Renaissance Stories: Burberry
With the art of the Trench, a new custom service from Burberry, you can design your own made-to-measure trench coat by selecting the fabric, style, color, and a detachable lining. The program, which includes prices reaching as high as $7,500 for a man’s coat, illustrates how far the brand has progressed since World War I. That is when Thomas Burberry, the inventor of water-resistant gabardine fabric, adapted the coat he originally had designed in 1890 for British soldiers to wear in the trenches, from which the style derives its name. The company added its signature beige, black, and red plaid lining in 1924. In 1942, Burberry trench coats became famous as fashion items when Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman wore them in the film Casablanca. Over the ensuing decades, however, Burberry lost its fashion cachet because it failed to stay current.
By the mid-1990s, few upscale stores would stock Burberry, citing its reputation as a dowdy mass-market label owned by British mail-order retail giant Great Universal Stores. In 1997, seeking to retrieve the brand from obscurity, the company hired as its new chief executive Rose Marie Bravo, former president of Saks Fifth Avenue. She brought with her a handful of top Saks executives, including former vice president of menswear Stanley Tucker.
“After spending 30 years working in department stores, I viewed Burberry as a raincoat company: very masculine and with a very narrow scope,” says Bravo. “But it had so much potential.” She wanted to reinterpret the trench coat in a manner that would exploit its British origins and attract a fashion-conscious audience. Bravo enlisted Christopher Bailey, a British-born designer who shared her vision. He had spent six years working for Tom Ford at Gucci before Bravo lured him back to London in 2001. Bailey accepted the position of creative director and quickly struck a balance between Burberry’s functional purposes and his own progressive design preferences. To appeal to a diverse and multigenerational audience, Bailey conceived classic trenches in shades of turquoise, stiff-looking jeans with pressed creases down the centers of the legs, 1970s-style sport shirts, and safari jackets with giant gold buttons. Bailey also applied the company’s plaid only sparingly, using it as an accent inside shirt plackets and inside pant waistbands.
By 2004, trendy but not affluent young Brits were embracing Burberry. While this group was not Bravo’s intended target, she recognized that the label’s popularity among the country’s youth indicated that she had transformed the quintessential British brand, with its rich 160-year heritage but stodgy fashion image, into an entity that was hip, modern, and in demand.