The History of Burberry and Its Famous Fashion Comeback

Greta Samuel
Greta Samuel | © Culture Trip

From wartime trenches to football terraces, Burberry’s is a compelling British fashion story. Now, with the appointment of new chief creative officer Riccardo Tisci, it’s set to take another direction. This is the brand history and how it came back from its well-publicised 1990s demise.

Steeped in heritage with a signature trench coat collection that dates back to 1800s, Burberry represents quintessential British style. Despite a bump in its road circa the late ’90s, it has become one of the industry’s best-recognised luxury fashion houses.

Thomas Burberry was 21 when he founded his namesake label – soon renamed Burberry’s – in 1856. An apprentice draper with a penchant for outdoor sportswear, he became famous in 1879 for creating gabardine, the world’s first waterproof fabric. In 1888 he patented it, making Burberry’s its only stockist. Breathable, weatherproof and hard-wearing, gabardine made for the perfect trench coat material and was hailed as the lightweight alternative to rubber.

The appeal of gabardine lay in its functionality. In 1910, aviator Claude Grahame-White famously wore the material to fly between London and Manchester in record time. The armed forces also picked up on gabardine’s practical qualities and Burberry’s became the apparel provider for British soldiers during both World Wars.

It’s a history that Christopher Bailey, who was brought in to head up the label nearly a century later, was keen to celebrate. The story is told artistically in the brand’s 2016 film The Tale of Thomas Burberry, which Bailey initiated.

By the 1920s, Burberry’s equestrian knight logo and black, camel and red Nova check had become recognised brand signatures and both were registered as trademarks. The check was introduced as a lining to the trench coat and as such, the lines between fashion and functionality started to blur. In the 1950s, Burberry’s trench coats made their way onto the silver screen and were worn by the likes of Audrey Hepburn, Marlene Deitrich and Humphrey Bogart. The check is what made the coats so identifiable, and it’s a design feature that remains relevant in modern-day fashion. Head of womenswear buying at MATCHESFASHION.COM Liane Wiggins explains: “Burberry has a very strong heritage and the label’s vintage house check continues to be recognised worldwide as an iconic and desirable print.”

George Peppard and Audrey Hepburn in ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s’ (1961)

But that hasn’t always been the case. In the mid-1990s, Burberry’s profits fell dramatically. Then, in 2002, British soap actress Danniella Westbrook stepped out wearing head-to-toe check, accessorising with a matching baby and pram. Westbrook’s outfit was perceived by many to be the ultimate low point for Burberry. At the same time, the label – by this point known as Burberry again – had found favour among football fans who adopted the check as a uniform, further damaging its exclusive positioning.

What Thomas Burberry had first created as a mark of luxury and innovation now had negative connotations, and major UK department stores such as Harvey Nichols and Selfridges stopped stocking Burberry altogether. Harrods sold only the most traditional of trench coats.

It’s not often that a brand can come back from something this damaging, but Christopher Bailey rose to the challenge when he was appointed creative director. Bailey took his experience at Gucci and Donna Karan and began to merge it with his passion for technology in a way that felt new and innovative – much like Thomas Burberry’s pioneering approach to design. In 2009, Bailey brought the runway show back to London Fashion Week from Milan and, over the years, worked with credible celebrities to restore the brand’s reputation. Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Cara Delevingne, James Corden and Agyness Deyn all featured in his campaigns.

Christopher Bailey with Cara Delevingne (second from left) at Burberry Prorsum’s AW14 show, London Fashion Week, 2014

In 2014, Angela Ahrendts left her position as CEO to join Apple, and Bailey took over while keeping his role as chief creative officer. It was an unprecedented move that solidified the merging of design and technology at Burberry.

Film, music, a new ecommerce website and the live streaming of catwalk shows prevailed. In 2016, Bailey reduced the number of runway shows per year from four to two, combining the men’s and women’s collections and offering consumers the chance to shop the looks directly after the presentation. The brand became as much about experience as it did clothing, and show spaces were open to the public as well as the industry elite, set up as exhibits for the week following the shows.

‘Here We Are’ exhibition at the Old Sessions House, London

In September 2017, Bailey presented the SS18 collection in London’s Old Sessions House, a Grade II*-listed building equipped to house a photography exhibit as well as a catwalk. Richard Silver of the Old Sessions House said: “I find mixing modern influences with classical architecture incredibly inspiring, which is why I thought the Burberry show and photographic exhibition was a great fit [for Old Sessions House]. We resonate because both Burberry and the space have a reimagined heritage. Their foundations were laid long ago but they’ve evolved to be relevant and exciting in today’s society.”

Burberry SS18 show, London Fashion Week, 2017

The same can be said for the Nova check. As one final hoorah, Bailey sent models down the spring/summer and autumn/winter 2018 runways in abrasive variations of the design, telling Vogue backstage: “I have never been snotty about [the check] because I feel that’s a very important part of our history.” There’s a sense of ’90s nostalgia about the look, which has certainly split opinions, but Wiggins doesn’t see it damaging MATCHESFASHION.COM’s sales. “The label stays true to its roots while modernising the traditional staples which are always very popular among our international customers,” she says. “The scarves and accessories perform particularly well for us, as well as the logo T-shirts and sweaters.”

Now, chief creative officer Riccardo Tisci – formerly creative director at Givenchy – is making changes to the label. Since taking on the role in March 2018, he has announced a new strategy: product releases are set to happen continually throughout the year, and a series of collaborations is in the works. The first will launch in December 2018 and is with Dame Vivienne Westwood. August 2018 saw the launch of a new logo and brand motif, designed with art director and graphic designer Peter Saville, who recently redesigned the Calvin Klein logo. With such changes already in place, it seems unlikely that Thomas Burberry’s heritage trench coats will hold much prominence in Tisci’s debut runway collection, which he will showcase on 17 September 2018, but perhaps the new chief creative officer will continue to surprise us with his decisions.

Read more about what Riccardo Tisci has done for Burberry so far here.

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