Of trench coats and technology: Christopher Bailey to take Burberry to the forefront of fashion

In an exclusive Middle East interview, the head of Burberry tells us how he's taking the 160-year-old luxury brand forward – a strategy that spans SnapChat, radical photo shoots, the tricky runway-to-retail trend and, of course, Brooklyn Beckham.

The monogrammed Burberry Heritage Trench Coat. Courtesy Burberry
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I am led into the boardroom of the shiny new Burberry office in Dubai Design District and introduced to the softly spoken, ever-so-English Christopher Bailey.

Wearing an understated suit – the jacket of which lays neatly folded over the back of the sofa – the man single-handedly credited with transforming Burberry into the kind of company that achieved revenues of £2.5 billion (Dh13.4bn) for the 2015/16 fiscal year, pours me a glass of water and invites me to sit down.

When a waiter mistakenly brings him the wrong coffee a few minutes later, I watch both men apologise profusely for their error. When I teasingly tell Bailey that he is shattering my illusions of “the creative director as fashion diva”, he smiles shyly.

Burberry is a brand synonymous with Britishness. The company was founded in Basingstoke in 1856 by Thomas Burberry, a gentleman’s outfitter. Inspired by the notoriously terrible English weather to create a quality overcoat, he invented a new fabric: gabardine. In 1891, Burberry opened his first store in London, and during the First World War provided coats for the British Royal Flying Corps (a precursor to the Royal Air Force). The distinctive checked lining was added in the 1920s, and by the 1960s it was appearing on umbrellas, scarves and luggage. The brand has since branched out into beauty, fragrances, ready-to-wear, childrenswear and accessories.

Bailey was hand-picked to join Burberry as design director in 2001 by then chief executive Rose Marie Bravo. However, it was the next chief executive, Angela Ahrendts, who saw a kindred spirit in the relatively unknown designer. Both shared a view of the future, understanding the importance of attracting a younger audience – and connecting to them via new platforms.

Building on a very British heritage, Bailey set out to make this the backbone of his philosophy. As many companies strive for a global appeal, Burberry has built its name on being quintessentially British.

Often described as an inspiring leader, Bailey proceeded to rise through the ranks. He was named creative director in 2004 and chief creative in 2009. In 2014, he effectively took control of the entire company when he was made both chief creative and chief executive officer.

While Burberry has not been immune to the global economic climate and reported a drop in revenues for the first three months of 2016, there is no denying the effect that Bailey has had on one of Britain’s best-loved luxury brands. He has a knack for tapping into the zeitgeist. For the brand’s spring/summer 2010 show, presented in September 2009, he turned the industry on its head, casting aside the traditional format of the fashion show by simultaneously streaming it online. Suddenly, the inner sanctums of the fashion world – hitherto inaccessible to the masses – were thrown open to anyone with internet access.

Burberry was also the first fashion brand to open up its runway collection for pre-order in 2009, allowing customers to purchase certain pieces directly from the catwalk, months before they were available in stores. Bailey brought Burberry further up to date in 2009 by joining Facebook – the brand now has 40 million followers across 20 social-media platforms. And then, for spring/summer 2016, Bailey decided to involve his customers further still, by previewing Burberry’s entire collection on Snapchat the day before the runway show.

“Snapchat is really important, but I don’t really look at it in terms of ‘this one is the important one today’,” Bailey tells me. “Instead, it starts with: ‘What do we want to say, what energy do we want to create, and what are the different platforms that we can do that on?’ We like testing and playing, and seeing if people engage with it. I find Snapchat such an intriguing platform, because it is unedited. It is quite raw, and we have enjoyed expressing who Burberry is on that platform.”

While Bailey has transformed Burberry into an undeniably progressive brand, he remains respectful of its history and heritage. The brand is, after all, synonymous with a single iconic product, the trench – and Bailey has turned this into a strength, rather than a weakness.

In 2009, he launched The Art of the Trench, which was directly inspired by his customers. “I used to get letters from people, telling me about the story of their trench coats, their father’s coat, or their grandfather’s coat, which had been passed down, and sending me pictures of themselves in the trench coat. It made me realise why fashion and clothes are so important – because they tell a story and they define our identity. I had these wonderful letters and pictures, but no one else was seeing them, and people were obviously very proud of their own stories.”

