It was recently announced that Christopher Bailey, the chief creative officer at Burberry, would be leaving the brand in March 2018. Even in the midst of fashion’s “game of musical chairs”, it’s impossible to imagine the heritage British brand with no Bailey at the helm. After all, it was Bailey’s arrival at Burberry 2001 which heralded the brand’s transformation into the luxury powerhouse that it is today. During his 16 years at Burberry, he re-invented its signature checks, the famous knits (“have to smell of sheep”, Bailey insisted), led Burberry into the digital age and drew crowds of influencers to his shows.
The reason for his planned exit is the recent slowdown in revenues. For the past couple of seasons, Burberry has been underperforming in several key markets, USA and Hong Kong included. After years of continuous growth, this is Bailey’s first slump. We at Sleek, however, prefer to remember Bailey’s successes at Burberry, of which there were many. Below are five times when Bailey put Burberry at the cutting edge of the fashion industry.
1. Embracing the Digital
Burberry was an early adopted of social media, and one of the first brands to truly realise that the internet was a revolutionary tool in the fashion industry. This is evident from Burberry’s blog, Art of the Trench, which the brand released in 2009. Directed at a younger, digital-savvy audience, the blog featured pictures of people wearing those iconic Burberry trench-coats. The website was conceived as a classic street-style blog, with none other than Scott Schuman of The Sartorialist behind the camera. Two years later, Burberry allowed its fans backstage with the Tweetwalk, a Twitter account that featured pictures from backstage. Burberry’s Art of Trench and Tweetwalk were both precursors to the ubiquity of online marketing today.
Christopher Bailey’s Burberry also was one of the first brands to own a Snapchat account, and the first luxury brand to run a native ad on Snapchat’s Discover channel. In 2016, the brand ran a Discover channel for 24 hours, to promote its men’s fragrance Mr. Burberry. The campaign came with the usual Burberry flair: the Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen shot a short film for it, and Benjamin Clementine composed the soundtrack. Tapping high-profile creatives for a social media campaign is yet another thing Bailey pioneered.
3. One of the First Openly Gay Top Executives in Britain
Bailey’s appointment as Burberry’s CEO in 2014 also made him one of the first openly gay executives on the FTSE 100 list. In a recent interview with Paper Magazine, the designer said that not even the conservative atmosphere of corporate world made him feel uncomfortable about being who he was. “I gave a Q&A and a bit of a talk at a bank recently that wanted to do something for the LGBT audience and the employees that they had,” Bailey said. “It was there that I suddenly realized that I’ve always been comfortable in my own skin, even in Yorkshire, where it’s a place where being gay when I was growing up wasn’t something that was particularly accepted or something that you would talk about. I was always fairly confident about who I was and never really saw it as an issue”.
Even though Bailey makes it sound casual, one might imagine that being an openly gay person among straight men – and top fashion executives normally are straight men – might be not that easy.
4. Shoppable Runway Shows
In 2015, when the “see now buy now” controversy unfolded, Burberry became the first British brand (and, again, one of the first fashion brands in the world) to adopt the questionable model. In a recent interview with Elle, Bailey defended the questionable model: “I’ve yet to meet somebody who tells me, ‘I wouldn’t want it now; I want to wait. It’s much more intriguing’”. Two years after the SNBN scheme was implemented for the first time, sceptics still doubt its merits, with French couture houses remaining among the most sceptical. But for Burberry, it seems to work. Clicks on the website increase tremendously as new collections drop, and the sales of new outerwear surge. Regardless of your own feelings towards SNBN, it’s hard to deny that it made Burberry’s investors happy.
5. Merging Menswear and Womenswear
“Out is the concept of showing men and women’s clothes separately, recognising that in a transgender world, sexual fluidity is a reality for fashion,” rejoiced the inimitable Suzy Menkes, Bailey’s longtime fan in 2016. Coinciding with the launch of “see now buy now”, Burberry decided to merge their womenswear and menswear. The advantages of the move are clear: first, the enormous costs of staging the shows separately are cut. Second, by showing the two lines together, brands create a more consistent image. Third, Bailey always set Burberry apart by considering menswear and womenswear to be equally important. In showcasing his menswear collections during the womenswear season — which is normally more widely publicised — he drew attention to them. And in doing so was quite in line with the current rise of men’s fashion.
Only time will tell what Bailey will do after Burberry. Will he launch his own brand? Will he occupy a high-ranking position at some luxury brand? Will he take a break from designing, a la Phoebe Philo? And, speaking of Philo, could the rumours of her exit from Céline precede the news of an appointment at Burberry? The fashion world, where intrigues never cease, has us spellbound with anticipation yet again…