words by Jenny B. Davis | photos by Samantha Jane Beatty
It’s unnaturally quiet in Gallery Two at Spring Studios in lower Manhattan, and Sterling McDavid is taking advantage of this brief moment of calm to speak to the diverse group of women standing before her.
The women — all models — have just finished a run-through of a fashion show. It’s Feb. 12, officially Day Six of New York Fashion Week, and in about 30 minutes, they’re set to stride down the runway stretching across the stark white gallery space, past an international gathering of buyers, bloggers, editors and influencers. They will be presenting the Fall/Winter 2019 collection of Burnett New York, a new fashion house co-founded by McDavid and designer Emily Burnett.
The buzz surrounding Burnett New York has been building ever since the glowing media coverage of its September 2018 launch and its debut prefall collection — a collection so well received that retail powerhouse Net-a-Porter already has signed on to carry it. At the start of this fashion week, ELLE magazine highlighted Burnett New York as one of its new brands to watch, pinning its endorsement on the accomplishments of its young, dynamic founders.
Such praise is well-deserved. McDavid, who turns 30 this month, is a Goldman Sachs alum and a successful investor and entrepreneur. She holds a degree from the Parsons School of Design and serves as director for the New York chapter of the United States Fund for UNICEF. Also a Parson’s alum, Burnett’s resume includes positions at Ralph Lauren and also a decade at legendary New York design house Dennis Basso, where she was named creative director when she was just 23 years old.
With Burnett New York, McDavid and Burnett created a womenswear company founded by women, funded by women and dedicated to promoting an aesthetic of strength and an ethos of female empowerment. Inspired by leadership icons like Eleanor Roosevelt and fashion icons like Coco Chanel, each Burnett New York piece is designed to transcend trends and crafted to last. The brand even includes a social impact component, which is already underway with its involvement in a UNICEF girls’ education program and a local organization that facilitates mentoring for at-risk girls.
At this moment, though, McDavid is laser-focused on the matter at hand: the fashion show. The clock is ticking. The models still needed to get dressed. And a very long line of invitation-holders is waiting patiently outside — in the middle of a raging winter rainstorm, no less — for the gallery doors to open.
But McDavid wants to seize on these last seconds to share her gratitude and to offer words of encouragement to the women.
“We wanted to make sure each model understood that each one of them was appreciated by us and that we were grateful they are representing Burnett,” she later explains. “We hoped to inspire them and let them know that this really isn’t just another job for them, but rather an opportunity to inspire and empower other women.”
It all started with a wedding dress … In December 2015, McDavid had no idea that she would soon be dedicating her life to launching a fashion label, much less a label infused with such a powerful raison d’etre. But she did have fashion on her mind — specifically a wedding dress.
Newly engaged, she had begun the search for a wedding dress designer with a clear vision in mind. Her ideal gown would be clean and chic, with a long train and a classic, timeless silhouette. Simple as it seemed, finding a designer to share her vision proved difficult. She visited with more than 20 houses from New York City to Paris, including Dior, Chanel and Vera Wang, but she just wasn’t feeling a connection. That is, until she met with Burnett, who was then the creative director at Dennis Basso. She immediately knew she’d found the right fit.
“Emily and her team were so welcoming,” McDavid recalls. “She said, ‘We will make you whatever you want, and you will feel involved from Day One.’”
Together, they created a dream dress for McDavid’s August 2017 wedding to Carey Dorman atop Aspen Mountain. For most people, this would have been the closing moment of a successful design collaboration. For McDavid and Burnett, however, it signaled a beginning of their joint venture to build a new kind of fashion brand.
Building Burnett The idea for Burnett New York was McDavid’s: “At my last fitting [with Emily],” she explains, “I was almost in tears, and I said, ‘How are you not on your own?’ Emily said, ‘It’s always been my dream, but I don’t know how to start a business and run a business.’ I said, ‘Well, I do — let’s talk.’”
