Retail Theater

10.31.11

Burberry's Design Star

Burberry creative chief Christopher Bailey is celebrating 10 years at the brand. As he launches Burberry Body, he talks to Isabel Wilkinson about digital innovation, Steve Jobs, and what’s next.

Christopher Bailey, Burberry’s chief creative officer, is running late. It’s an 80-degree morning in West Hollywood, and Bailey is here for 48 hours to promote Burberry Body, the brand’s new fragrance. Within that time, he’ll have back-to-back meetings, host a star-studded party at the Beverly Hills store—and, hopefully, squeeze in breakfast with a friend. He’s entertaining hopes of escaping to see the Charles & Ray Eames show at the LA County Museum, but that seems unlikely with his inflexible schedule.

When he finally arrives at Soho House, Bailey is deeply apologetic. He nestles onto a sofa and pours himself a glass of Evian, then kicks up a knee. Bailey, who is 40, is pale and good-looking, with boyish features and slightly tousled hair. He wears a gray T-shirt under a sport coat, and a pair of black jeans. He looks like he’s stepping off a chilly street corner in Hyde Park—not the baking concrete of Sunset Boulevard.

During his 10 years at Burberry, Bailey has become a pioneer of the digital world—racking up awards for both his design sense and tech savvy.  With livestreams and fancy new Web initiatives, he has brought the brand millions of new fans—and turned the traditional fashion calendar on its head. But the challenge that lies ahead will be how to balance the needs of his online audience—and appease the fashion world.

Under Bailey, Burberry was among the first luxury houses to livestream its fashion show, beginning with the Spring/Summer 2010 collection. It was the first brand to stream in 3-D in 2010 when it hosted events in five cities around the world—and then took over the megatron in London’s Picadilly Circus, which is viewed by approximately 1.2 million people a week. Burberry’s biannual shows are, as Vanessa Friedman, fashion editor of the Financial Times puts it, “the event of the British fashion season.” But with Twitter and Facebook, it has become a global event as well. (Both “Christopher Bailey” and “Burberry” trended globally on Twitter during the show last season.) Soon, Bailey realized that his online audience wanted to buy clothes they were seeing—and they didn’t want to wait half a year to do so. This prompted the launch of “runway to retail,” which allows viewers to purchase items from Burberry’s next collection online as soon as they come down the runway.

Bailey’s emphasis on immediacy complicates the traditional concept of the fashion season—where clothes for spring and summer come down the runway when everyone in the audience is bracing for winter. “It was geared towards things that could be purchased in the next two months,” says The New York Times’s fashion critic, Cathy Horyn, of the Spring/ Summer 2012 collection.

For Bailey, it’s exactly that traditional model that doesn’t make much sense. “I’m not sure what seasons mean to everybody,” he says. He motions to the window, where the sun-soaked streets of Beverly Hills stretch out beneath him. “What’s the temperature here, 80? I’ve just left London, where there’s frost on the ground. So I’m saying that I’m showing a winter collection, and it’s boiling hot in half the world. You have to have a point of view in the show, you have to have a message—but there also needs to be a more trans-seasonal aspect to it as well.”

It may seem anathema in fashion, but Bailey is betting on inclusivity. In November 2009, Burberry launched an interactive website called Art of the Trench, where users upload pictures of themselves in their trench coats. They can share information about themselves, "like" and comment on each other’s photos. And June 2010 marked the launch of Burberry Acoustic, a program where Bailey selects British recording artists and promotes their songs. A few weeks ago, they debuted a new song by British band The Feeling, which Bailey produced.

Bailey has made Burberry, for lack of a better word, cool. Everyone from Kanye West to Sienna Miller lines the front row each season, and celebrities such as Emma Watson and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley have shot campaigns for the brand. “What is Burberry?” asks Friedman. “A trench coat and a check. It’s not a sexy house. But by associating it with this cutting-edge technology and young bands, Christopher has managed to spin it as having an edge.” As Holli Rogers, buying director of Net-a-Porter, says in an email: “[Christopher] has injected the brand with 
a freshness and youthfulness that has always appealed to our customers.”

In Burberry becoming a behemoth lifestyle brand, Bailey emphasizes the importance of a direct interaction with the customer in a digital setting. To that end, early next year the house will launch Burberry Bespoke, an online made-to-order service for trench coats that offers shoppers 12 million design variations. “I love the idea of this crazy, fast, speedy world—and then saying, that can coexist with the incredibly slow,” Bailey says.

The personal feel of the brand hinges, too, on how well customers feel they know Bailey himself. But the public-facing role doesn’t come naturally to the designer, who describes himself as shy. “I completely understand why people want to know the person, the mind, the life of the people behind the brand,” he says. “Because sometimes it can feel faceless, and sometimes that can feel soulless.”

It’s not ironic that Apple is the company Bailey most admires. “What Steve Jobs has done is create something much bigger than him,” he says. In essence, it’s what Bailey is in the process of creating at Burberry—a company that extends well beyond fashion.  “They didn’t follow anyone. They broke the rules in their way, but they didn’t need to break the rules. They were focused, and they were enjoying it, and they worked incredibly hard on stimulating people and creating something you know will resonate with people.” In fact, Bailey admits that he wants to know more about the life of Jony Ive, Apple’s chief designer and a personal role model.

Bailey’s emphasis on immediacy complicates the traditional concept of the fashion season.

Indeed, it has been a year where designers’ personalities have loomed larger than the brands they represent. For the past nine months, the fashion world has speculated which designer will succeed John Galliano after his infamous flame-out at Dior. Seemingly every name has been thrown into the ring—from Marc Jacobs to Azzedine Alaia to even Alexander Wang—except one: Christopher Bailey. “I think people know he’s not leaving,” Horyn says. “Christopher is happy where he is. He’s very successful where he is. There’s no reason for him to look elsewhere.” 

“I work for Burberry,” Bailey says. “It kind of has nothing to do with me. I’m a tiny drop—I’ve been here for 10 years—and that company’s been around for 155 years. If I’m doing my job properly—and my objective is that this company needs to be around for another 155 years; I ain’t gonna be there!—It is not about me.”