The Checkered History of Burberry

Left: Handbag and scarf by Burberry, Coat by Burberry via Comme Des Costumes, Umbrella by Burberry Right: Headscarf is model’s own

Nova Check tartan is to Burberry what the double C is to Chanel: an instantly recognisable brand signifier. Yet the label nearly abandoned it in the early Aughts due to its association with working-class football fans. As Goscha Rubchinskiy and Burberry stage a revival, SLEEK investigates why.

When streetwear hero Gosha Rubchinskiy approached Burberry’s Christopher Bailey to collaborate on his Spring/Summer 2018 show, it marked a surprising departure for the British brand. On the one hand, Rubchinskiy’s approachable Nova Check short sleeve shirts, shorts and Harrington jackets were simple, practical and covetable. On the other, this move signalled a return to an era from which the company had been trying hard to dissociate itself: when Nova Check was part of the unofficial uniform of football fanatics in the early Aughts, also known as the ‘Burberry Lad.’ The firm was fighting associations with hooliganism, and the section of the British working class the tabloids had branded ‘chavs’. This era was also marked by rampant licensing of the pattern, which appeared on anything from pushchairs to umbrellas. Subsequently, it quietly disappeared as the label sought to reinvent itself.

In terms of this collaboration, the commercial side of Rubchinskiy’s motivation is clear; working with a behemoth like Burberry is an attractive proposition. Alongside the entry of streetwear onto the catwalk, many of his cohorts are no longer satisfied with merely existing in the same space as luxury fashion – they want to become part of it, too. Hence Vetements’ Demna Gvasalia’s use of the Kering logo in Balenciaga’s Autumn/Winter 2017 collection, Louis Vuitton’s box logo-plastered Supreme collaboration and arguably this Anglo-Russian union as well. Rubchinskiy, it seems, is toying with establishment status that goes beyond his presence in the Comme des Garcons stable in a new guise for his multifaceted empire that includes suits, trainers and skateboards.

Skirt by Archive Burberry

There were also sentimental reasons. As the designer told the Financial Times: “It’s because of St Petersburg. It was the first city in Russia to have football, in the 19th century. It was introduced by English people, so I thought, Let’s do something with an English brand. I thought, Which brand is most iconic? It’s Burberry. It suits many things in the collection, like underground electronic music, like football, England, Russia, club culture.”

Burberry’s reasoning seems obvious: it’s struggling. In the financial year ending March 2017, profits were down 21 percent. One of the causes of this is that its signature line of classically-tailored trench coats and frocks has become predictable. Thus, having unofficially prohibited most uses of its famous pattern since the mid-Aughts, the British institution is seemingly happy bring to Nova Check back now that a popular fashion figure like Rubchinskiy is injecting their clothes with new ideas. British filmmaker and photographer Glenn Kitson, whose images often feature aspects of the arcane British class system, is unimpressed. “I like how the collection looks. It’s clever, and ticks all the right boxes,” he says. “But the problem I have is the same as all of Gosha’s stuff. It’s ‘post-Soviet’ re-appropriation for art school kids and fashion in-crowds. Class colonialism.”

Left: Hat is stylist’s own Right: Jacket and jeans by Archive Burberry

Burberry’s president Christopher Bailey has no qualms about Rubchinskiy’s take. “His reinterpretation of some of our most iconic designs feels exciting, new and relevant whilst paying enormous respect to their British cultural heritage,” he says. This is an interesting remark. While broad, it can be taken to mean that Bailey is re-embracing the culture that made the pattern so ubiquitous in the first place. After all, the Russian maverick’s shaven models often look like they’re on their way to a football match. Çomme des Garcons president Adrian Joffe introduced Rubchinskiy to Christopher Bailey, who, according to the FT, only had to think about it for “maybe four seconds” before agreeing. And the joint project has undoubtedly met both parties’ expectations, but it’s also sparked a backlash. “Burberry could have championed its traditional working-class core consumer years back,” says Kitson. “Ironically, it was this consumer that made them current and vital. Instead, by collaborating with Gosha, they’ll just be another box ticked alongside Kappa, Fila and [everone else] he’s collaborated with. What does that say? They shouldn’t be flattered by it.” He has a point. Yet it could also be argued that this reprisal of Nova Check is simply the organisation’s recognition of this. Furthermore, London’s fashion kids have been wearing the pattern ironically for a while before the Rubchinskiy collaboration, picking up early Aughts pieces from platforms such as Wavey Garms.

Left: Hat by Archive Burberry Right: Tie by Burberry, Clothes are model’s own

The ‘Burberry Lad’ of the Nineties was part of a movement in fashion that unseated luxury establishments as the harbingers of avant-garde, and led to the current situation, where high-end design is driven by cuts from sport and skate clothing. History has come full circle for the company’s iconic motif – and not for the first time. Introduced in the Twenties as the lining of their iconic trench coat, the pattern was then a signifier of wealth. Hollywood patrons solidified this status, and in the Eighties it became a trademark of the posh West London ‘Sloane Ranger’ set (think Hugh Grant in “Notting Hill”). At the same time, the label gained prominence among hardcore football fans known as ‘Ultras’ or ‘Casuals’, who would turn up to away games dressed in expensive clothing to impress and intimidate their rivals. Many of the clothes most popular among ‘Casuals’ were Italian, such as Stone Island and C.P. Company, but a number of British names were also in demand, including Fred Perry, Reebok and Burberry. While European fashion was deemed sophisticated, designs from established UK outlets embodied a sense of local factionalism – an inescapable part of being a die-hard supporter.

