Digging trenchcoats: What makes Burberry our boldest brand?
Burberry is Britain's most stratospheric fashion success. Harriet Walker studies the elements - marrying tradition with innovation - that make it such a good powerhouse.
It has become a familiar sight in London, the erection of the enormous marquee that hosts Burberry's grandiose Fashion Week shows twice a year in Kensington Gardens. For a single afternoon every six months or so, that spot just below the steps of the Albert Memorial boasts the much- vied-for, most-A-listers-per-square-foot title as one of the world's most famous names shows off its wares to press and buyers, pundits and brand die-hards.
Burberry's success over the past 10 years has been meteoric: a sturdy heritage brand that found unwanted recognition across football terraces and some of our most wretched celebrities during the early Noughties, it has effected an impressive volte face by way of discreet design and digital direction to become one of the biggest global presences in the fashion industry, as well as one of the UK's highest performing businesses.
"I sometimes describe Burberry as a young old company," explains Christopher Bailey, Chief Creative Officer and designer of the clothing and accessories upon which the brand's success is based. "Old in terms of heritage and history but with a very young team, a very young energy – and for me, that's a wonderful combination."
It's the alchemy behind last year's total revenue of £1,857 million and sales of £1,270 million, and a 24 per cent rise in each over the past year. Sales of menswear alone grew by 40 per cent in 2012, a fact underpinned and celebrated with the launch of a dedicated men's flagship store in Knightsbridge last October. In the past year, there have been other openings in Hong Kong, Milan and Rome, as well as a new flagship on London's Regent Street last autumn. Burberry boasts clothing lines for men and for women, a children's range, underwear, eyewear, watches, perfume and accessories.
In a climate where many luxury brands are fearful of a crisis in the Asian economy, which has propped up sales for so long since the traditional Western markets crumbled, Burberry remains bullish. It issued a profits warning in September which saw the share price fall 19 per cent, but attributed this to wider fears in the luxury market at the inevitable slowdown and the chaotic unravelling of the single currency. Shortly before Christmas, the company announced half-year pre-tax profits of £173 million, an increase of 6 per cent.
"We were the first ones to call it, but things have levelled off," CEO Angela Ahrendts told the BBC at the time. "We've reconfirmed our capital expenditure at about £180 million to £200 million, investing in flagship markets, high growth markets, Brazil, India."
Ahrendts, a 52-year-old American who has featured on Forbes' Women's Power List every year since her appointment in 2006, and made the Women's Hour Power List Top 10 earlier this month, took her first executive post at Donna Karan in 1989 and has not had a sick day in 25 years. She is credited with the turnaround of the brand from aspirational to inspirational, thanks to her focus on emerging markets and a repositioning strategy on home turf.
A 'Made in Britain' policy with the manufacturing of the brand's iconic trenchcoats targets the overseas interest in heritage and tradition, while strengthening the company's national profile – sites in Castleford and Woodrow, Yorkshire, employ more than 650 people between them, while Burberry has created more than 1,000 new jobs across the business in the past two years, bringing their UK workforce up to more than 3,000 people.
The signature lining checks, which were once so prominent, have been relegated from the premium catwalk collection, Burberry Prorsum – meaning 'forward', designed by Royal College of Art graduate Bailey and shown in that illustrious marquee – and feature instead in the more accessible diffusion ranges; pricey enough to feel like an investment and to allow for a certain rarefied sense of exclusivity, but not so expensive as to cut would-be loyalists out of the equation.
"For me, it's the people I work with who make this journey so worthwhile," adds Bailey. "I have been extremely lucky to be able to surround myself with an incredibly talented, passionate and dedicated team. Working together on so many varied and exciting projects has made Burberry what it is today."
Guests at Burberry's spring 2013 show last September were ushered down a sumptuous white carpet and into a marquee backlit by a silhouetted London cityscape at one end of the catwalk. The message was clear: this was a homecoming of sorts.
No matter that the label returned from Milan to show its collections in the capital in 2009, as part of London Fashion Week's 25th anniversary celebrations (kickstarting a copycat trend among other ex-pat brands and, in doing so, giving the event an international and corporate seal of approval) – this London love-in was in honour of the recently opened flagship store on Regent Street, one of the most ambitious retail ventures ever undertaken.
"It's the most powerful brand statement in the world," Angela Ahrendts told the press. "It's the perfect time to be headquartered in London. Seventy million people travelled out of China in 2011 and it'll be 100 million by 2015 – and London is second on the list of where all those people go."
The 44,000sq ft space broke records with its property value, a former cinema built in 1820 that has been restored according to the Burberry vision, with original features alongside sympathetic additions from UK-based artisans. Floor-to-ceiling video screens show footage from the catwalk, from the ad campaigns and music videos, every so often filling with precipitation during one of the many unexpected ambient 'rain showers' that occur every day. Thunder and the splish-splosh sound of puddling water ricochets around the store, as it does before each show – just another carefully considered concept in the Burberry experience.
