Into the trenches
He was a CEO at 42, and is described as the nicest guy in fashion. But how did Burberry’s chief creative officer and CEO put the cool back into coats?
ABRITISH INFANTRY band donning bearskin hats, a troop of giggling supermodels and one of England’s funniest men doing his best Derek Zoolander to the thunderous applause of the fashion elite. Welcome to the world of Christopher Bailey. The creative entourage he pulled into Burberry’s ‘London in Los Angeles’ show in April, was a classic example of how the new head honcho of Burberry has brought a breath of fresh air into a brand that had lost its way.
Christopher asked comedian James Corden, host of the The Late Late Show, to strut his stu at the show. ‘The whole thing was so silly, and it speaks a lot about Burberry as a company,’ James told The Hollywood
Reporter. ‘They are the best because they take what they do very, very seriously, but they don’t take themselves seriously at all. And that is a beautiful thing to behold.’
The ‘silliness’ is a signature of the o the wall approach Christopher has taken since he took up the reins as chief creative o cer in 2009, after joining Burberry in 2001 as design director. At every show, he pulls in relatively unknown musicians to perform. Thanks to Christopher, rookies like Tom Odell, Paloma Faith and George Barnett have since made it big. He’s also signed up Rosie Huntington Whiteley, Jourdan Dunn, Lily Donaldson, Cara Delevingne, Douglas Booth and Eddie Redmayne and sweet talked Sienna Miller, Suki Waterhouse, Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss into fronting Burberry ad campaigns. But his biggest feat was snapping up Romeo Beckham to be a Burberry clotheshorse last year. Thanks to the mini Beckham’s debut, sales of the classic £1 500 (about R28 000) trench coats shot up 10%.
It’s Christopher’s uncanny sense for the next big thing that has brought Burberry back from a brand that was known for its signature tartan – but mainly in the form of cheap knocko s made in China. ‘It was mind blowing,’ Christopher said when he became chief creative o cer. ‘I just remember thinking it was this incredibly beautiful diamond that had been kind of trodden into the dust a little bit.’ Interview described his transformative e ect on the label: ‘Bailey has made the British luxury house into a brand that could conceivably be worn by both a Wall Street father and his rebellious rock’n’roll children.’
A hugely successful strategy that has paid o for the brand was Christopher’s insistence that Burberry move out of its Brit heritage comfort zone into the fast paced world of digital. He encourages customers to buy items straight from the runway at his shows, livestreams the events, and launched a Snapchat account, where members of the Burberry family, including Cara, Naomi and Jourdan, make surprise visits. Then there’s the Art of the Trench social media site, where users can post pictures of themselves in trench coats. Speaking to the Daily Mail, Christopher said, ‘It’s all about involving
people around the world and making them feel part of the experience – even if they can’t be there in person. It’s about doing something that makes people smile, that makes people want to engage, whether it’s online, whether it’s physical, whether it’s at the show.’ (Christopher famously excludes fashion critics from his shows, so they have to join the masses online to view them).
The brand’s agship Regent Street store in London is another example of his love a air with technology. It has interactive mirrors and giant screens that stream Burberry’s shows. Not content with simply adding to the Burberry fragrance line, Christopher has made a bold move into cosmetics. ‘It was one of the only things I felt was missing whenever we were working on a show or a shoot. I found it di cult to describe the natural makeup I wanted, which wasn’t plastered on. The idea for this line was more natural and relaxed. I liked the idea of it being easy and elegant rather than hard work to apply. It took about two years to put it all in motion.’ he says.
He has put his golden touch on the clothes too. Last year, Christopher sent models down the catwalk wearing ponchos monogrammed with their initials. Celebrities like Sienna Miller and Sarah Jessica Parker snapped them up and the ponchos, together with the trenches and scarves, boosted sales beyond all expectation. Carol Fairweather, Burberry’s CFO, described the impact of the ponchos as ‘phenomenal’ and hinted that it was only the start: ‘There’s lots more to come from the poncho story.’
While it may seem that Christopher was predestined to work in fashion, he told
Interview that he fell into it by mistake. ‘I really didn’t know that this kind of fashion even existed when I was a child in Yorkshire. My dad is a carpenter, a joiner, and I used to watch him make things. So I always imagined that I’d do something where I made things, too. I was really more interested in architecture growing up because I would work with my dad on houses. So fashion was, in a way, an accident. But this world opens you up to a lot of di erent avenues that interested me.’
Christopher was born a country boy in 1971; his mother worked as a window dresser in Marks & Spencer. He credits his art teacher for suggesting he look into ‘something in fashion’. He moved to London to study fashion at the University of Westminster and the Royal College of Art, and from there he was poached by American designer Donna Karan, who was so bowled over by his portfolio show that she took him to New York. He went on to work for Tom Ford at Gucci before joining Burberry during a tough time – his former long-term partner Geert Cloet died of brain cancer in 2005.
When Burberry came calling, Christopher was tasked with reviving the brand. Sales have increased four-fold since then and he’s racked up a slew of awards: two-time menswear designer of the year, and winner of the international award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. His workload as chief creative and CEO (a role he took up last year) includes ‘everything that touches the consumer’ visually, acoustically, and physically – which means more than 50 collections a year ( Prorsum, Burberry London, Burberry Brit, fragrance, make-up, childrenswear), store design, ad campaigns and the digital platforms he launched.
Despite the acclamation, Christopher still lives in London with his partner, actor Simon Woods, who he married in 2012. ‘I live with my eyes open. I never try to force myself to be inspired. I’m not someone who feels that they have to go to a foreign country or another culture to look for inspiration.’ He credits his fresh ideas with the people he interacts with on various projects. He recently launched Burberry Acoustic, a digital bank of acoustic live sets produced with bands he’s worked with over the years. He mentors fashion students from the University of Hudders eld and the Royal College of Art and launched the Burberry Foundation to help young people around the world realise their potential through creativity. Perhaps that’s the secret to his success. ‘When you meet people, it takes you on a journey,’ he says. More like a wild ride if you consider his impact on Burberry.
Christopher Bailey with partner Simon
RIGHT Woods Sarah Jessica Parker; the famous tartan print; Romeo Beckham; Poppy Delevingne; Jourdan Dunn
BELOW (From left) Jourdan Dunn, Naomi Campbell, Christopher, Sam Smith and Cara Delevingne