Christopher Bailey Brings Burberry Into the 21st Century

CHECK MATE | Bailey, photographed in Burberry’s Keighley facility in Yorkshire, where the company’s iconic patterns and fabrics are milled.
IN THE WEST YORKSHIRE TOWN of Castleford, England, pop. 39,192, there is a long, low Art Deco building that bears the rubric “Made in Yorkshire” above its front door. The bright, anonymous structure gives nothing away, but inside is where Burberry makes its check-lined trench coats—an item that ranks with Hermès scarves, Gucci loafers and Vuitton bags as a style classic. Here in Castleford, and in nearby Keighley, nearly 800 people weave and cut the fabric and hand-sew the coats, at a rate of more than 5,000 a week, or a quarter of a million a year. Burberry’s chief executive officer, Christopher Bailey, is acutely heritage-conscious—he was, after all, responsible for the inscription installed over the portal of this historic building, dating from 1937, even though the company has been on these particular premises only since the 1960s. I am the first journalist allowed to darken these doors—with Bailey, acting as my tour guide for the day, bounding from person to person and encouraging them to tell their own tales. “I grew up in this world,” he says. “It’s my favorite place. I love the atmosphere, the people, the culture, the make, the skills. Running a company for me is as much about being here with these guys as it is talking to analysts about results. Everything comes back to this.”

Bailey has attained a unique perch in the fashion industry. Hired as Burberry’s design director by then-CEO Rose Marie Bravo in 2001, Bailey was promoted to creative director in 2004, then chief creative officer in November 2009. When Bravo’s successor, Angela Ahrendts, left for Apple in 2014, Bailey assumed her position as CEO, while retaining the CCO role. He looks much younger than his 44 years, which makes comparisons with Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani, who also hold both roles in their companies, even more striking. Age aside, the signal difference is that they are also founders of their own businesses. “But I do consider Christopher a founder of that brand,” counters close friend Natalie Massenet, executive chairman of the Net-a-Porter Group. “Even if it had a long history before him as a London raincoat company, he really created the DNA for Burberry as we know it today.”
“London raincoats” was a perfectly lucrative business before Bailey made his mark. When Burberry had its initial public offering in 2002, its market cap was £1.1 billion ($1.7 billion). Today, its market cap is £7.6 billion ($11.7 billion). Last full-year profits were £455 million ($700 million), and current annual revenue is £2.5 billion ($3.8 billion), up 400 percent since the IPO. The company now employs 11,000 people around the world. Its identity has been so consistently seared onto the popular consciousness by Bailey and his team of collaborators that Burberry was, earlier this year, named one of Britain’s most powerful brands, second only to Unilever, ahead of HSBC, Johnnie Walker, the BBC and Sky.

On the line in Castleford, David Bratley, who started as production manager a few years after Bailey first took up his design duties, remembers the relatively bad old days. “We were producing 700 units a week, and it took 16 weeks for a coat to go from one end of the line to the other. Now we’re making 5,000 a week, and it takes 11 days, which includes shipping.” Obviously, an investment in machinery has fostered this quantum leap, but it’s been accompanied by a massive investment in people, as well as Bailey’s proactive engagement with the digital landscape of the 21st century.

In the wake of powerhouse CEO Ahrendts’s departure, some industry analysts wondered if Bailey could step into such large shoes while also continuing to perform his creative duties. “Because I was younger, gay and from the design world, I was viewed as a bit of an odd choice,” says Bailey. “But there are many people leading great companies that are hugely inspiring that don’t fit the mold of their title.” Massenet, who herself has successfully combined creative and commercial roles, has something to say about that: “Christopher’s an example of the modern visionary leader. It’s very modern to make light of titles. Possibly the company of the future will get rid of titles altogether and judge you by what you bring to the business.”

From left: Thomas Burberry; the Basingstoke store, founded in 1856; stars of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ in Burberry; Bogart in Burberry in ‘Casablanca’; Christy Turlington, with her mother, at a Burberry show, 1994; Stella Tennant in a 1998 Burberry ad; Bailey’s first collection, spring/summer 2002; a 2005 ad with Kate Moss, shot by Mario Testino; Bailey and former CEO Rose Marie Bravo, 2004

Bailey mentions an email he got after the board’s decision, welcoming him to the “CEO Club.” He was mortified. “I’d like to make sure that I’m not something that’s hailed as the new way forward, that implies it was a concerted effort,” he insists. “It just wasn’t. But I would be happy if designers were able to be seen as multidimensional creators who can do things bigger and broader than what people think a designer can.” He also claims he never even made a concrete decision about assuming the CEO role. “It’s always been very blurred here. When I started as design director in 2001, it was a very small company and, by its nature, very entrepreneurial, so I was involved in everything. Then Angela and I basically ran the company together, and when she left, it was like, ‘Should I?’ ”

