Burberry is set to showcase its Autumn/Winter 2023 collection later today (February 20th) as part of London Fashion Week, so it seems only fitting that we should cast our eyes back to the luxury brand’s complicated history — more specifically, its evolving reputation, inherently tied to Britishness.
During the world wars, Burberry gained recognition for the functionality of its waterproof fabric, gabardine. Its fashion was appreciated for more aesthetic purposes in the years following, when its signature trench coat, with its check lining, was donned by prominent celebrities of the time — for example, Audrey Hepburn can be seen in a Burberry trench coat in the final scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
However, the brand’s luxury image was shaken when, in the late 90s and early 2000s Burberry became more and more associated with ‘chav’ culture. The nova check caps in particular, as the brand’s most accessible items, began to be purchased and, inevitably, faked by those outside of Burberry’s expected demographic. The iconic check was adopted as part of football hooligan culture, thus destroying Burberry’s status as an exclusive, prestigious label. But the most notable marker of Burberry’s demise came in 2002, when Danniella Westbrook — notorious for her cocaine addiction — appeared in head-to-toe nova check. Because of this deterioration in Burberry’s prestige, UK department stores like Harvey Nicholls and Selfridges ceased to stock Burberry entirely, and Harrods only sold the most traditional trench coats.
The brand was therefore under pressure to fix this crisis, and restore Burberry’s image to the luxury status it once held with its desired demographic. Christopher Bailey, creative director of Burberry from 2001, and Angela Ahrendts, the CEO, removed the nova check from all but 10 per cent of Burberry products in 2006, and ceased producing chequered caps completely, in an attempt to disassociate themselves with the ‘chav’ culture that the nova check had become synonymous with. Bailey was responsible for reviving Burberry in a new and innovative way, using his prior experience at Gucci and Donna Karan and merging it with his passion for technology. He also brought Burberry’s runway show back to London Fashion Week, and worked with credible celebrities to restore the brand’s image. Bailey set the precedent for Burberry’s fresh innovative status among luxury brands; for example, he introduced the ‘see-now-buy-now’ system, which allowed customers to buy runway pieces directly from the Spring/Summer 2014 collection online and via mobile, directly after the show. This was a significant move in the context of the brand’s history — it brought a pioneering technological element to the runway show. Furthermore, Bailey’s early adoption of live-streaming and employing social media platforms made the brand more accessible in a way that still managed to maintain its prestige.
It’s important to note that Bailey, who became CEO in 2014, did not turn his nose up at the nova check and its associations — he comes from a working-class background himself. He launched the Spring/Summer 2018 collection that brought the nova check back to the Burberry runway, in a collaboration between Burberry and designer Gosha Rubchinskiy. The show was a nod to streetwear, which had become popular by this time (in contrast to the stigmatised association it had with ‘chav’ culture in the early 2000s) therefore also acted as an acknowledgement of Burberry’s past. Bailey brought Burberry into the new world of fashion, whilst paying respect to the significance that the brand held for British culture: he told Vogue, ‘I have never been snotty about [the check] because I feel that’s a very important part of our history’.
Bailey set the scene for Burberry’s future in the industry, and his influence can be seen following his retirement. His innovation carried into the launch of Burberry’s virtual store with ELLE Digital Japan in 2021 — the brand is now taking luxury commerce to the next step, exploring exciting new concepts. Riccardo Tisci had the tough job of taking on the mantle from Bailey in 2018, but the Autumn/Winter 2022 collection demonstrated his capability, wherein he fused traditional Britishness with the future by using the iconic Burberry trench silhouette in a new fashion, deconstructing them into corseted gowns.
Daniel Lee has now succeeded Tisci, and it’s been suggested that he intends to put emphasis back on the brand’s British heritage, acknowledging its long and complicated history; he’s already restored Burberry’s iconic equestrian knight logo, which had been ditched in 2018. Lee’s highly anticipated first collection, Autumn/Winter 2023, will debut tonight at London Fashion Week.
Featured image: Taylor Heery on Unsplash