone, and six months ago, was named fashion editor of British Vogue. “I love a shoot in which the girl is completely real; she’s just outside your reality. It feels convincing and you could get there,” she says.
As a child growing up in Surrey, just outside of London, Burns used fashion as a means of escape and self-invention. “I loved the transformation. And when I was little, I used to change outfits about 70 times a day, which drove my mum insane,” she says with a smile. She poured over magazines like Vogue, i-D and The Face.
“I loved the idea that you could just lose yourself in the pages and that, through fashion, you could be the person you wanted to be.”
At the time, Burns thought that to actually work in fashion, you had to either be a designer or a writer. And when she first revealed to a teacher that she wanted to work in the industry, she was sent to gain experience at a “granny” hair salon near her home.
Judging by her penchant for wearing designers like Meadham Kirchhoff, Louise Gray and Mary Katrantzou, it may come as a surprise that Burns, 31, was a business law student. “I was at Royal Holloway doing business studies and honestly, I never should have been there in the first place. I was the biggest freak you’ve ever seen, walking around in Vivienne Westwood mini-kilts, huge buffalo boots and mohair sweaters,” says Burns, admitting that she landed there because of a boy she was dating. “But while I was at Holloway, my law lecturer, David Bowie, who was as fabulous as his name suggests, said ‘why don’t you go to fashion school?’ I was totally redirected to the London College of Fashion.”
While at school, Burns was placed in an internship with Kylie Minogue’s stylist, William Baker, and worked with him throughout the Fever world tour. “It was amazing! I was about 21 and was travelling the world working with all these brilliant people, like Dolce and Gabbana. I was thrilled to bits and it opened my eyes to so much.” But it was magazine and catalogue shoots she enjoyed most, prompting her to pursue a career in styling.
While learning the ropes, Burns spent two years assisting a number of influential stylists including Joe McKenna, Alex White and Jonathan Kaye, all of whom taught her a the same critical lesson: to stick to her aesthetic guns. “What I learned was to trust my taste and my instincts. These people are so successful because they know what they want things to look like. You can’t recreate. You can only be yourself.”
For Burns, “yourself” entails easy glamour with a lively edge. “I don’t like a lot of fuss,” she says. “I love colour. I love print and texture and there’s always something a little eclectic. I’m not big into jewellery or lots of layering. It’s very wearable.” Indeed, her stories always make the clothes seem covetable in a practical way, rather than beautifully out of reach.
It was a dream-come-true for Burns when she was hired by i-D in 2004. “I just remember being interviewed by Terry Jones and I could barely speak! I was so lucky to work there,” she says. Her four-year stay at the independent, cult magazine, working closely with Ben Reardon and Dean Langley, was “a great moment,” as Burns describes it. "We had such a special bond and we were growing up together, experiencing things together for the first time. We were out every night, saw every band, and were just the right age in the right place at the right time.”
Burns also spent time at LOVE, where she was senior fashion editor-at-large. But having mostly worked at niche magazines, taking up the position of fashion editor at a commercial title like British Vogue was a big transition for her. “Having taste for a certain number of readers is one thing. Having taste that appeals to far more people is something else entirely,” she laughs. But the biggest difference, according to Burns, is the fact that Vogue isn’t just a magazine; it’s a big brand and a big business. “It’s a really high-end product. It’s the fashion magazine,” she says. “There are different pressures now. At i-D, you didn’t necessarily have to shoot all your advertisers. But Vogue is a big business and there are a lot of boxes to tick. You really have to make the best, most relevant pictures for your readers.”
Burns says she’s still learning what her target audience wants, but with the guidance of Vogue veterans, Burns is adapting. “I’m happy with everything I’ve done so far for different reasons, but I know I can do better and I’m just going to keep going...There’s so much support at Vogue. Everything you need is there and you just have to learn how to use those tools to push the platform forward."
And push it forward she has. Burns is a big champion of emerging British designers. “If I’ve got three pages to shoot what I want, shoot the Brits! Put them in there! It’s very important,” she says. Burns has also carved out a place in Vogue for her edgy eye and bright, youthful aesthetic. She recently introduced photographer Ryan McGinley to the magazine and, together, he and Burns created remarkably fresh images of Sienna Miller that appear on the cover, and in the pages, of the April issue, including a highly memorable shot of the actress twirling against a bright blue backdrop in a Marios Schwab corset dress, surrounded by a swarm of colourful birds.
With her affinity for mix-and-match and quirky sense of London chic — think sequin Miu Miu pumps, pink Giles cat-eye shades, and J.W. Anderson paisley pyjamas (but perhaps not all at once) — Burns is a natural favourite of street style photographers, something she has consistently voiced scepticism about.
“Like everything, there’s good and bad to all of it. I’m a massive fan of Tommy Ton as a photographer. I love his eye for detail and I really enjoy his point of view. But what I don’t like are people who are so aggressive and chase you down the street,” she says. And while Burns admits that, early on, she enjoyed the attention, she questions if too much focus is being placed on what editors wear, rather than what they do.
“I don’t want to be street style star. I want to be known for my work. You never see pictures of Melanie Ward or Camilla Nickerson, who have always been heroes of mine. When I think about these women, I think about this fantastic volume of work that defines them. They’re not street style stars because they’re off working somewhere!”
So what does Burns want to achieve with her work? “I would just like people to look at my work and smile. I never want to make women look ugly or depressing or too thin or miserable. None of those things. I want to make pictures that people look at and think ‘I’d like to know her. I’d like to be her.’”
It's perhaps this sense of optimism that shines through most strongly in Burns’ work. “I’m not going to lie,” she says. “I love my job.” It shows.
Katharine K. Zarrella is an associate contributor at The Business of Fashion
Editor’s Note: This article was revised on 15 April, 2012. An earlier version of this article included a quote that misstated the circulation figures of i-D magazine.