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© WWD/REX/Shutterstock

The Return of the Burberry Check Tells the Real Story of British Fashion

Picture of India Doyle
Updated: 22 September 2017

The narrative of the Burberry check has traditionally gone thus: first signifier of a luxury heritage brand, then commandeered by football fans and working class lads in the early noughties. Temporarily ruined, the iconic pattern fell into disrepute. But now, Christopher Bailey has revived it again for SS18, sending a strong message: Burberry is back.

It’s a relaxing story to buy into, if only that the ebb and flow of fashion trends allows for this flip-flopping in and out of style. But the contemporary history of the Burberry check is more nuanced than that narrative allows, and speaks of a wider shift that has seen streetwear and luxury fashion align.

Indeed it was fitting that in their recent exhibition at the magnificent Old Sessions House in Clerkenwell, Burberry worked with cult Russian designer Gosha Rubichinskiy on a new series of original photographs.

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Gosha appeared on the scene in 2008 and swiftly amassed hype from mainstream, international editors and stylists for offering a precise and insightful vision of the New East. He emerged roughly at the same time roughly as Demna Gvasalia of Vetements, and together they took eastern European urban subcultures, with tracksuits, hoodies, battered denim and oversized silhouettes, to a luxury market. It worked: Vetements jeans now sell out for $1,000, and Gosha Rubichinskiy drops coveted collaborations with some of the biggest sportswear brands in the world.

As such, a moment in fashion history that was once considered to be so catastrophic for Burberry can now be seen as a crucial foretelling of the way luxury would evolve. Christopher Bailey’s decision to re-embrace the brand’s iconic signifier shows further savviness of his part, following on from decisions to introduce ‘See Now Buy Now’, merge catwalk shows and switch up the runway format to consequently show the collection in a touring exhibition.

For SS18, the collection placed the Burberry check amongst tartans and across bags, caps and raincoats. There were direct references to military jackets, rendered in dress and skirt form, as well as jackets. Meanwhile sporty, sheer macs in turquoise and pink, cropped sleeveless jumpers and fitted knitted jumpers with elongated arms all featured, as well as fur (engendering protests outside of the show), shearling, cashmere, wool and delicate lace. In short, a broad medley of the best of traditional British fabrics and historical silhouettes.

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In a deft move, Bailey introduced the collection full of Burberry check against a backdrop of photographs that chronicled the rich texture of contemporary British life – from decadent portraits of life at Oxbridge in the 1980’s to Alasdair McLellan’s new series of photographs taken in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. England is explored through the Ceremony series, which features portraits of regiments in the British Army, and was originally published in Arena HOMME+ magazine in 2006. McLellan documents school kids verging on adolescence the Wales series; and in Northern Ireland he captured life inside a boxing club – a space that offered a safe haven for young men and boys during the conflict.

The Here We Are Burberry exhibition also included never before seen prints by Shirley Baker and Ken Russell, along with Charlie Phillips’s photographs of local communities in Notting Hill. The effect was to weave Burberry into the fabric of British history in a vivid and engaging way, allowing the check to symbolise the nuanced and rich scope of cultural life across a range backgrounds and identities, while also opening up a new era, in which luxury is a narrative that we can all engage with – albeit still unable to afford the clothes.

Burberry Exhibition Here We Are is at Old Sessions House London until October 1.