The storied British fashion house of Burberry, founded in 1856, came to the end of a very long chapter in its modern history on Saturday night in London, when Christopher Bailey presented his final collection after 17 years there. It was a long run, far longer than most designers last at luxury houses these days.
And in many ways, the Bailey years were a terrific success, even as Burberry faces a confusing new world where his strengths – singular vision, exacting creative discipline, comfort with the business side of things, and a charming personality – aren’t necessarily what a corporation needs any longer in a designer. Today is about disruption, and in fashion, that means tearing down the establishment.
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What Bailey accomplished in reviving Burberry over the last two decades is nothing short of astonishing. You have to remember that not that long ago, Burberry was seen as a bit tacky. In 2004, the company was ridiculed in the business press because its reputation had been tarnished by “chavs,” described in The Telegraph as “a low-income social group obsessed with brand names, cheap jewelry, and football.” Because Burberry’s signature camel, red, white, and black tartan was almost a logo for them, Bailey pulled back and created designs that were less recognizably Burberry, but a form of more discreet luxury.
The strategy made Burberry feel exclusive again, slowly but surely. The company’s sales improved, its luster was restored, and Burberry even seemed modernized by its embrace of new technology and social media platforms well ahead of its peers. But perhaps Bailey was too successful, as Burberry, with its strict messaging and adherence to precise design rules, began to read as exclusionary, and more than a little stiff. And so, we have come to the end of this chapter, with Bailey, who briefly served as its CEO, leaving the company while the fashion world speculates on who will start the next chapter.
But first, the end of his story:
In characteristic form, Burberry found an impossibly inconvenient location for Bailey’s last show, with editors stuck in standstill traffic growing ever more anxious as they made their way to the outskirts of London. Many people got out of their cars and hoofed it for the last half-mile or so, around a giant construction site that contained a shopping mall, and finally got to the entrance of the show to find it swarming with fur protesters (the British ones are unusually aggressive and loud). It was an off-putting beginning, and, not to draw too fine a point, a metaphor for the atmosphere of many aspirational luxury purveyors that you should be so lucky to walk through its doors.
But inside, it was a scene. Zendaya, Naomi Watts, Michelle Dockery, Kate Mara, Idris Elba, Matt Smith (“Prince Philip” from “The Crown”), and many more – including supermodels galore – came to pay their respect to Bailey. They were all seated in an enormous warehouse space with lights that swung from pendulums in tune to the music – an artwork in collaboration with United Visual Artists called “Our Time,” which was impressive on its own.
And Bailey’s final collection was quite a statement, much freer, looser, and more creative than I’ve seen from him in a long time. The clothes didn’t look so scripted to please Virginia Woolf or the curator of an English garden, but rather were more attractive to younger minds. In a strong gesture, the designer made a supportive reference to the LGBTQ+ community by incorporating rainbow elements to his pieces – puffer jackets, a color-blocked sweater, sneakers, and a faux fur cape (yes, faux). He even wove rainbow stripes into the famous Burberry check, which he has finally embraced with pride.
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The collection skewed heavily toward streetwear and incorporated trendy splicing of fabrics, mismatched tartans, track jackets, and logo sweatshirts, but they felt fresh and easy here in a way that had long been missing from the brand. I dare say there are pieces that would cause people to want to run out and shop, and in Bailey’s see-now, buy-now strategy, that’s possible. Some reissued pieces from Burberry’s archives, which were included on the runway, were available that night. Part of Bailey’s legacy as a businessman is his willingness to challenge the traditional rules of retail, an ongoing experiment that hasn’t yet reached a conclusive verdict. But on his years as the designer of Burberry, we can certainly say this: It sure ended well.