From left: Thomas Burberry; the Basingstoke store, founded in 1856; stars of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ in Burberry; Bogart in Burberry in ‘Casablanca’; Christy Turlington, with her mother, at a Burberry show, 1994; Stella Tennant in a 1998 Burberry ad; Bailey’s first collection, spring/summer 2002; a 2005 ad with Kate Moss, shot by Mario Testino; Bailey and former CEO Rose Marie Bravo, 2004 ENLARGE
From left: Thomas Burberry; the Basingstoke store, founded in 1856; stars of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ in Burberry; Bogart in Burberry in ‘Casablanca’; Christy Turlington, with her mother, at a Burberry show, 1994; Stella Tennant in a 1998 Burberry ad; Bailey’s first collection, spring/summer 2002; a 2005 ad with Kate Moss, shot by Mario Testino; Bailey and former CEO Rose Marie Bravo, 2004 PHOTO: FROM LEFT: COURTESY OF BURBERRY (2); WARNER BROS./THE KOBAL COLLECTION; PARAMOUNT/THE KOBAL COLLECTION; © MITCHELL GERBER/CORBIS; © BURBERRY/TESTINO; FIRSTVIEW; © BURBERRY/TESTINO; DAVE BENETT/GETTY IMAGES
FIVE DAYS AFTER our romp around West Yorkshire, we’re in L.A. to mark the opening of a flagship store on Rodeo Drive with a fashion show—a mix of the Burberry autumn/winter women’s and men’s collections and premier eveningwear—at the observatory in Griffith Park. The theme of the evening is “London in Los Angeles,” and Bailey himself has orchestrated the melding of the two metropolises. T. Rex’s glam classic Electric Warrior—released in 1971, the year Bailey was born—plays as the audience files in. Elton John and husband David Furnish bookend one section of the front row, while Anna Wintour anchors the other, perched between James Corden and David Beckham, whose entire family fans out along the seats beside him. Indie bands Kasabian and the Kills bring a scrawny, Stones-y cool, while London “It Girls” Cara Delevingne and Suki Waterhouse chirrup throughout the show. The U.K.’s hottest new troubadours, George Ezra and Tom Odell, entertain. Bailey’s pièce de résistance is a finale featuring eighteen 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards in full ceremonial rig, flown in specially for the occasion.

From left: Art of the Trench campaign, 2009; Queen Elizabeth II in Burberry, 2005; the company’s London headquarters; Emma Watson in Burberry, 2009; CEO Angela Ahrendts on WSJ.’s cover, 2010; the Duchess of Cambridge in Burberry, with Prince William, 2011; Cara Delevingne and Kate Moss in a 2014 My Burberry ad; Sarah Jessica Parker in Burberry, 2014; Jourdan Dunn and Naomi Campbell in a spring/summer 2015 ad; the Beckhams and Anna Wintour at the London in Los Angeles show

Bailey is staying in the Beverly Wilshire, where Warren Beatty lived in the penthouse while he was romancing Natalie Wood and Julie Christie, among many others. That’s the sort of factoid that entrances him. “I love Hollywood history,” he says. “All these things really happened here. My sister is called Natalie because of Natalie Wood. I remember the day she drowned so vividly. I was 9 or 10, and my parents told my sister that she had just died.” Then, of course, there is the choice of backdrop for the L.A. spectacular: the Griffith Observatory, an iconic location from Rebel Without a Cause, selected by Bailey for that very reason. “We’ve got the whole of L.A. in front of us,” he says.

There’s a symbolic weight to the notion of the city spread out at his feet. Right next to Dior and across the road from Louis Vuitton, Burberry’s L.A. flagship is (along with the recently refurbished San Francisco outpost and another opening in Manhattan’s SoHo district this summer) a giant step in bringing consistency to Burberry’s international image. “It used to be an old English company,” says Bailey. “Now it’s an historic British company that has modernity and fashion and innovation at its core, which is what it originally used to be under Thomas Burberry.” Burberry himself was 21 when he established his business in 1856. His outerwear made of hard-wearing, water-resistant gabardine became the go-to garb for polar explorers, aviators and military men. Hence the “trench coat,” which crossed over to the civilian population in the wake of World War I. The Burberry check, one of the more globally identifiable visual elements in all of fashion, was introduced for coat linings in the 1920s.

