His collections for Burberry have won plaudits and revitalised the brand, but with a brief extending far beyond clothing a new store concept is the creative director’s most recent undertaking.
Everybody loves Christopher Bailey. The Burberry creative director is the nice guy in an industry with its fair share of egocentrics and is renowned for his modesty and down-to-earth nature. But surely there is a better way to describe the man at the helm of one of the most iconic British fashion brands in the world?
“Christopher was a godsend to Burberry,” offers David Jones, founder of the eponymous luxury fashion consultancy firm.
“He has a sensibility for the female form that is unprecedented in British design and an ability to wrap sexy, cool and wearable all into one,” adds Marigay McKee, fashion and beauty director at Harrods.
Today, Bailey is excited about the reopening of Burberry’s Knightsbridge store on Brompton Road, west London, on November 25, which will feature a new concept overseen by Bailey.
The store concept made its debut in Burberry’s Beverly Hills shop in California last month and has a black and chrome colour scheme with the iconic Burberry check and Venetian plaster walls. The concept will be rolled out across Burberry’s stores to ensure there is “one vision” across all its international markets.
“It felt instinctively like the right moment [to redesign it],” says Bailey. “It is very much going back to our history and our roots, using signature colours associated with Burberry and reflecting our heritage. It uses traditional British materials such as stone, wood and nickel. The brand has so much momentum and energy that I wanted to capture that, combined with our history and the modern edge and global appeal of the brand.”
Bailey is certainly right on the momentum front, with a host of retailers returning to the brand and many premium players dedicating more space in store to Burberry’s premium catwalk collection Burberry Prorsum. Such is Bailey’s talent and commitment to Burberry – he joined in 2001 from his role as head of womenswear design at Gucci – that, for buyers, he personifies the brand. Despite Burberry’s multi-million pound turnover, its place on the London stock exchange and extensive global reach, for retailers Bailey is Burberry.
Martin Lacey, buying and merchandising director at designer independent mini chain Cruise, bought Burberry Prorsum womenswear for autumn 08 after a gap of five years. “Burberry has been bubbling under for us for a while, as Christopher is a fantastic designer,” he says. “We bought into Burberry again on the strength of the autumn 08 collection, which is very feminine and on trend, with a fantastic colour palette and great fabrics on the macs, such as metallic leather.”
Luxury department store Harvey Nichols has also upped its Burberry Prorsum offer in its London Knightsbridge store, with a new concession in its international designer womenswear department for autumn 08, which, according to fashion buying director Averyl Oates, is performing “well above” expectations. “In general the Knightsbridge concession does well, particularly with the catwalk pieces, as our customer here has little price resistance and tends to be a fashion leader. In the regional stores we tend to do better with the Burberry signature pieces, mainly trenches and coats,” she explains.
Harrods is looking ahead to spring 09 by opening a new Prorsum shop-in-shop on its soon-to-be revamped menswear floor. “Burberry is a key brand at Harrods and stretches across fashion, accessories, kidswear and sportswear. Prorsum is the pinnacle of the brand so it is very important to us that it is represented at Harrods and the [shop-in-shop] is part of a multi-million pound redesign of the menswear floors,” explains McKee. “Prorsum will sit alongside a number of new shop-in-shops including Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Balenciaga and Prada.”
It is perhaps not surprising that, rather than Burberry’s Lifestyle collection, a modern casualwear line which includes denim and sportswear, it is Prorsum that is the talk of the fashion town. Historically, the Lifestyle line has been the moneymaker, but Burberry’s strategy is to improve “the luxury quotient” of the business, driving up the proportion of sales in the Prorsum and modern classics Burberry London collections.
As Bailey explains: “Everything we design has an overlapping synergy, but Prorsum is very important as it is the indicator of the mood and feel of the season and sets the tone for all of the Burberry collections.”
But even beyond the design element, Burberry’s decision to focus on Prorsum is canny, given the economic climate, in which consumers appear to be either trading way down to the likes of Primark or up to the luxury market.
Earlier this month, retail research company Verdict revealed that premium fashion retailers had grown their share of the womenswear market at the expense of middle-market players, with niche and premium retailers now claiming a 29.7% share of the market compared with 22.2% in 2003. This equates to an additional spend of £2.1 billion.
Designers Matthew Williamson and Alexander McQueen’s decisions earlier this month to create clothing diffusion lines for, respectively, department store chain Debenhams and US value retailer Target, are a clear sign of the difficult times. But Bailey and Burberry, whose sales for the year to March hit £995.4 million, can afford to chase shoppers with deep pockets.
“There’s a tremendous danger in trading down [during these tough times],” warns fashion consultant David Jones. “If it were me, I’d stimulate the upmarket side of Burberry because there are plenty of people out there with lots of money, with the attitude of ‘if I can afford it when others can’t, I’ll go for it’. Most women probably have enough clothes to last them a lifetime but that’s not what it’s about. It’s a feel-good factor. But even the upper middle market is not that strong, so the emphasis should be on the top end. For me, ‘diffusion’ is often mistaken for ‘confusion’.”
