From its signature tartan to its highly desirable outerwear, no other British label is as recognizable as Burberry. Over its 165-year history, Burberry has pioneered new materials and fresh trends, making it a study in brand reinvention. Whether it’s embracing new technology, fabric innovation or youth culture, Burberry has managed to transform itself from its modest beginnings as an outdoor clothing specialist in southern England to a global luxury label.
Credit: My Mall Magazine
House founder Thomas Burberry was born in 1835 to a father who was a farmer and a grocer. He was apprenticed to a local draper’s shop, and at the age of just 21 founded his self-named company in Basingstoke in 1856. Burberry’s modest, but successful first shop focused on “outting” clothing for hunting, riding, and fishing. In fact, early on Burberry became the outfitter of choice for Lord Kitchener (who served as Secretary of State for War during World War I) and Lord Baden Powell (a British Army officer and founder of the worldwide Scout Movement).
Eager to expand his business, Burberry was especially interested in developing waterproof clothing that could stand up to Britain’s rainy weather, and he partnered with British manufacturers to develop new textiles. In 1879, he invented a revolutionary waterproof fabric called gabardine – a durable, tightly woven twill made from worsted wool, cotton or wool blends. Unlike the hot and heavy rubberized cotton Macintosh, gabardine was waterproofed with lanolin before weaving (inspired by the way Hampshire shepherds waterproofed their smocks), making the fabric both wind- and water- resistant, while also giving it a lighter hand. Burberry patented his new fabric in 1888.
By this time, Burberry’s business was so successful that he employed around 200 people, and opened his first store on Haymarket in London in 1891. And it wasn’t just wealthy patrons who flocked to Burberry, but outdoor adventurers as well. Burberry outfitted Norwegian explorer Dr. Fridtjof Nansen on his expedition to the Arctic Circle, as well as Sir Ernest Shackleton to the Antarctic, and George Mallory on his 1924 attempt to climb Mount Everest.
Besides revolutionizing outerwear for outdoor enthusiasts and professional explorers, Burberry’s gabardine fabric also led to the development of the trench coat – the company’s most iconic piece. The trench was first developed for aristocratic British military officers during the late 1890s. Since officers were responsible for outfitting themselves, they frequently turned to the outerwear establishments they already favored, like Burberry.
Although the average soldier wore a heavy greatcoat, officers wanted outerwear better suited to modern warfare - pieces that were lightweight, functional, easy to move in, and could adapt to a variety of weather conditions. To meet those needs, Burberry redesigned an earlier model – the “Tielocken” – at the outbreak of World War I into the modern trench (the name change came courtesy of the trench warfare that soldiers and officers endured during the war). It had “a deep back yoke, epaulets, buckled cuff straps, a button-down storm flap on one shoulder, storm pockets, and D-ring belt clasps for the attachment of military gear".
After the war, Thomas Burberry’s sons Arthur and Thomas oversaw the next evolution of the Burberry trench. The brothers used the Burberry equestrian knight logo that their father introduced in 1901- a red and beige horse and rider fully armed with the words “prorsum,” meaning forwards, inscribed on the knight’s flag – and created Burberry’s signature tartan. Called the Nova check, the black, camel and red pattern was then introduced as a trench lining, transforming the coat from military wear into a stylish, aspirational piece for the middle class.
It also helped that the trench coat became a Hollywood style staple. A-list actors like Greta Garbo, Gloria Swanson, Bette Davis, and most famously Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca all made the trench coat into a glamorous outerwear piece to be worn on and off screen. By the time Audrey Hepburn appeared in a Burberry trench in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, it was considered a wardrobe classic.
By the late 1960s, the Nova check was used for the brand’s cashmere scarves and umbrellas. Fast-forward three decades later, and the Burberry check was so ubiquitous it was splashed on everything from clothing to handbags to baby prams. In short, it became an unfortunate symbol of conspicuous consumerism. The market became over-saturated with product and the brand’s aspirational appeal began to wane.
Enter Christopher Bailey. Hired in May 2001 as Burberry’s Creative Director, the Yorkshire-born Bailey studied design at the Royal College of Arts, followed by stints as a womenswear designer at Donna Karan and Gucci, where he worked under the direction of Tom Ford. Bailey, along with former Donna Karan President Angela Ahrendts, embarked on restructuring the Burberry brand and repairing its image by reducing the use of the Nova check, bringing licensed products in-house and integrating technology into Burberry boutiques. Most importantly, Bailey was instrumental in keeping Burberry trench coat production in the UK and safeguarding the British artisanal skills required to make it. Under Ahrendts and Bailey’s stewardship, they transformed Burberry from a heritage trench coat brand on the decline into one of the biggest luxury labels in the world.
Now Burberry is in the hands of Chief Creative Officer Riccardo Tisci (formerly of Givenchy) and CEO Marco Gobberetti. This duo has already taken steps to push Burberry even further into the luxury market, including taking leather goods specialists from its Italian factory just outside of Florence in-house, allowing the brand to broaden its leather designs for handbags and wallets, and gain tighter control over its production. As Burberry carries on into the 21st century, Tisci is modernizing the house icons and ensuring the history of innovation at Burberry continues.
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