Burberry - Check of a comeback

THE history of Burberry – the iconic luxury brand beloved as much by the establishment as by the great unwashed masses – might best be described as chequered.

• Picture: PA

The company, famous for its instantly recognisable caramel-coloured check pattern, has experienced countless peaks and troughs in its 150-year history. But these days, it's sitting buoyant atop a rather heady peak, with news that, on the back of a triumphant return to London Fashion Week from Milan, the company was awarded two of the most coveted badges at last week's prestigious British Fashion Awards: Designer Brand of the Year and Designer of the Year, for the company's Chief Creative Officer, Christopher Bailey.

Today, Burberry is one of the top five luxury brands in the world. It has reported growth in this most difficult of years, watching its revenue rise by 21 per cent in the past financial year, exceeding 1 billion for the first time. Fashion is a fickle business, however, and it was not so long ago that this leader of the pack was one of the desperately uncool kids, pressing its nose up against the showroom windows of the high-fashion world.

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Have you forgotten already? Then allow me to jog your memory with just two words: Daniella Westbrook. In 2004, the EastEnders actress was photographed wear head-to-toe Burberry check items. If that wasn't bad enough, her infant daughter was also kitted out in matching togs. It was a PR disaster for a company once associated with the upper classes, a company that outfitted Sir Ernest Shackleton for his jaunt to the South Pole and dressed George Mallory for his ill-fated attempt at scaling Everest. Suddenly, and unwittingly, it found itself at the heart of what was nicknamed "chav culture".

In the wake of the growing trend for obvious designer labels in the late 1990s, Burberry hopped on the bandwagon. Only, rather than plaster the name of the brand itself across the clothing, they took what was once a discreet lining for their outerwear – the iconic "Haymarket" check, which first appeared on the lining of a trench coat in 1924 – and turned it inside out, putting it on everything from baseball caps to scarves.

Suddenly it became possible for everyone to know just how much your clothes cost, not by examining the clever design and craftsmanship close up, but from 100 paces. It's a tactic other labels have employed to varying degrees of success. Another "heritage" brand, Aquascutum, employed similar tactics at the same time with its navy and khaki check, while Christian Louboutin's shoes are popular with WAGs and wannabe WAGs in part because their blood-red soles allow everyone know exactly whose stiletto you're wearing.

By putting the Burberry check on less expensive accessories, it opened up the brand to almost every pocket – but that quickly led to an off-putting level of ubiquity. By the time a viral e-mail featuring a boy racer's car painted in the check started doing the rounds, it appeared the death knell had sounded for the Great British Brand. Only the football hooligans stood by it.

Step forward Christopher Bailey, who, as with Tom Ford at Gucci, was brought on board by Burberry to revive its brand in 2001. Eight years on, this canny Yorkshireman has done that and more. The strong sense of "Britishness" is still there (a trademark which appeals in particular to United States and Far East customers, evidenced by the fact that only 8 per cent of Burberry's sales are in the UK), but now the brand is also youthful, sexy and directional.

One of the first things Bailey did on arriving at Burberry was to pore over its archives. What he found was a rich history just waiting to have his stamp put on it. This is a company, after all, that outfitted army officers in the First World War (hence the "trench" coat) and also dbutantes in the Twenties. He set about reinventing the classics: a leather trench here, a sequinned military jacket there. Within a couple of years, Burberry had a new identity all of its own, via its high-end line Burberry Prorsum (Latin for "forwards") and Bailey was the one setting ultra-wearable trends, not following them.

Bailey uses metallics liberally, and is an advocate of ultra-luxurious fabrics. Prices for his handbags in exotic skins rocket past the 10,000 mark. He was at the forefront of the trend for ultra-high, futuristic shoes, selling more than 300,000 pairs last year. His designs are hugely popular with the most fashion-conscious of celebrities, including Kate Moss and Sienna Miller.

At the recent spring/summer 2010 show in London, the great and the good of the fashion/celebrity world were planted eagerly in the front row: Gwyneth Paltrow, Victoria Beckham, Liv Tyler, Mary-Kate Olsen, Freida Pinto and Agyness Deyn were among the celebrities present. Hailed by Vogue as Bailey's best collection to date, it featured dresses styled like trenchcoats in ice-cream shades, with eccentric sculpted details and delicate fabrics such as chiffon and soft suede.

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Burberry's advertising campaigns are no less exciting. Shot in black and white by Mario Testino, they show Bailey's clothes on classical beauties, more often than not members of the British aristocracy, such as Rosie Huntington-Whitely or Stella Tennant, the granddaughter of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. Currently fronting the campaign is Harry Potter actress Emma Watson, who is wholesome, natural, intelligent and – let's face it – a bit posh.

So were you to stroll down Princes Street today wearing last year's iconic layered feather dress, with the 13,000 Warrior handbag slung over your arm, who would know you were wearing Burberry? A passing football hooligan wouldn't give you a second, envious glance. A group of hoodies wouldn't even register your presence. No, only the fashion cognoscenti would truly appreciate just how much you spent to occupy that exclusive Burberry bubble. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the whole point.



A 21-year-old draper's assistant called Thomas Burberry opens a small outfitters' shop in Basingstoke, Hampshire.


Gabardine, the breathable, waterproof and tear-proof fabric patented by Burberry, is introduced to the public. This durable material is used to clothe great explorers such as Sir Ernest Shackleton, who wore Burberry clothing during his Antarctic expedition.


The first London Burberry outfitter is opened in Haymarket, near Piccadilly Circus.


Burberry develops the Tielocken, the predecessor to the trench coat, which was worn by British soldiers during the Boer War.


Captain Roald Amundsen, equipped in Burberry, becomes the first man to reach the North Pole.


The birth of the trench coat. Burberry is commissioned to adapt its original officer's coat for new combat requirements. By adding epaulettes and a "D" ring, the classic Burberry trench is created.


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The Burberry check is added as a lining to the trench. Known sometimes as the Haymarket check, it isn't until much later that the pattern is widely used on items such as scarves and luggage.


Burberry is granted its first Royal Warrant by the Queen. It is granted a Royal Warrant by the Prince of Wales in 1989.


The first of many campaigns shot by photographer Mario Testino features Kate Moss.


Christopher Bailey is appointed creative director. Overseeing all aspects of the brand's image, Bailey concentrates on rebranding the company by updating the classic Burberry look and giving it a modern twist. He also launches a website, Art of the Trench ( www.artofthetrench.com), for all the background on the staple Burberry item.


The 150th anniversary of Burberry is celebrated in Milan. A new advertising campaign featuring Rachel Weisz is launched.


Burberry closes London Fashion Week and the 25th anniversary of the British Fashion Council. Christopher Bailey picks up Designer of the Year and Burberry wins the Designer Brand award at the British Fashion Awards.