The British Brand
Burberry. The name is synonymous with British style; as much a part of the well-heeled London landscape as tea at the Ritz, black cab rides and grey, wet weather. Of course the fashion landscape, and no doubt the UK and London, have changed dramatically since 1856 when 21 year-old Thomas Burberry started his business in Basingstoke, England when the brand focused on quality outdoor wear.
It’s an association that has stayed with the company, and for good reason: Burberry first patented the durable, waterproof fabric gabardine, which was utilized by intrepid British explorers and adventurers at the start of the 20th Century as they attempted to reach cold poles and high peaks.
The material – which is waterproofed before being woven into garments – was later adapted for British officers during the First World War (and then adopted by civilians after the war) and it is this garment that is still a staple of the Burberry line in various guises for men and women.
Alongside the trench coat, the most instantly recognizable feature of many Burberry garments is the Burberry check – black, red and white on a beige base – that was originally introduced in the 1920s as a coat lining, but has since frequently become the star of the show as a feature pattern on scarves, hats and non-accessory items.
Burberry led the British charge (along with the likes of Ted Baker and Paul Smith and – to a lesser extent – Aquascutum and Dunhill) as the world gradually embraced luxury goods and clothing from the 1970s onwards. It hasn’t always been smooth riding for the brand. In the late 90s and early 00s Burberry became unfavourably linked with British ‘chav’ culture (partly through its own marketing deals that led to an increase in popularity and cheap imitations). Soon the brand – which for so long had been linked to the upper class – was the favoured scarf and baseball cap of working class youths to wear on nights out.
But by embracing digital innovation and fearless marketing overseas Burberry has largely reinvented itself. Yes, the trench coat and Burberry check remained (on limited view) but there has been a push to engage digitally using popular British icons (Emma Watson and Eddie Redmayne) and a focus on the American and Asian market.
Of course, the rebranding is all well and good, but ultimately in the luxury sector, it boils down to whether the clothes are any good. Here Burberry have succeeded again. Creative director and CEO (until 2018), Christopher Bailey takes much of the credit (with former chief executive, Angela Ahrendts) for the refocus.
Modern designer fashion has become an interplay between the past, present and future, and the parameters that differentiate high fashion from the high street and casual wear have become less relevant. Furthermore, the internet has made designers and brands more responsive to the needs and opinions of a shifting demographic through the heft of social media influencers and the customers’ own preferences.
Burberry has been at the forefront in responding to these changes. Like all successful luxury brands (Louis Vuitton’s bags, Ralph Lauren’s suits) it has retained the core characteristics that made it a household name – quality and durability, the check, the plaid trench coat – and used it as a base to expand and (more importantly) experiment with layers, colours and materials.
As with Italian brand Gucci, it is also conscious of its younger customer base (again a nod to Asia) with a sneaker line and moves into athleisure. Current chief creative officer Ricardo Tisci has – in his two years in charge – already taken the brand in new stylistic directions.
You only have to look at Burberry’s Fall 2020 collection to note how Tisci has blended tradition with an exciting and experimental view of the future. Burberry Trench coats are now given expansive fur epaulets in variations of beige, tan, light and dark brown, camel and cream. That tartan check is used sparingly but unashamedly at times, especially in the menswear line. The womenswear line is more refined, but is also unafraid to go louche with floor length scarves and trailing lengths of cloth below the waist. Again, in a nod to both Burberry’s past (and an acknowledgement of where some of the more experimental brands have been heading) there are frequently multiple layers of varying but complimentary shades and patterns on display.
Having said all this, the clothes always look to accentuate the female form through a neat alignment of components that brings the whole concept into focus. Burberry is not looking to subvert or experiment with its component parts or usurp definitions of what is attractive; its clientele can be sure of the foundations on which they trust: expertly tailored garments with a functionality that serves outdoor and indoor pursuits and that increasingly consolidates the need to push the design.
Spring 2021 offered further proof of concept. A dramatic ocean-inspired theme brought confident deep-blues and oranges to the fore. Look closer and there is a greater degree of intricacy of design and logos that evoked fantastical sea beasts, mermaids and an almost mythical sense of turmoil and adventure.
It’s worth bearing in mind that even these themes embrace aspects of Burberry’s history as a manufacturer of clothes for adventurers of land, sea and air who set off into the unknown to (possibly) return with outlandish tales of what they had discovered. This is all, perhaps, very British too, and proof that Burberry are keen to make new strides into unfathomed creative territories.
This is one of the great challenges of designer clothing in the 21st century – consolidating the past with the future in an era when our understanding of both is being challenged on a daily basis. The second challenge, and one that Burberry also champion (with a degree of British restraint) is the increasing move away from formalwear to athleisure and casual clothing (a challenge most successfully taken up by Virgil Abloh at Louise Vuitton and Off-White).
There is some consternation about how far and how long the casualwear revolution will continue. Some might argue there’s a tendency for luxury casual to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but Burberry has managed to strike a balance between what its discerning clientele expect from a British mainstay with a keen eye on the road less travelled.
No more is this more evident than in Burberry’s current Future Archive project – a limited run of items that offer fascinating experiments on staples such as a hybridization of Burberry trench coats as they’re stitched to thick military green parkas.
Is it worth it?
So Burberry can justify its place (and its price tag) in the current fashion conversation by leaning on its reputation for exceptionally well made garments that are durable and designed to protect the wearer while also making sure they look the part.
It’s this latter concern where Burberry have proven themselves in recent years; championing a complete overhaul and rebranding, mastering the digital world while contemporaries were flicking through glossy brochures and – under the guidance of Christopher Bailey and now Ricardo Tisci – creating clothes that truly push the envelope forward in a design sense, with a particular focus on layering, colours and sophisticated, confident style.
If it’s British style you want, then you have a lot of options these days – from the (still) relevant radicalisation of Vivienne Westwood to the smart business concerns of Victoria Beckham or the bespoke tailoring of Saville Row. But if you want to turn heads at home and abroad, then Burberry has quietly but impressively become the place to start your adventures.