This is how Christopher Bailey, who masterminded the space just as he did the company HQ on Horseferry Road (rumour has it he designed everything, right down to the furniture and cutlery in the staff canteen), prefers to see it. The Regent Street outlet is his vision of where the physical and the digital meet, with interactive mirrors that sense movement and will show you 360-degree views of your chosen garment or how it was styled on the catwalk. Bands and artists signed as part of the label's 'Acoustic programme' stage exclusive gigs here which are live-streamed to other Burberry stores around the world. The clothes are here too, of course, and very much for sale, but details as banal as cash registers are cunningly hidden beneath the stairs.
"Burberry Regent Street brings our digital world to life in a physical space for the first time," adds Ahrendts. "Walking through the doors is just like walking into our website. It is Burberry World Live."
"For brands, digital allows for a cohesive and consistent point of view to be communicated in a way that is dynamic, inspiring and engaging," says Christopher Bailey. "At Burberry, it has become an exciting and natural way for us to build our communities and share our creative thinking. I'm constantly inspired by its possibilities, and by the marriage of heritage and innovation that so defines who we are as a brand today."
In 2010, Burberry won the Digital Innovation gong at the British Fashion Awards. It might seem obvious now (and it's only three years down the line) but the brand was among the first to engage with social media and online possibilities, live-streaming the shows from London, live-tweeting each look as it sauntered down the runway to give details of each component garment, and making pieces available for sale online direct from the show, thereby cutting the traditional six-month lag time between the international collections and their appearance in stores.
The label even live-streamed its autumn 2011 show to big screens set up in Piccadilly Circus, and mobile technology used in the Burberry website allows customers to browse online content in real time, adjusting information according to the user's location.
A minimally-branded blog project, The Art of the Trench, celebrates the label's signature piece on the side too, by way of carefully curated street-style portraits, and created an editorial identity for the brand that went beyond mere shopping. Even now, Burberry remains the most popular luxury fashion brand on Facebook, with nearly 15 million fans.
Ingenuity is in Burberry's bloodstream. It has been the brand of choice for explorers and pioneers since the early 20th century: Ernest Shackleton went to Antarctica wearing Burberry gabardine.
Both Bailey and Ahrendts see the internet as a democratising force in fashion, not only in terms of reach, but in the way it has shifted the industry paradigm from being wholesale-led to retail-led. Customers can now dictate their own interests – placing an order for clothes as the show unfolds on the site is an early indication of which pieces are going to be popular. Essentially, we are deciding what filters down to the shops; burberry.com is a hybrid destination – just as the flagship is – for business growth as well as creative thinking.
"The new way to measure customer reaction is engagement," says Angela Ahrendts. "The average consumer dwells on the website for eight minutes. And over on the Acoustic website, they dwell for 18 minutes." By making its digital offering so appealing, we form a relationship with Burberry.
"With Burberry Acoustic, we wanted to bring people into live contact with bands that we love, bands we admire and bands we believe in," says Christopher Bailey, himself something of an indie obsessive. "I'm lucky to be in an environment where I discover new musicians, or end up talking about music. Often, when I first meet a lot of young musicians, it has nothing to do with our campaigns. It's more like, 'Let's work on something together – who know's what it's going to be?'. And then things just develop organically."
Burberry's Acoustic programme has developed alongside the brand's exploration of digital media, as just one more way in which to synchronise the various strands of the company's vision. From dressing musicians, to using their tracks as show soundtracks – pumped out across Kensington at ear-splitting volume – to inviting them to play exclusive gigs at one of the label's many stores worldwide, Burberry's relationship with the rising stars of the guitar scene is just another way of starting a conversation about British talent.
A dedicated website and YouTube channel allows the public to interact with the artists chosen by Bailey to represent the brand, hosting videos and streams. Earlier this month saw the first live music event held at the new flagship store on Regent Street, where musician Jake Bugg (who has worked with Burberry for nearly two years now) performed songs from his debut album to a crowd of 800. There are further plans to host regular gigs there, which can be live-streamed to the label's other outposts around the world.
Others artists to have worked with the brand include Life in Film, whose track "Alleyway" was one of the first songs picked to front the Acoustic initiative and who performed for Burberry at Vogue's Fashion Night Out in 2010 – for whom the brand's interest has meant signing with Sony and the imminent release of a first album. Likewise singer Marika Hackman, formerly a star of a Burberry eyewear campaign, has seen her songs played on Radio 1 and is about to set off on her first headline tour.
This year's star is undoubtedly Tom Odell, a 22-year-old songwriter from Chichester who made his first television appearance at the end of last year, and will be working closely with Burberry this year. The online response after his track "Another Love" was played at the spring 2013 show in September was enough to prompt the release of an EP soon afterwards, and further tracks were played at the catwalk event this month, too. It's a winning creative collaboration.