McDavid knew it was possible to build a values-based brand from scratch because she’d done it before. Following a formative tenure at the global investment banking firm Goldman Sachs working with hedge funds, McDavid founded The Starling Project, a luxury home fragrance line that helps to fund solar energy delivery to families in developing regions. She also runs Sterling McDavid LLC, which specializes in real estate re-development, and produces a successful lifestyle blog, The Sterling Standard, to highlight her personal style and her life as a busy New York City philanthropist and businesswoman.
The creative vision behind the new company was already complete. McDavid says Burnett knew the design direction she wanted to take and the kinds of clothes she wanted to make. “I already loved everything she designed,” McDavid says. “I knew immediately, 100 percent, that there was a market — that this is what the fashion world needed.”
It was up to McDavid to establish the corporate structure necessary to support Burnett’s creativity. First, she wrote a business plan, then she built a financial model. One those were complete, it was time to court investors. But it wasn’t as easy as just calling past contacts — McDavid and Burnett had decided early on to limit participation to women only.
Despite the challenge, McDavid made it happen. When Burnett New York launched, they did so with $2.5 million in funding from nine female investors, all strategically located across the globe from America to Asia, India and the Middle East.
“We really had to stick to our guns, but this is a women’s fashion brand, and most women’s fashion brands are run by men — the creative director is a man, the CEO is a man and the investors are men,” McDavid says. “We really felt like this wasn’t just about starting another luxury label, this was about the statement we wanted to make as a brand.”
A Fort Worth Foundation While the McDavid name may be new on the New York fashion scene, it’s well known across Texas, especially in Fort Worth.
McDavid’s parents still live here, where they are well known in the community for their business acumen. Her father is David McDavid, formerly with the eponymous auto group that years ago ran car dealerships across the state; he also was one of the former owners of the Dallas Mavericks. Her mother, Stacie McDavid, serves as chief executive of McDavid Companies, a family office based in Fort Worth.
“I am running sales, marketing and finance for my business, and I feel like I am literally mixing both of my parents’ worlds,” McDavid says with a laugh.
She credits her parents for showing her that business success doesn’t follow a timetable. “People ask me how I have so much motivation even though I am so young, and I say, look at my parents — both of them started their businesses as teenagers.”
McDavid graduated from All Saints Episcopal School in Fort Worth, and she says the friends she made there have been “the most supportive people of my career.” The women of Fort Worth also have been invaluable, she says, embracing Burnett New York early and enthusiastically. As a result, McDavid says she plans to bring the brand to town on a regular basis. “I want to host events to bring the community together like dinners, runway shows and charity events,” she says. “A lot of brands miss the mark when they go to Dallas but don’t plan anything in Fort Worth. We want to be the Fort Worth Woman’s brand.”
All about the Clothes Ultimately, success comes down to selling clothes, and Burnett New York’s mix of evening wear and ready-to-wear is very quickly finding its target audience. But it’s still the new brand on the fashion block, and that’s why this February show is so important.
Burnett’s inspirations were 1980s film heroines like Sigourney Weaver in “Half Moon Street” and Michelle Pfeiffer in “Scarface.” Day looks displayed sharp tailoring, and evening looks were lavished in glamour, from saturated shades of Bordeaux and emerald to fur, embellished tulle, pleated lame and panels of intricate sparkling beadwork.
For the show, McDavid and Burnett deliberately took the opportunity to use casting to celebrate diversity: of skin tone, of size, of age, of ethnicity. It wasn’t a gimmick or a theme particular to the collection; rather, it was intrinsic in the brand’s DNA.
The show went off flawlessly, and the finale was a true fashion moment. After each model had presented her look individually, the cast reassembled and walked the runway in pairs and holding hands. The purpose, says McDavid, was to show “that women are more powerful when they come together.”
Euphoria filled the room as the models virtually bounced down the runway to the beat of AC/DC’s Back in Black. And when Burnett emerged from backstage arm-in-arm with a gaggle of beaming, applauding models, the entire audience leapt to its feet to give her — and the show — a standing ovation.
McDavid is thrilled at the success of the show, but she says that what mattered most to her was that she and Burnett were able to achieve it while staying entirely authentic to the Burnett New York identity — to the “Burnett Vibe.” “To see that come through so perfectly in the show,” she says, “was a dream come true.”