In the mood
Burberry chief executive Angela Ahrendts admitted this week that current trading conditions are “very challenging”, after Burberry reported flat pre-tax profits for the six months to September 30. But Bailey declines to be drawn further into the economics debate, preferring instead to discuss the current mood via his collections.
“[For autumn 08 and spring 09], the collections were slightly subdued and the inspirations were perhaps more melancholic,” he explains. “I’m always slightly influenced by what’s going on in the world and the environment we live in and it instinctively felt like a moment to return to something safe, real and more secure, and I think that showed in the collections.”
It did and it paid off, with buyers gushing over both the autumn 08 and spring 09 collections. “They were two of my favourite shows each time around at Milan Fashion Week. They both were encapsulating moments where the audience was drawn, for a few minutes, into Christopher’s world,” says McKee. “This world as he sees it is beautiful, if not melancholic, where emotion rather than commercialism drives the beauty of the collection.”
Bridget Cosgrave, fashion and buying director at designer indie Matches, adds: “We loved the colours and textures at Burberry Prorsum for autumn 08 and the use of velvet, which is always one of our best-selling categories. We always do extremely well with the cashmere trenches which are so amazingly proportioned. Spring 09 had a much softer, prettier feel which was inspired by the English country garden. I loved the dip-dyed trenches and the accessories were amazing.”
But Cruise’s Lacey is less impressed and will not stock Prorsum next season. “The other brands that I’ve bought into for spring 09 offered a lot of colour but Burberry’s palette was more subdued. Burberry tends to offer a very ‘winter’ collection but I’d like to see more continuity in the brand,” he says. “Burberry is also not very competitive on price.”
Burberry’s retail business accounts for 49% of turnover compared with 37% in 2005, while wholesale has fallen from 52% to 43% over the same period. Despite this focus on retail, Bailey insists that his strategy has not changed to suit a predominantly retail, rather than wholesale, customer. “I don’t design differently for wholesale or retail,” he says.
“Our real strength is having one consistent brand expression across everything we do, whether it’s product, stores or our Burberry.com site – it’s always the same experience.”
Lacey’s reservations aside, Bailey has broadly succeeded in satisfying his wholesale customers, while forging ahead with the retail expansion. “Overall I wouldn’t say that Burberry’s wholesale operation has changed much over the past few seasons. If anything, deliveries have improved,” says Oates. “We haven’t experienced any restrictions in the buying and the collection doesn’t appear to be more limited.”
Jones, however, believes that Burberry’s retail arm will always take priority over wholesale, citing margin benefits as the obvious reason. “Burberry will always want to wholesale, but it would scrap it over retail if it had to. We have a diminishing wholesale market because prices are so high and if you sell to yourself, you have more power on prices,” he explains. “Protecting your margins becomes very important.”
As well as a retail strategy, Burberry has been busy building its global presence. The brand has 97 standalone stores, 231 concessions and 40 outlet stores worldwide.
Although Burberry may adapt its buy to suit different international markets, the designs remain consistent, with Bailey
referring back to the ‘consistent brand expression’ across all Burberry’s activities.
“Burberry is so international that I would guess Christopher doesn’t have to tweak the collections [to suit individual markets] because the world wants to buy into the British look,” says Jones. “Like Paul Smith and Aquascutum, Burberry can trade anywhere because it is British to the core.”
That Britishness also defines Bailey. He refers to “we” rather than “I” and gives his team tremendous credit for the success of the brand. “Christopher and Burberry are absolutely right for each other,” says Jones. “He is an old-school designer who is very passionate and not driven by trends. He doesn’t play the ‘I’m Christopher Bailey’ card and I have huge respect for him.”
Who is your fashion mentor and why?
I’ve worked with so many great leaders and creative minds in my career, so it would be very hard to single any one person out.
Which is your favourite shop?
My local bookshop in Yorkshire, but I’d rather keep its name a secret.
Which are your favourite brands and designers?
I think British talent is exceptionally strong now with so many young British designers having success here and abroad, partly due to the amazing colleges and array of courses. Things like talent scholarships for up and coming designers also help to create more and more opportunities.
What is the best thing about working for Burberry?
I feel very fortunate that in my role as creative director I get to work on so many different and diverse projects, not just the fashion element, which are so important, but also projects such as overseeing the architectural design of our new corporate headquarters or choosing the face of a global advertising campaign – all things that give the brand a consistent point of view.
What has been your proudest achievement?
When I started at Burberry seven years ago I brought in a team of people and almost every single person is still here today, which is very rare, and I’m extremely proud of that. It’s a reflection on the unity of the company and the understanding that we achieve everything as a team.
What has been the best-selling product you have worked on?
The Burberry trench coat is arguably the most iconic piece of clothing in the world and we have an unrivalled heritage in outerwear. It’s the most versatile item I have worked on as it can be evolved in so many ways.