When, in December, it was leaked that the new face of the always highly visible Burberry campaign was to be 10-year-old Romeo Beckham, son of David and Posh, the internet practically ate itself.
Within 48 hours, the clip of him dancing alongside brand faces Edie Campbell and Charlie France wearing one of this season's metallic lamé shirts, had notched up 1 million views on YouTube and had 1.6 million views at the last count.
It was the latest in a long line of hyped imagery, shot by the brand's esteemed collaborator, Mario Testino, and just another chapter in Burberry's prioritising of young British up-and-comers. In 2006, the brand's billboard imagery – and which goes larger-than-life-size in the windows or stores across the globe – featured Kate Moss surrounded by a gaggle of socialites and rock star progeny, including Otis Ferry and Sam Branson.
For spring 2010, actress Emma Watson and her younger brother became the faces, the first venture beyond the Harry Potter franchise that the young star had embarked upon and one which marked her arrival as a woman of style, a red-carpet presence and part of the next generation of fashion royalty and jeunesse dorée.
Following in her footsteps came Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, then aged 21, who describes working with Burberry as like being "part of a family", and who starred in a campaign which sealed her as a latterday supermodel. Meanwhile, actor and Cambridge graduate Eddie Redmayne, who frolicked with Cara Delevingne for the spring 2012 campaign, applauds the brand for its vision. "They're incredibly supportive of the arts and they help so many young actors," he said at last September's show.
"This is my second season doing Burberry," Delevingne told the press when the campaign launched, "and once again I'm so happy to be involved. This time round there is only Eddie and I, so we got to play around more with Mario and Christopher [Bailey] and ideas and storylines. As always, I had such a good time and was very sad when it was over."
Burberry's adverts are far from simply commercial bombast. Obviously, they're a power play, a territorial swipe at other brands looking to capitalise on young British talent – so far, Burberry has had first dibs. But the images also create a sense of community, something which is important to a label that defines itself through new methods of interaction and engagement with customers. The faces from the hoardings always sit front row at the show, and their reach extends to a network of further 'friends of Burberry'. Actor Dev Patel, Olympians Denise Lewis and Andy Murray, Alexa Chung, Clemence Poesy, Harry Styles and Kate Bosworth were among the faces at last September's show.
For a time during renovation works in 2011, the Duomo in Milan was covered by a hoarding that featured Burberry's advert for its new perfume, Body. Supermodel Rosie Huntington-Whiteley reclined, storeys high, across the Gothic structure clad only in the label's classic trenchcoat. If that isn't a statement of intent, what is?
Burberry's beauty range (its metallic cases all embossed with the house's signature check) is exclusively stocked in a small selection of high-end stores, such as Harrods.
Burberry paid €181m in December 2012 to end the licence relationship with Interparfums. The decision, after the launch of its dedicated, ultra-luxurious beauty division, signified the brand's aim to cover all points of the luxury market from high to low, at all accessibilities and budgets – from the aspiring masses to the infinitely rarer VIPs (or VICs as the brand has it – Very Important Clients) for whom the private dressing suite was added to the Regent Street flagship.
The cosmetics route has provided further creative expansion – at the autumn 2013 show in London last week, a project called the Burberry Beauty Booth showcased beauty looks on Twitter, courtesy of guests backstage uploading their own photos. At the time of its launch in 2010, the beauty line's focus was on natural allure – fresh skin, lightness and radiance, designed to reflect the wholesome youthfulness of the brand's public image.
But since the range has developed and Bailey has taken the collections into more exotic territory – witness spring 2013's holographic and metallic coats that resembled nothing if not the most opulent Quality Street wrappers – the make-up options and products have expanded to reflect this.
At the show in September, models wore 'Military Red' lipstick, a striking pop of colour against a natural base, courtesy of Burberry Beauty's bestselling product Fresh Glow, a primer and corrector in one that acts both as a moisturiser and a light foundation, and has gone down a treat with beauty editors and shoppers alike.
For the inspiration behind the cosmetics, look no further than the models and faces of the brand. Jourdan Dunn, Edie Campbell and Cara Delevingne feature on the latest billboards, while Rosie Huntington-Whiteley's natural sensuality summed up the first fragrance's low-key, glamorous identity.
1891 The first London Burberry store opened on London's Haymarket
1915 Sir Ernest Shackleton wore Burberry gabardine in an expedition to Antarctica
1950 Iconic outerwear advertising campaign
2001 Christopher Bailey arrives as the brand's Creative Director
2009 Burberry moves to its new headquarters, Horseferry House, in Westminster. Art of the Trench, the social media platform celebrating the trench coat launched with a collaboration with fashion commentator Scott Schuman, of The Satorialist. The site has received more than three million visits
2010 Burberry Acoustic launches, a showcase of new British musicians chosen by Christopher Bailey
2012 'Burberry World' – an online runway live-streams the AW12 Prorsum womenswear show with an instant shopping function
2012 Burberry Regent Street opens
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