Cast your mind back to 2001. Tony Blair was in power, Westlife were at number one – and every market stall sold Burberry check baseball caps.
To say the British luxury brand was in danger of losing its prestige would be an understatement, as ‘chav’ headlines abounded.
Its proud Yorkshire heritage had been sullied by the wrong kind of celebrity endorsement – a post-deviated-septum Danniella Westbrook dressed head to toe in the check while pushing a matching pram is a particularly memorable example.
For nearly two decades after that, Burberry avoided its own heritage – that iconic check – like the plague, saving it for a discrete flash on the lining of its trademark macs.
But on the spring/summer 18 catwalk, it was suddenly back, with models dressed in check-printed macs. It took getting on for 20 years but Burberry was no longer embarrassed by its past.
That 20 years was governed by Christopher Bailey, who joined the British luxury house as design director when he was just 30 years old, following stints at Gucci and Donna Karan, and rose to become chief executive as well as creative director.
His creative talents have seen him partner with Burberry chief executives Rose Marie Bravo, Angela Ahrendts and now Marco Gobbetti, to whom Bailey relinquished his chief executive responsibilities.
Ill-fated dual role
But Bailey has not been above failure. His highly demanding stint as joint chief creative officer and chief executive – surely a bad idea from the start – coincided with the drying up of lucrative markets such as China, Hong Kong and the Middle East.
While he had proved himself time and time again to be an incredible creative mind, managing the strategic direction of a global business requires a completely different set of skills, which Bailey, clearly, did not possess.
Falling profits and sales led to the agitating of shareholders and the eventual appointment of the well-regarded Gobbetti last year, seen as an astute move by market observers.
“Gobbetti is a great operator. He is pure business and clearly thrives on partnering with great creative minds – Céline enjoyed both critical acclaim and double-digit growth during his partnership with Phoebe Philo, who has already been tipped for Bailey’s job”
Gobbetti is a great operator. He is pure business and clearly thrives on partnering with great creative minds – Céline enjoyed both critical acclaim and double-digit growth during his partnership with Phoebe Philo, who has already been tipped for Bailey’s job.
It was predicted that he could replicate that successful formula with Bailey, but Gobbetti could instead be reunited with the Céline creative director.
But whoever Burberry appoints to lead its creative efforts will have their work cut out.
The brand’s profits slipped in its last year but, creatively speaking, product is still spot on. Its latest collections, now being showcased in the windows of its Regent Street store, are stunning.
Pastel macs in translucent plastic sit cheek by jowl with jackets, dresses, tote bags and, yes, caps in Burberry check. It’s an original take on mixing heritage with modernity – and originality is a tough ask when that idea has been played out many, many times before.
Bailey’s creative stewardship of Burberry has showcased his ability to do justice to a heritage brand while being relentlessly modern.
It’s an equation he clearly loves working on.
“Burberry encapsulates so much of what is great about Britain. It is over 160 years old, but it has a young spirit. It is part of the establishment, but it is always changing, and always learning”, he said today.
And it’s been, in the main, both creatively and commercially rewarding for the brand.
Burberry has over a year to find his replacement and will surely not to be short of candidates, but it will be hard pushed to find someone as proficient at perfecting that trademark winning dynamic as Bailey.