Burberry: How Christopher Bailey reinvented the brand with the chequered past

When Christopher Bailey arrived at Burberry back in 2001, he joined a brand that had mass appeal – but which was in danger of losing its credibility among the fashion set.

He has been credited for transforming Burberry through show-stopping catwalk collections that are available to buy straight off the runway.

Bailey has also drawn on the brand’s British heritage, championing the UK’s biggest models and musicians at Fashion Week and drawing the world’s biggest names to experience it all on the front row.

As the Yorkshire-born designer announces his departure from the company, we look back at the legacy he’s left.


Who could have predicted that one paparazzi shot could threaten the reputation of a huge luxury label?

That’s what happened in 2002, when EastEnders actress Danniella Westbrook was photographed dressed head to toe in Burberry, with her daughter in a matching outfit.

Fashion designer and retailer Alex Eagle tells the BBC that this was “the pivotal moment when the perception of the brand needed to change”.

Eagle says: “The print had been too overexposed and that image shows it became synonymous with ostentatious luxury.”

This came at a time when the brand had also become associated with the football world. Players’ wives and girlfriends as well as fans famously donned the print during the 2002 World Cup.

Burberry check also became ubiquitous with fake goods, meaning it had lost its exclusivity.

Christopher Bailey helped change all that.

He joined the company 16-and-a-half years ago as a design director, working his way up to chief creative officer in 2014.

Between 2002 and the present day, share prices have risen 729%.

Eagle says Bailey, who is just 46, has managed to convince the fashionistas that Burberry is again cutting edge, exclusive and the only place to be during Fashion Week.

“I think he’s a genius – he’s created our best British global brand, it’s young, desirable and cool,” she says.

“Burberry previously was synonymous with bad taste. Now it has an identity which feels very British and can be sold around the world.”

Burberry’s catwalk shows have been the most “slick, luxurious and global” of any British brand, she adds.

Lucy Felton is a fashion journalist and blogger and agrees that Burberry’s modern-day success is entirely down to Bailey’s vision.

“So much of Burberry’s DNA is about Bailey”, she tells the BBC.

“His shows are big, amazing, glamorous affairs, with Kate Moss or Cara Delevingne closing the show – he always has big fashion icons.

“The show is one of the highlights of fashion week. It takes place in Kensington Gardens and is so grand. Celebrities fill the front rows and it’s such an event.

“It’s got such an uplifting feeling after a few days of shows and it has such a fun charm about it – they hold some of the best shows and parties.”

Felton also highlights another great factor Bailey brought to Burberry – the hottest music talent.

“Bailey’s always supported British music too – he launched the careers of Jake Bugg and James Bay by having them play on his catwalks, which people don’t know unless they’re a fashion insider,” she says.

She adds that Burberry is also behind the phenomenon of the “it” bag – its Prorsum collection creates each season’s most coveted possession, worn by celebrities and sold at a high price point to add to its desirability.

“His ‘it’ bag was a real turning point, he created the seasonal bag that everyone wanted.”

It all started back in 2007 with the studded Knight bag, which was made as part of a limited run.

It was a huge hit with celebrities, seen on stars like Cameron Diaz, Emma Watson and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley.

“I remember the Knight bag being four figures at the time and that was a big deal, it would cost £15,000 now,” Felton says.

“Most big fashion houses do premium pieces anyway and Burberry knew what they were doing by uplifting prices.

“People will pay big money for amazing and limited pieces – they want an exclusive with only 20 items made.”

Bailey is also credited with creating ready-to-wear fashion, available to buy straight off the catwalk.

“He created catwalk to consumer and the ability to buy now,” Eagle says.

“He avoided high street copies because he would exhibit his show and those items would be able to be bought in store there and then, rather than being in the store six months later. He was trying to be ahead of the copycat.”

The Burberry tartan has even become popular again. The fashion house’s 2014 Christmas film featured Romeo Beckham in a classic cashmere scarf, while Burberry trench coats are again being seen as classy and desirable.

“There’s been a real fashion resurgence complimenting that side of things as well – the tartan is still an attractive part of the brand,” Felton says.

“Romeo Beckham’s ad also created a new generation of people wearing the scarf, showing it as a lovely British brand and this all feeds into its charm.”

Eagle says Bailey has managed to “go 360” by bringing back the Burberry print in a chic way.

“He’s made something that feels English and London by nailing that look of tailoring,” she says.

“Bailey’s now celebrating the check in the chic way, he’s put touches of it in the Macintoshes and knitwear, whilst scarves feel preppy and quaint.

“He’s going to be a very hard act to follow.”

As far as its reputation was concerned, Burberry had found that by becoming too accessible, with low-priced accessories, the brand had become cheapened.

This was arguably one of the biggest challenges the fashion house would face – by raising prices, it would lose a lot of shoppers.

That’s where Burberry Beauty comes in. Created in 2010, it’s marketed as a luxury make-up brand and sold in high-end department stores but with prices that match competitors like YSL and Estee Lauder.

“Burberry Beauty has become a lot more popular over the last few years,” Felton says.

“It’s quite cult and has really gorgeous luxury packaging. It’s tapping into the younger generation who can afford a lipstick but not a catwalk dress.

“It means you can fill your home with Burberry even if you can’t afford a £10,000 bag.”


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