“The show was a point of positive reflection,” said Christopher Bailey shortly after his final Burberry show, and after 17 years as the creative head of the British brand. “I’m trying to make some sense of the chaos in the world. There are so many questions. About our culture, about our habits, about shopping, about how we consume, how we see fashion, how we buy it."
Broadly speaking, the rainbow-themed show was a celebration of three LGBTQ+ charities that Burberry was supporting. But, for Bailey, it was about leaving on an optimistic note. “I’m really excited to see what happens for the future of Burberry. And I’m tremendously proud to be handing over a role that has given me unbelievable joy.”
Bailey’s tenure at Burberry has straddled an extraordinary period of change. When he arrived in 2001, the internet was in its infancy and the word athleisure was unheard of. He inherited a company, alongside his then chief executives Rose Marie Bravo and after her, Angela Ahrendts, that was crashing into irrelevance — stymied by horrible licensing deals that had seen sloppy branded product reproduced all over the world. Bailey was instrumental in rebuilding the house as an authentic expression of British luxury.
Asked what he was most proud of he said. “I think I brought a point of view. I instilled creativity. I got the licenses back and I allowed the company to be brave — to stick its head above the parapet.”
An early tech adopter, Bailey embraced the internet while everyone else stuck their head in the sand. He introduced the first live-stream, screening the show on to laptops everywhere, from Manchester to Mongolia; he live tweeted shows and launched e-commerce; he launched a music platform that transformed the careers of British musical talent. Would Adele have become the sensation she did without the early support of Bailey? Maybe. But she must feel indebted to the man who dressed her, played her and promoted her at every juncture in her early career. Ditto Jake Bugg. He also transformed London Fashion Week. Speaking after the show, Caroline Rush, chief executive of the British Fashion Council (BFC), said that no one had done more than Bailey to raise the profile of London fashion. When Bailey moved the Burberry show from Milan to London in 2009, he brought with it the attention of the world’s media — and buyers. And put London on the map.
Asked of his greatest contribution to the house, Bailey spoke of his pride in putting fashion in a context. For millions of people in Britain today, Burberry is the only fashion brand they have any real cognisance of. “I hope I showed that fashion needs an environment: it’s not just about clothes but about people, music, places, art.”
That Bailey has always understood that fashion can have a role to play in the broader cultural landscape is unquestionable. Whether you have always loved his nostalgic interpretation of England — the Bloomsbury rain-soaked florals, marching-band military twills, Shackleton-inspired shearlings and countless gabardine trenches — matters not. At Burberry, Bailey carved a brand of sartorial identity that chimed with every decade of the house’s existence and made it his own. He made Burberry a truly global business.
But times have changed. Arguably, things started to unravel when, in 2014, he became Burberry’s chief executive, the role he relinquished in October of last year. His hubris proved fateful. But then so did the Asian economic dip that accompanied it. And the collapse of the US retail sector.
Burberry’s fortunes have faltered in recent years. The new chief executive Marco Gobbetti has now implemented a plan to “elevate” and reposition the house’s product, and is tasked with making £120m in savings by 2020. Gobbetti must also grapple with the Bailey legacy of a ready-to-buy sales model in which clothes are sold straight off the catwalk. The decision, lauded at the time as the future of retail, has failed to ignite the market.
Moreover, Gobetti, and whoever joins him as the brand’s new creative director, must now re-examine exactly what Burberry clients want. Just as the markets have changed, so have consumer tastes. Bailey’s Burberry has lately pushed a far more “millennial” agenda of branded T-shirts and streetwear styles. But if Gobbetti wants to flog £400 T-shirts as part of his new portfolio, they better be extremely good.
Having spent so long clearing up the low-quality product that plagued the company’s reputation when he first arrived, it was a bittersweet irony on Saturday night to see a collection which seemed to feature so many of the things he once abhorred; sweatshirts emblazoned with the old “Burberrys” logo; check caps so beloved of the football terrace-brigade — the use of check all over everything in fact.
Had I thought Bailey a cynic, which I don’t, I would wonder whether this collection was a pointed reminder of what Burberry once was. Before he got there. There were few of the ideas that characterised his early Burberry years: none of those Twenties tea dress that made the house so famous; none of the Sixties Shrimpton-era styles. Instead, he showcased intarsia shearlings and brash bold shell-suit tops.
But maybe the show was more indicative of fashion’s strange, mysterious cycle and how, in style and in business, things come round again. Football terrace checks are back. So are trashy logos. The house which once reclaimed its licenses with such tenacity, has lately signed a deal with Coty who now oversee its beauty business.
Bailey steps away from Burberry at a critical moment in the industry. He will continue to advise until the end of the calendar year and after that who knows? But my money’s on the fact he will assume Natalie Massenet’s former role as chairman of the BFC. Until then he will presumably pursue his interest in drystone walling, raise his two daughters and polish those Burberry millions. It must seem odd for the man who did so much to change the industry to find, in leaving it, how much has stayed the same.
This article was originally published by the Financial Times.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.