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Comment: Who can put the buzz back into Burberry?

Graeme Moran

Amid a series of departures at designer labels, rumours are swirling about who will replace Christopher Bailey at the top of the British label

Burberry autumn 17

Burberry autumn 17

When it was announced in October that Burberry president and chief creative officer Christopher Bailey would be leaving the British brand after 17 years, the big question was – and still is – who would replace him?

Sales have faltered of late, and Bailey’s creative cool has dimmed, but the designer-turned-boss did an excellent job of elevating the brand with a fashionable spin, turning Burberry from a label perceived as “chavvy” into Britain’s most successful luxury brand. He leaves big shoes to fill.

The rumour mill has gone into overdrive over who will replace him, particularly as myriad other designers have left their roles in what seems like a never-ending game of high-fashion musical chairs.

Top of the list is Céline creative director Phoebe Philo, who announced in December that her autumn 18 collection for the brand would be her last. Over the past 10 years, Philo has transformed Céline into the pinnacle of luxury Parisian cool, creating elegant, modern – and very expensive – womenswear. Former Céline CEO Marco Gobbetti moved to the top job at Burberry last July, fuelling speculation that Philo may join him there.

Philo has excellent luxury credentials, as well as plenty of experience of taking on an old brand and successfully elevating it via her own vision – she did the same at Chloé before Céline. She also balanced directional, critically acclaimed catwalks with stores full of covetable essentials – her tailored coats and neat trousers were favourites with “Philophile” Céline fanatics. Her influence on the industry, from the luxury market to the high street, is undeniable (for a while Zara seemed to specialise in Philo-inspired styles at a fraction of the price).

However, Philo was one of a handful of designers that banned people from publishing on social media during private catwalks in the early 2000s, while Céline was notoriously slow to launch a transactional website and on social media channels. In this sense, she might not be the best fit for Burberry, with its extravagant live-streamed, public-facing shows and digital focus.

Celine spring 18

Céline spring 18

Kim Jones is another name connected with the Burberry job. He is leaving his post as artistic director men ready to wear at Louis Vuitton at the end of January. Jones has never designed womenswear, but certainly succeeded in balancing Louis Vuitton’s heritage with the need for something cool and fresh, connecting with both Vuitton’s classic luxury shopper and a younger, millennial customer. He was behind Louis Vuitton’s sell-out collaboration with New York skate brand Supreme for autumn 17, and could be the breath of fresh air Burberry needs.

Other designers between jobs at the time of writing include Riccardo Tisci, Alber Elbaz, Stefano Pilati, Peter Copping and Jonathan Saunders. Coach creative director Stuart Vevers has also been linked with the Burberry role thanks to his successful focus on accessories.

Alternatively, Burberry could opt for a lesser-known, up-and-coming designer, in the hope of bringing a buzz back to the brand. While it would be a riskier move, fashion is not short of celebrated rising stars.

A good example of this is Kering-owned Balenciaga. In 2015 it appointed Demna Gvasalia, head of the collective behind the meteoric rise of Vetements, as creative director. Unlike his predecessor, fellow up-and-comer Alexander Wang, Gvasalia has successfully given Balenciaga a new lease of life. With the right support, an emerging designer could be a winning solution for Burberry.

Balenciaga autumn 18

Balenciaga autumn 18

And then there is the less well-travelled Gucci route. When creative director Frida Giannini left in 2014, Gucci looked to its own design studio and hired Giannini’s then unknown right-hand man Alessandro Michele. The new creative director has transformed the brand and is riding high on its success.

This raises the question of creative freedom. Regardless of whether they are a household name, an up-and-coming designer or an unknown, will the new creative chief of Burberry have the same freedom as Michele at Gucci to take it in a much-needed new direction? Or will he or she feel obligated to honour the brand’s heritage – the checks, the trench coats, the Englishness?

When Hedi Slimane took the helm at Yves Saint Laurent in 2012, for example, he changed everything – including the name (dropping the Yves). Critics eventually tired of his rock-and-roll aesthetic, but buyers and consumers consistently loved it.

That might be why it was announced in January this year that Slimane would be taking over from Philo at Céline. Maybe LVMH decided they couldn’t fill Philo’s successful shoes, so why not make a whole a new pair with a designer renowned for successful reinventions?

Bailey’s last collection will be shown at London Fashion Week on 17 February, and he steps down from the board in March. There is a wealth of new and established talent from which to find his replacement, but with revenue slipping – by 2% to £719m over the three months to 31 December – the business must act quickly to get back on track.

Burb rtw fw17 1396

Burb rtw fw17 1396

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