When Rose Marie Bravo became CEO in 1997, she understood that Burberry’s “Britishness” was its most effective calling card. At the time, Burberry had a much smaller international profile—a fraction of the outlets it has today. Art director Fabien Baron put her in touch with photographer Mario Testino, another Anglophilic outsider, who also had an umbilical connection to models like Kate Moss and Stella Tennant, physical embodiments of everything Bravo wanted Burberry to communicate to the new century. All that was missing, Bravo recalls, was “someone with the 360 vision” to tie it together. She met Bailey in the bar of the Grand Hotel in Milan in early 2001 and was instantly taken. “I like to say Christopher was grafted onto the root of Mr. Thomas Burberry.”

From left: Art of the Trench campaign, 2009; Queen Elizabeth II in Burberry, 2005; the company’s London headquarters; Emma Watson in Burberry, 2009; CEO Angela Ahrendts on WSJ.’s cover, 2010; the Duchess of Cambridge in Burberry, with Prince William, 2011; Cara Delevingne and Kate Moss in a 2014 My Burberry ad; Sarah Jessica Parker in Burberry, 2014; Jourdan Dunn and Naomi Campbell in a spring/summer 2015 ad; the Beckhams and Anna Wintour at the London in Los Angeles show ENLARGE
From left: Art of the Trench campaign, 2009; Queen Elizabeth II in Burberry, 2005; the company’s London headquarters; Emma Watson in Burberry, 2009; CEO Angela Ahrendts on WSJ.’s cover, 2010; the Duchess of Cambridge in Burberry, with Prince William, 2011; Cara Delevingne and Kate Moss in a 2014 My Burberry ad; Sarah Jessica Parker in Burberry, 2014; Jourdan Dunn and Naomi Campbell in a spring/summer 2015 ad; the Beckhams and Anna Wintour at the London in Los Angeles show PHOTO: FRON LEFT: COURTESY OF BURBERRY; MARK CUTHBERT/UK PRESS VIA GETTY IMAGES; COURTESY OF BURBERRY; JON FURNISS/WIREIMAGE; INDIGO/GETTY IMAGES; © BURBERRY/TESTINO (2); COURTESY OF BURBERRY (2)
Bailey’s previous position was senior designer at Gucci. He was an unlikely alumnus of the Tom Ford finishing school, his schoolboy perkiness the very opposite of his ex-boss’s saturnine sensuality. Just as Testino had been Ford’s ally in dazzlingly redefining Gucci’s public persona, he quickly came to fill the same role for Bailey’s Burberry. “I was originally asked to photograph the advertising campaigns at a time when the brand was pretty much only outerwear,” says Testino. “There was no fashion element such as we see today. We created desire around the product, respecting the heritage but trying to move it forward through the imagery. Christopher drove things forward in amazing ways, aware of the creative needs, the commercial needs and the need to communicate.”

If there is a single eureka moment in Burberry’s success, it’s Bailey and Ahrendts’s recognition that technology might level the playing field between them and the traditional big guns of the luxury world. Burberry didn’t have the fiscal means to muscle into the luxury market with big advertising buys, but it could speak to the next generation of customers in their space, using their language. Burberry’s mastery of digital culture sets it apart in the fashion world. Its digital team stays in constant touch with the development teams of companies like Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Line in Japan, KakaoTalk in South Korea and WeChat in China. That connectivity has earned the company the kind of reputation—and a 30-million-strong audience on social media—that has allowed for some spectacular early-adopting collaborations.

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Just before Apple officially launched the iPhone 5s, Burberry live-streamed its show around the world with the phone. The new live-streaming app Periscope filled the same function for the L.A. event in Griffith Park. Burberry pioneered Runway Made to Order—with certain items available to order the moment they debut on the catwalk—as well as Twitter’s “Buy now,” the first time it’s been possible to make “in tweet” purchases. A strategic alliance with WeChat yielded an app that allows users to explore any space—a show venue, say, or a cityscape—with their phones as though they were simply turning their heads. Another app transformed the London launch of the new perfume My Burberry into an extravaganza of interactivity. Using the app, customers were able to impose their own initials on a bottle that appeared on a billboard in Piccadilly. An image of that personalized billboard was then sent back to the customer’s phone, along with directions to the nearest Burberry store, where a monogrammed bottle would be waiting.

“Founders have vision and a deep conviction for building an imagined future,” says Kevin Systrom, the CEO and co-founder of Instagram, Bailey’s favorite app. “It’s the same whether you’re a start-up in Silicon Valley or a brand that has stood the test of time. Christopher’s imagination marries the best of both innovation and a deep understanding of everything Burberry creates.” Natalie Massenet goes further. “The way he has used the marketing reach, the social following, the communication skills to take any message and repeat it and repeat it and own it is really powerful. You see that in tech companies who have a single product to market, but Christopher is able to do it across women’s, men’s, beauty and sports categories.”