So Bailey set up The Art of the Trench microsite, where people can upload their images. “It was a way of saying: ‘Here is this British trench coat, made in our little factory in Yorkshire, and they go all around the world, and take on a whole new life of their own.’”

Ever one for looking forward, Bailey remains committed to responding, rather than dictating, to his clients. “Before, it used to be brands pushing out, and now it’s a much more dynamic and integrated and organic relationship, between a consumer, a customer, an audience, a community and a brand and a designer. And I love that dynamic, where one inspires the other, and it doesn’t really matter who inspires who.”

Check out Burberry's latest Ramadan collection for the Middle East here.

For Burberry’s next evolutionary step, Bailey is addressing a seismic shift currently rippling through the industry. The frenzied pace of the fashion industry, which has whirred into overdrive in recent years, has seen fashion houses churning out up to eight collections a year. Burberry is one of a handful of brands that has decided to throw aside this traditional timetabling, and has announced that it will combine its men’s and women’s collections into one runway show in autumn 2016. Along with Gucci, Antonio Marras, Bottega Veneta and Giorgio Armani, Burberry is condensing four annual shows into two.

Bailey is also throwing the full weight of Burberry behind one of the biggest industry shake-ups since the creation of ready-to-wear in 1966. See Now Buy Now means that, for the first time, entire collections will be available to buy on the day that they are presented on the runway (there is currently a six-month lag between the show and the clothes arriving in-store).

Such a shift means that every step, from the design process and fabric sourcing, to factories creating the clothes, has to be dragged forward by three months. In an industry that famously runs on last-minute deadline adrenaline, not every brand is capable of making such a transition. Seemingly fearless, Burberry is at the very vanguard of this movement, along with Versace and Diane von Furstenberg. Starting with the spring/summer 2017 collection, which will show this September, Burberry’s full collection will be available to buy on the day of the catwalk show.

“It was a bit of everything,” Bailey explains. “A gut feeling, a logical response to what the audience now wants, a reaction to a shift, but it wasn’t part of some huge strategy to change the way we will work from now on.”

This shift has caused uproar, as it requires a total overhaul of timetabling for designers, buyers and factories. The old template of buyers placing orders after the shows and stock arriving six months later, no longer applies.

Given that he has positioned himself at the very forefront of the industry, it is easy to see how Bailey’s choices might polarise opinions. One such instance was his decision to hire 16-year-old Brooklyn Beckham to shoot the campaign for the Burberry Brit fragrance earlier this year.

“It’s funny, we do these things that seem to really divide opinion. Brooklyn was really straightforward. I follow Brooklyn online, and loved his work and knew he had a big passion for photography. We were talking about this fragrance, Burberry Brit, and I realised that actually all his friends and all his followers are the same people that we are talking to. It goes back to being authentic. Why am I doing a campaign over here with this person, this photographer, when actually the community we are talking to is over there, and these are the people that inspire them? And we just did it.

“I am not naive; I knew it would absolutely polarise opinion because, again, I think we have become very safe in this industry, and you are only allowed to work with certain people, and Brooklyn is not a trained photographer. And that’s OK. I don’t underestimate technical training, but nor do I underestimate the power of someone who feels something, who just picks up a camera and just takes pictures. It’s important that we don’t get stuck in what we should and shouldn’t do, because then we never offer people opportunities.”

Bailey’s strong understanding of visual coding is perhaps most obvious in the 2013 My Burberry campaign, which featured two different generations of British supermodels together in one image. By pairing Kate Moss with Cara Delevingne, and then Naomi Campbell with Jourdan Dunn for the brand’s spring/summer 2015 campaign, Bailey created a strong sense of continuity between the past and the future.

“What I love is the history of this brand, being able to talk to all different types and characters, roots, genders, cultures and lifestyles, and that’s what we always try to celebrate in the campaigns. We are not defined by a particular time or age, but probably defined by a bit of an attitude. Thomas Burberry was this immense pioneer, and he believed in things, and took risks. Kate is an absolute pioneer; Cara is also. If Kate defines a period, Cara does, too. She basically created this social-media personality as one of the world’s biggest models.”

In his own quietly progressive way, Bailey is also a pioneer – not to mention a gentleman, cut from very English cloth.

Read this and more stories in Luxury magazine, out with The National on Thursday, June 23.