09.30.11

Angela Ahrendts Talks Fashion

Speaking before a VIP crowd at a dinner hosted by Credit Suisse and The Newsweek Daily Beast Company, the Burberry CEO spoke about trench coats, moving her family to London, and the democracy of store windows.

An event hosted by Credit Suisse and Newsweek and Daily Beast editor Tina Brown took place last night in the splendor of London’s National Gallery. Amidst the Old Masters, Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts agreed to let guests into a few of the secrets have made the British luxury brand founded in 1856 a modern business success story, as much admired for its financial success as for its artistry.

Under the leadership of Ahrendts, Burberry has become a FTSE 100 company, and annual revenues have almost doubled to £1.5 billion. Last night’s dinner is one of the few dates in the fashion diary at which you are likely to find the editor of the Financial Times, Lionel Barber.

In fact, with historians, editors, writers, and politicians present, from Cherie Blair QC to former home secretary Jack Straw, don’t let it be said that fashion is frivolous. With table plans inspired by great artists in the National Gallery’s collection, was there a coded order in the placement? Human rights lawyer, counsel to Julian Assange, and sometime Newsweek correspondent Geoffrey Robertson QC, felt Cezanne, where he was seated, was trumped by historian Dame Antonia Fraser, who was seated at Raphael.

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Angela Ahrendts discusses being an American CEO but selling British attitude.

Dressed, of course, in a cream twist on the trench, the elegant Ahrendts, who in her fashion declines to pay much attention to gender, is, it has to be noted, one of just 5 female CEOs in the FTSE 100 listing of companies. This quietly spoken Midwesterner is adamant that the brand is, as she puts it, something far bigger than individuals-“not me, not Christopher,” despite the profile that both she and Chief Creative Officer Christopher Bailey have in their own right. It was at a quiet lunch in New York, soon after she joined the company in 2006, that the two sat down and thought about the core of the business, deciding that the infamous all-weather coat, the garment Burberry were asked by the War Office to design for soldiers in the trenches in Northern France, should remain the heart of the business.

Explaining the logic, the humble “trench”, adopted by civilians after the war, and lined always with the Burberry checked tartan, is, Ahrendts maintained, “the most democratic thing we have.” From coats to trenches, from coat-dresses to python leather jackets, Burberry now reinvents this staple British season after season.

With a CEO “from a small town in Indiana,” and a chief creative officer who hails from rural Yorkshire, the idea of accessible luxury is key to their philosophy. High luxury has traditionally been something of a despot, available only to those who can afford it. The fact that “democratic” is the CEO’s watch-word tells you perhaps all you need to know about the approach of a hugely successful company that is willing to find testers for their new Burberry Body fragrance amongst their Facebook friends, and who at London Fashion Week, earlier this month, developed a ground-breaking “tweet walk”, whereby looks, model by model, hit the pages of Twitter fans even before the front row got a glimpse. The latter’s the kind of cheap but brilliant innovation you imagine dreamt up by a trendy East London fashion collective, not a billion-dollar business with a front row comprising of Mario Testino, supermodel and current face of the brand Rosie Huntington-Whitely, and actress Sienna Miller-with a Bond girl, Gemma Arterton, thrown in for good measure.

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Angela Ahrendts talks about making Twitter work for Burberry

A mother of three children, Ahrendts was based for many years in New York, at Donna Karan and Liz Claiborne, before moving her whole family to London. Asked about this upheaval, she joked: “It’s fun when you have kids because you get to play the kids card.” In persuading her husband to relocate, she recalled how she enthused, “This will be so good for the kids!” Attending international schools here, she worries they may one day end up married and scattered all over the world. It seems inevitable, joked Tina Brown, that they should follow the “global ambitions” of the brand.

When I visited the company’s glittering greenhouse of an HQ in Victoria (designed by Bailey), I was sad to learn that at (just) over I wouldn’t qualify as a “millennial”-that is, one of the 60 percent of the Burberry team who are under 30. With that generation on the ground, Facebook and Twitter are natural homes for the brand.

Burberry
Model walk the runway during the Burberry Prorsum spring/summer 2012 presentation in London on Sept. 19 2011. (Joel Ryan / AP Photo)

One of Bailey’s first forays into the then relatively brave new world of social media was the “Art of the Trench,” an online platform which asked customers all over the world to upload pictures of themselves in their trench. This all sounds great, but the cynic might wonder: How does this buzz translate into hard sales? No money changes hands on “Art of the Trench.” As Brown asked, playing devil’s advocate, to what extent can you depend on “cosmic trench coat karma” as a business plan? It defies logic, but, to judge by the figures, you can depend on it quite a lot.

Whereas accessibility has often made ateliers nervous, Ahrendts speaks with absolute conviction of the feeling of familiarity a store should have. Far from being exotic and out of reach, “store windows are like landing pages on the website.” When it came time to turn over the conversation to the floor, the first questioner probed more on this willingness to embrace Twitter. “I could not have paid you to ask that question,” quipped Ahrendts.

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Tina Brown asks Angela Ahrendts about being a Woman CEO.

A trench coat is as British as London rain and tea, though it was intriguingly one of the first garments to defy the British obsession with class. When adopted after the war, it was by Brits of all differing backgrounds. On the table called “Monet”, over dinner a strident debate broke out as to whether class means anything in Britain today. Who better to ask than director Stephen Frears, who made the Oscar winning film The Queen; or filmmaker Hannah Rothschild, who made a controversial documentary about New Labour guru Peter Mandelson; or Rachel Johnson, editor of extremely traditional magazine The Lady (and sister of the non-traditionalist-yet-Old-Etonian Mayor Boris Johnson)? Traditional ideas about class have been tipped on their head in recent years. As Frears joked, The Queen seems to have come up with a “winning formula”: like his film, The King’s Speech, last year’s regal Oscar hit turned the system upside down and showed the “monarch as victim.” (On the other hand, perhaps monarch-as-victim is very deeply ingrained in our culture-on their way into dinner, guests trotted past the famous painting of King Charles II, later executed, on his magnificent horse. “Ghastly man,” observed Geoffrey Robertson.)

Far from being exotic and out of reach, “store windows are like landing pages on the website,” Ahrendts said.

Over drinks as the tables broke up (for not even this crowd could be allowed to run amok through the National Gallery all night), I ran into actor Dan Stevens, who stars as Matthew Crawley in Downton Abbey, the latest hit British drama to explore class divisions. Naturally, in the scenes taking place in the war, he got to wear a trench, of which he’d become very fond. However, Stevens, 28, doesn’t have a Burberry one to wear off set. I am sure, though, as a dashing “millennial”, often dubbed “the new Hugh Grant”, the house would be only too happy to dress him.

Aptly enough, historian and author Dame Antonia Fraser told me she was delighted to be in the same room as her favorite painting, Moroni’s portrait The Tailor (Il Tagliapanni). To return to the idea of the “democratic”, as she pointed out, it’s unusual because there are so few portraits from that time of ordinary artisans rather than rich or powerful sitters. Fraser told me she has a postcard of the portrait on her desk and loves the picture because it bears a striking resemblance to her late husband Harold Pinter. The son of an East End tailor, Pinter, who died in 2008, grew up to be the most important playwright Britain has had since Beckett, and without a doubt the one with the most exuberant attitude. Next month, the nearby Comedy Theatre in the West End, where he acted, directed, and often had his work performed, will formally become the Pinter Theatre, in his honor. We never reached a consensus on Table “Monet,” but perhaps the point about class in Britain today is that, like the trench coat, these days it’s about endless reinvention. “British attitude?” Here’s to it.