After 17 years at Burberry Christopher Bailey is exiting the label. Next year’s spring/summer 2018 show will be Bailey’s last outing as CEO and president of the British fashion house. He has always had the reputation of being a nice guy, as the least diva-ish designer in fashion, but his unassuming personality has belied the subtle dexterity with which he has slowly but surely changed the face of the entire industry.
Since joining the label in 2001 as a fresh-faced 30-year-old charged with reinventing the brand’s Prorsum line, he has pushed fashion’s boundaries. Bailey led the way as Burberry became the first to introduce live-streamed shows (2008), the first to introduce ‘in-Tweet’ purchases (2014) and one of the first to champion the see-now-buy-now model (2016). But, his progressive outlook didn’t stop there as he oversaw Burberry spearheading an Asian expansion while reinventing the concept of the front row, celebrity endorsements and music and fashion collaborations. His idea of what a clothing brand could and should be touched the consumer at every point of contact.
When Bailey came to Burberry, it was at a time when the label was struggling. The company was plagued with licensing issues that had led to the house’s iconic check becoming increasingly mainstream and much copied. He all but removed the brand’s signature pattern from collections and in the process changed the course of the company’s fortunes. By embracing the term ‘heritage’, he created a billion-pound business that followed in the footsteps of Louis Vuitton to ensure that for the consumer history signified luxury. He created collections that championed Britishness to form an aura around that brand that resonated with tourists, international consumers and editors interested in a quick and satiating angle.
For as much as the trench played an unquestionable role in Burberry’s rebrand, it was only ever as powerful as Bailey’s diligence to styling. The man sold not just an item to the waiting public but a way of wearing it. Scarves belted into jackets, shearling dripping off sleeves and transparent skirts with big Bridget Jones knickers were all his doing. He transformed the brand’s hero item from military garb into a trend item that could change with the whim of the season. He cropped it, coloured it and fiddled with it until it became signified by a handful of components but was still instantly recognisable as Burberry regardless of if it was tailored out of lace, snakeskin or tapered into a puff-sleeved smock. He balanced its overtly British proper-ness with swinging sixties baker boy hats or showed it with provocative latex skirts and kitten heels. Bailey could reconfigure it a hundred ways without ever losing its Burberry adage.
Though, possibly Bailey’s suavest move was to tactically expand Burberry’s presence in China and South East Asia when luxury fashion was hitting a saturation point in Europe and North America. While discovering a new consumer base, he continued to feed his waiting followers in the West with an embrace of the celebrity culture that was lapping up headlines in the early 2000s.
Though fashion week had been a global business for some time, it wasn’t until around a decade ago that it became an event that might interest consumers too. And, this change was in large part due to the blooming front row culture that Bailey forged. Not only did he always book the big name models of the moment, whether it was Cara Delevingne and Lara Stone or Freya Beha Erichsen and Agyness Deyn, but he would curate a front row that was as glamorous as the clothes he presented. He could persuade Mary-Kate Olsen to sit next to Victoria Beckham and Emma Watson while Bradley Cooper and Suki Waterhouse sat opposite. The names were so starry that a red carpet with prerequisite paparazzi was established outside his show venues. When Bailey started employing bands to perform live during his shows the catwalk became just one of the many buzz-worthy elements that garnered headlines that had nothing to do with clothes.
The same foresight that inspired Bailey to retire the brand's caramel check temporarily has seen the designer constantly forge a new path for the brand. Though in recent seasons their fortunes have floundered - along with many other luxury labels that were once perceived to be future-proofed - Bailey’s instinct has usually led to accolades. Whether it's tapping into brand nostalgia by reintroducing check this season or introducing menswear to his womenswear show, Bailey has proved that his finger is never far from the pulse.