The power that has accrued to Burberry because of these initiatives is clear—in faces like Cara Delevingne and Edie Campbell, whose careers have been boosted by their appearances in Burberry ad campaigns, or musicians like Ezra, Odell and James Bay, whose profiles have soared after an endorsement from the company’s online music site, Burberry Acoustic (which practically functions as Bailey’s own talent scout). And then there’s London itself, whose fashion weeks gained in gravitas when Burberry’s women’s collections came home in 2009, after nearly a decade of showing in Milan (the men’s collections followed in 2013).

Christopher Bailey ENLARGE
Christopher Bailey PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHY BY HUGUES LAURENT FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE
But the power may also rest in gut feeling, something deeper than digital vision and marketing smarts, like Bailey’s appreciation of the emotion that attaches itself to making something by hand. It’s a family hand-me-down. His grandfather was a gadget man, his father was a carpenter, and Bailey loved to watch him in his workshop. That, Bailey believes, is the basis of his connection with the digital world. “It’s usually not very clever or strategic—it’s just very rational and common sense for me,” he says. “I don’t think I have a particular gift or ability. It just excites me.” His grandmother, who was Italian, may have shaped his temperament too. “I believe in passion, but I don’t believe in aggression. I’m very fiery, not a yeller, not a sulker, just incredibly impatient. It’s one thing I wish I could change about myself.”

Still, Bailey recounts the old story of the wind trying to blow the shawl off a man who simply clutches it tighter. Then the sun comes out and gives a little smile. “And the guy takes the shawl off.” He clearly sees himself as the sun or, in his own words, “a people pleaser, a hugger.” And that’s how he leads. “I believe that when you have a big idea you just have to unlock all the right people and get them fired up.”

“The working relationship is so close,” says Greg Stogdon, who, in his capacity as senior vice president of creative media, is responsible for putting meat on the bones of Bailey’s inspiration. “We tend to critique as a team, not as individuals.”

‘Christopher created the DNA for Burberry as we know it.’
—Natalie Massenet
Bailey’s distaste for being the center of attention is evident in his body language in public, or even when he’s having his photo taken. He’s usually leaning away, keen to escape. “I hate it if it’s about me,” he concedes. “It’s the one thing that frightens me. The older I get, I always hoped I’d get comfortable with it, but I haven’t. If I were left to my own devices, I could very quickly become almost like a weird old hermit. Lots of my oldest friends already think of me that way. I’m probably quite extreme for that.”

Nevertheless, there’s no getting around the fact that Burberry’s sensibility is Bailey’s. “That I definitely acknowledge,” he says without hesitation. So if he were hit by a bus tomorrow? “Hopefully I’ve built a really strong team. There’d be change—I don’t know how nuanced that change would be—but the aesthetic side would be a natural continuation. Luc Goidadin, who’s my—he’s got a fancy title now, chief design officer—he’s a huge talent. He was my first hire when I got the job, and we’re incredibly close. He’s building a team that would be the same.”

A year ago, Bailey and his husband, actor Simon Woods, had a daughter, Iris; it’s been tempting to interpret his most recent post-show musings on handed-down heirlooms—a trench coat, a Durham quilt—as the thoughts of a man with a new sensitivity to generations to come. “I’ve always been a bit of a softy,” he counters. He’s started to talk about slow fashion, an acknowledgment that the measured pace of storytelling is as much a part of Burberry now as digital dynamism. Yorkshire can do that to a sensitive young soul: on this side of the hill, the Industrial Revolution’s dark satanic mills in full belching cry; on that side, the vicarage where the Brontës were raised. A schoolboy can ride his bike to Wuthering Heights.

“I feel there is naturally going to be a deeper craving for romance, softness, authenticity, something that has lived a life in this frantic 24/7 world of sound bites and pithy moments,” Bailey says. “I think we’ll want to feel, rather than be hit.” He insists it’s too simplistic to attribute such thoughts to the presence of Simon and Iris in his life. “I’ve always had quite intense feelings about the spirit of a moment.”

The tragedy in Bailey’s life—the death in 2005 of his partner Geert Cloet after a long illness—left him with an acute understanding that everything could be ripped away in a moment. It also, believes Rose Marie Bravo, fully versed him in the untapped potential of the Internet, so devotedly did he spend time researching every possible treatment option for Cloet.

If Bailey’s vision of the future was shaped by that experience, it’s no surprise that he’s now committed to building something that will last. “I want things to get stronger and grow and have deeper roots,” he says, “and that’s why I love the business side of Burberry as well. The stronger we grow, the more we can invest, the more apprenticeships we can have, the more young people we can hire. I still think of us as a small company, and we’ve got to prove ourselves.”

 

[“source – wsj.com”]