the material world How Burberry clothes and accessories came to be the uniform of people running the sunrise economies is a mystery
Scarves, like ties and T-shirts, are portable billboards, carrying advertisements about the people who wear them. "I support Arsenal", they say, or "I go to university", or "I am a Burberrys person" - if, that is, you can afford to spend pounds 105 on a scarf, and you want people to know it. This last bit must be true, because it is possible to spend as much and more on anonymous cashmere scarves that just say, "I have a warm neck."

Burberrys sell 600,000 checked cashmere scarves every year in 33 different colour combinations, but the best seller by miles is the distinctive beige, red and black "house check" that is the company's trademark (literally: it is a legally protected design, and people have been prosecuted for counterfeiting it). Many have, however, tried to copy it. At Hyper Hyper in High Street Kensington, west London, it has been possible to buy "Burberrys" check bondage trousers, hotpants and mini-skirts - all snapped up by hordes of giggling Japanese schoolgirls. But try as they might, they never get it quite right. The colouring is always slightly off, or the check jarring to the eye.

Which is good news for the British textile industry, because all Burberrys scarves are made at one mill in the Yorkshire Dales, which takes delivery of raw cashmere brushed from the underbellies of Chinese mountain goats and turns it into scarves in a process that involves 40 separate operations (culminating in brushing with teasels) and takes from six to eight weeks.

While shepherds watched

Nearly all Burberrys scarves, with their Made in England labels, end up flying back East. Burberrys sells 75 per cent of its goods overseas. Americans buy them (Michael Jackson was once spotted in one) as do the French and Italians, but overwhelmingly the customers are businessmen and women from the Far East. Burberrys is the second largest international brand in Japan, with 850 retail franchises (compared with 130 in the UK) and sales last year worth pounds 485 million. Exports to Korea were up by 30 per cent last year.

How Burberry clothes and accessories came to be the uniform of people running the sunrise economies is a mystery. It certainly can't have been foreseen by Thomas Burberry, a draper from Dorking who set up shop in Basingstoke in 1856. Soon afterwards, he produced a raincoat made of a closely woven, twice-waterproofed cloth he had developed, called gabardine, after the hard-working smocks worn by local shepherds.

In 1891, Burberry opened a shop in the Haymarket, central London. Customers included royalty, statesmen and film stars. In 1924, the beige check appeared, designed in Edinburgh as a lining material for raincoats, and remaining hidden, apart from the occasional flash. Until 1967, that is.

Turning Burberrys inside out

It began at a Paris fashion show, when models came down the catwalk carrying large, beige-checked umbrellas: Burbrollies. A year later came the scarves. Swiftly and successfully, Burberrys, owned since 1956 by the mail-order company Great Universal Stores, began to merchandise its Englishness. In the wake of the checked scarf came checked luggage, trousers, golf bags, parasols, handbags (with names such as Girton, Shelby, Victoria and Mayflower), picture pens, keyfobs. You can even apply for a Burberrys check Visa card.

Today, the two London branches offer a kind of British Experience for tourists, who sometimes arrive by the coachload. Outside there are Union Jacks; inside, displays of cricketing and boating paraphernalia, a few crossed croquet mallets and some military memorabilia. The visitors browse among the checks. PVC backpack, pounds 210. Change purse, four inches across, pounds 42.50. A cashmere scarf for pounds 105. It's a bargain

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