Born-again Burberry

Modelled by Stella Tennant, worn by Jarvis and Noel and shot for the pages of Vogue and Frank, that check is suddenly, unexpectedly hip. James Sherwood reports on the Regent Street revivalists
THE FASHION industry always had a sneaking suspicion that US designers like Ralph Lauren pillaged classic British style and sold it back to us with a polo pony logo and a price hike. This season, the Empire strikes back. In July US Vogue, Shalom Harlow modeled a neat blue tank top. It wasn't designed by usual suspects Marc Jacobs, Calvin Klein or Isaac Mizrahi. It was by Burberrys, and was the third time in as many months this spinster of the British high street has been in Vogue. The shock is equal to Dame Barbara Cartland having her tongue pierced.

Street fashion has a nasty habit of trawling the bargain basement of naff labels to find candidates ripe for ironic revivals. Think of the faun polyester Farah pants or tacky Hawaiian shirts. Burberrys, with fellow Regent Street old dears Aquascutum, Scotch House and Austin Reed, don't fit this postmodern pattern. You will see Alexander McQueen, Jarvis Cocker and the Gallagher brothers wearing the Burberrys signature check with no irony intended.

To understand the monumental reversal of fortune for Burberrys, you have to cast your mind back only a matter of years. Burberrys was a middle- aged, middle-market fashion blind spot on the high street. Camilla Parker Bowles would shop there. Bjork would not. Reviving a label once the new generation has decided it's not cool is like trying to resuscitate a corpse. No amount of retail spin doctoring can entice young people if the product is terminally frumpy. But fashion, particularly London street style, is quixotic.

"A person like me, who shops at Helmut Lang and Gucci, is now shopping at Burberrys," says Frank fashion and beauty director Kim Stringer. "The autumn/winter collection was a watershed for all the Regent Street stores. They are trading on their names and reputations for luxury while acting very quickly to modernise and clean up their collections. It is out with the gold buttons and the heavy fabrics. Instead of being a three-quarter Burberry trench, it now sits bang on the knee and the pleated skirt is the right length."

"Burberrys is iconic," says chief executive Rose Marie Bravo. "Katharine Hepburn wore Burberrys in the Forties and fashion has shifted back to the pared-down, severe Hepburn style in the Nineties. A lot of those big US designers like Marc Jacobs and Michael Kors are inspired by what I call the classic British style. The new generation come to Burberrys because they are discovering the authentics: going back to the original source."

A retail hot-shot like Bravo, formerly the President of Saks 5th Avenue, wouldn't be in a thousand-mile radius of Burberrys unless she knew it was hitting the consumer G-spot. "Rose Marie Bravo has put a brilliant spin on Burberrys. Her target is to turn the label around in five years and make it a global brand. She's taken all the elements Burberrys is famous for and modernised," says Stringer. "Scotch House was always Burberrys' little sister. It was always funkier. But now you see the kilts getting shorter, the knits getting more fitted. I went to see Austin Reed's and Aquascutum's autumn/winter collections and they are getting the key pieces right."

In the cynical Nineties, we are increasingly disenchanted with labels. Anyone can buy a Jil Sander charcoal pantsuit and look fabulous. The mood now is to be smarter with the mix: putting a vintage beaded camisole top with a Joseph pencil skirt, thrift shop flip-flops and a Burberrys headscarf. We will pay for luxury, be that a pashmina scarf or a bright red cashmere tank. What we won't do is pay double simply because it is cashmere by Calvin. As Bravo says, people are going back to the authentics.

"Labels have a life of their own," says Scotch House MD Sally Ireland. "They suffer if they don't get the attention they deserve. So what we're seeing is a return to luxury in high fashion and a new generation discovering Scotch House. There is something so easy and sexy about a cashmere twin- set or a pretty cream satin knife-pleated skirt. We've always designed these silhouettes but I think we've responded to high fashion by producing the twin sets in pastels and hot pinks as well as the classic neutrals. By tweaking the design subtly, we've made Scotch House right for the Nineties."

A major model, like face of Givenchy Honor Fraser, wouldn't model for Scotch House ad campaigns unless the label was sharp. A photographer like Mario Testino wouldn't shoot Stella Tennant for Burberrys if it was anything less than A-list and endorsed by US Vogue. Suzy Bick will be the face of Austin Reed for autumn/winter 98. Again, her association with the label indicates that Austin Reed will be the next to join the British hip list. The autumn collection for Austin Reed features Hepburn-style grey flannel slouch pants and tuxedo-cut jackets, which indicate that Austin Reed are getting there.

Kids instinctively avoid stores their parents shop in unless they've been given the green light by street style dictators like The Verve's Richard Ashcroft, the Gallagher boys or the Wu-Tang Clan. When Ashcroft wore a pair of Clarks Wallabee boots on the cover of Urban Hymns, he rubber- stamped "Cool" on Clarks. The over-twenties will remember the horror of Mum dragging you into Clarks for a pair of school shoes and the consequent humiliation in the playground when you wore those shapeless, rubber-soled slabs. Now kids would swap their Nikes for a pair of cult Clarks shoes. Hush Puppies also traumatised a generation of unwilling wearers. This year they featured in a six-page Wallpaper spread and were worn with pride by John Travolta, David Schwimmer and Tim Roth. "The last time Hush Puppies were a cult was the Sixties," says marketing director Tracy Rist. "Then, in 1995, US designer John Bartlett commissioned a classic Hush Puppy slip- on dyed to match his collection in lemon, lime and lavender. The international fashion press went into a frenzy when they realised these colours weren't going into production." Puppy lovers Kula Shaker, Naomi Campbell, Madonna, George Clooney and Jennifer Aniston naturally gave the label a little kudos.

One word of warning. Don't overdo it with the Burberry check or you'll end up looking like a scary heritage tourist with more money than sense.