Left to Right: Hairband and skirt by Archive Burberry, Shawl by Burberry, Hair band and Hat are Stylist’s own, Tie by Burberry, Headscarf and skirt by Archive Burberry, all other clothing are model’s own

Following UK rave culture’s brief infatuation with Nova Check, it became omnipresent in the British high street. When it rained in the early Aughts, the streets flooded with macs and umbrellas emblazoned with it. During this period, 20 percent of Burberry’s range was covered in the pattern. This was a change from the late Nineties, when the brand was so undesirable that it was no longer stocked in Selfridges and Harvey Nichols. Its ubiquity on footballers’ wives, soap opera celebs and pop starlets filtered to the streets, as a universal symbol of spirational consumerism. Burberry’s output transformed from exclusive consumables to signifiers for working class cultures, and became a target for British classism. In 2002, The Daily Telegraph referred to their wearers using the pejorative ‘chavs’, a term it clarified as meaning “oafish working-class teenagers in Burberry baseball caps and chunky jewellery”. That year also marked the year British soap opera star Daniella Westbrook was photographed in a head-to-toe-to-baby-stroller Nova Check ensemble, with The Sun describing the outfit as chavtastic”. For many of these often middle-class journalists, poverty was a character defect, with Burberry’s cream, white and maroon check its unashamed emblem.

Despite the changing fortunes of its socio-cultural significance, Burberry’s sales remained healthy during this period. In 1997, they totaled £250 million. In 2004, this increased to £670 million, and the company was worth more than the entire London development of Canary Wharf. However, in 2005 decline set in, and after poor Christmas sales, The Daily Telegraph ran an article blaming the downturn on ‘chavs’.

Left: Jacket and jeans by Archive Burberry Right: Bag by Burberry, all other clothes are model’s own

Needless to say, Burberry was less than happy. Additionally, their merchandise was being rapidly counterfeited, and their pattern was turning up on everything from wallpaper to shopping trolleys. To mitigate the ‘problem’, affordable pieces were removed from shelves, and Nova Check disappeared from collections, with the exception of a few outings. Licenses were revoked, and the UK group tightened its supply network and clamped down hard on fake product. In a bizarre turn of fate, Burberry’s once most valuable asset was threatening to topple them. British fashion aficionado Gary Warnett remembers it well.

“That whole period [was] very odd,” he explains. “For years, some higher end brands have been struggling to evade the audience that celebrates them and drives their profits. It can be good to rise above the noise, but at the same time that ‘chav’ tag was classist nonsense rooted in a moral panic.”

Left: Shirt by Archive Burberry, Right: Hat is stylist’s own

Fast-forward to 2017, and Burberry’s estranged offspring has returned to the fold. Their Autumn/Winter 2018 collection is Nova Check heavy, from baseball caps and blousons to socks – only this time the company is acknowledging its early Aughts history, and attempting to spin it as a working-class chic revival. Warnett sees this as beyond self-parody. “I’m sure the Nova Check might get its moment again on the back of this, but this whole world of hyper-aware self-bootlegging is just boring.” Younger customers are more likely to desire to product from streetwear labels such as Off-White, Supreme, Palace and of course Rubchinskiy. In the imaginations of Gen Z’ers, designers such as Gosha and Virgil Abloh are becoming almost as significant as popstars. By 2025, it is estimated that these consumers are set to account for 45 percent of the global luxury market. Conscious of this, Burberry is apparently going with the flow. And they aren’t the first of their ilk to do so – think of Gucci x Dapper Dan, Ralph Lauren’s embrace of Kanye West and Louis Vuitton’s Supreme collaboration. And one emerging trend among young fans is to buy and sell limited edition items on Facebook groups such as Wavey Garms, creating a narrative and lifestyle that people are invested in.

Skirt by Archive Burberry, Mask is stylist’s own, all other clothing is model’s own

Viewed thus, Burberry simply seems to be forging a connection with these customers by detourning their pret-a-porter strategy to include more streetwear-inspired options. And the firm had to address Nova Check. If one accepts the premise that Nineties and early Aughts trends are driving fashion, they would have missed out on a huge opportunity. It’s the only thing in their arsenal that carries this weight, and its most significant contemporary meaning is one that they themselves have struggled to accept.

But there’s also hope that the brand coming to terms with the fact that no matter what they produce, their customers ultimately define its significance. On the other hand, this could be mere pandering to a new demographic against a background of a falling pound and the spectre of Brexit. Time – and buyers – will tell.

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