Forget Cool Brits, just flash your mac

The grand old houses of British couture are in the vanguard of a new wave. By Cayte Williams
August was the month when British design caught the attention of the press. What's new, you might ask. Well, rather than reading about the latest antics of Britain's enfants terribles in Paris, the fashion press was more interested in clothes designed by people whose names they don't know.

British companies Burberrys, Aquascutum, Scotch House and Austin Reed were declared the labels to watch this Autumn. Vogue started the ball rolling when it stated that "there is currently a gentler, more whimsical take on our fair isles. This is less in-yer-face London, more quiet, Cotswolds town." Cool Britannia was replaced with Gentle Englishness, and London replaced by Cheltenham. There were no Union Jacks or Kangol hats to be seen, but duffel coats, brogues and even Marmite were cited as the things to come.

One of the reasons for this love of all things quintessentially English was the admission by New York's fashion gurus that they looked to vintage Burberrys for inspiration. "Burberrys is iconic," said Rose Marie Bravo, the company's chief executive, in ES magazine. "A lot of these big US designers, like Marc Jacobs and Michael Kors, are inspired by what I call classic British style."

The truth is that the English company is hot. Burberrys new advertising campaign was shot by Mario Testino, styled by Alex White (of W magazine) and broke on 13 August in British Vogue. It featured blue-blood English model Stella Tennant enjoying a tea party at a polo match, she was surrounded by great-looking men, a fine bone-china set and a lady in a Mardi-Gras mask stroking a horse. This is hardly the stuff of trad macs and raincoats.

So why the change? Much has been made of the English invasion of New York, but it's a two-way street. Burberrys lured Rose Marie Bravo from Saks of New York late last year, and she has brought several compatriots into the fold. The new senior vice-president, Accessories Worldwide (how American is that!), is Robin Marino whose CV includes Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren and Macy's. Rose Marie's aim is to make Burberrys a global brand in five years and she's up for weaving a bit of wit into the Burberrys check. Her first "innovation" was the checked knickers, and her latest triumph is the grey flannel tote bag, the current love of all fashion editors. The English love of animals has not been wasted on the American chief exec. Burberrys are pushing the doggy Trench Coat (from pounds 115) with the tenacity of a Rottweiller.

The English company hasn't always been so experimental. "About three years ago Katy England [Alexander McQueen's muse] styled a shoot in ES magazine featuring the recognisable Burberrys check," says one fashion insider. "She styled it brilliantly with hunting, shooting and fishing themes and one thing I really remember was a girl holding a rifle ready to load. It was very naughty, very tongue-in-cheek. Burberrys were furious. They thought it would scare their traditional customers. They couldn't see the wit in it at all."

Even the humourless Aquascutum is enjoying a renaissance. "Our ladies' trench coat, which is shorter and more streamlined than before, has been featured in Vogue twice already," says a company spokeswoman. "And the classic pleated skirt has been very popular with the press." Pity all those middle-aged loyal customers. Their teenage daughters will be stealing their entire wardrobe before Autumn is over.