An Officer and a Gentleman

His musical obsession has helped transform one of Britain's oldest brands – ROLLING STONE meets the famously nice Burberry chief, Christopher Bailey

Christopher Bailey
Illustration by Matt Ryder
By Claire Carruthers
Oct 06, 2013

“You know when you listen to a piece of music, and it kind of makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up?" says Christopher Bailey. "Well, I think fashion can do that as well.”

In terms of success stories, Bailey’s 12-year (to-date) tenure as chief creative officer of luxury British brand Burberry, has to be up there as one of the best in fashion history. He has, in no uncertain terms, revolutionized the one-time creatively stagnant outerwear label, by artfully reworking, again and again, its star product (the trench); by giving the brand’s signature check a slick industrial-style overhaul; by spearheading a digitally progressive business blueprint; by bringing the house back to where it traditionally belongs, London, and by basking in its biggest asset, ‘Britishness’; and finally, by resuscitating Burberry’s “beating heart” by cleverly (yet sincerely) aligning the brand to something that, like fashion, can inspire an emotional connection.

“I feel like music is ageless,” Bailey says, “you might be loving a new young indie band, but you might also still be loving the [Rolling] Stones, and I think those generations cut across all different types of people. Music is so evocative of a mood or a moment and I feel the same is true of fashion, so it just kind of naturally became a part of the way we communicated and expressed ourselves.”

Bailey and Burberry are, fairly obviously, the perfect fit – so much so that it’s difficult to distinguish the brand from the man behind it: He answers “we,” “us,” and “our” consistently on behalf of the Burberry collective, the creative ‘family’ housed in the label’s global HQ on London’s Horseferry Road (“We’ve basically got kind of like a little design school here, whether it’s fashion, architecture, print, graphics, packaging or digital design”) and our conversation is littered with the words “romance,” “emotion,” and “mood,” nostalgic referencing that an overtly heritage brand like Burberry feeds on. Both man and brand are a dichotomy: On the one hand, so in tune with the past that you’d swear they still existed in it, and yet on the other, fiercely forward-thinking.

“I often talk about us being this old-young company, you know, and that’s kind of what I love; we’ve got this incredible history and heritage but there’s also a very young, dynamic team. We love the future and all the possibilities and curiosities that come with that.”

Initially brought on board to work solely on Prorsum, Burberry’s ready-to-wear line that was generally regarded as a pointless vanity project when it launched in 1999 under creative director Roberto Menichetti, Bailey is now in charge of “everything that touches the consumer” visually, physically, and acoustically. Practically, this means more than 50 collections a year, plus store design, the Art of the Trench social media site, Burberry Acoustic (more on that later) and a beauty and fragrance line, the latest addition to which, Brit Rhythm, cements Burberry’s musical ambitions (should there have been any doubt), with an ad campaign and scent inspired by live music.

“I guess the main things [we considered] were creating energy, with the campaign, the fragrance and the bottle,” Bailey says. “You know sometimes when you smell something and it takes you immediately back to a specific time or a specific place? Well, music does exactly the same thing and evokes the same kind of feeling inside, so that was definitely part of the thinking behind the concept.”

Billed in press release-speak as capturing “the exhilaration and energy of live music and the electric energy of the crowd,” Bailey has thankfully chosen to omit those customary “crowd” notes of nicotine, spilled beer and sweat, in favor of a more appealing whiff based on black leather, cedarwood and incense.

“I like a scent when it has lived on your skin a little while and becomes a part of you,” he says. “You know, when you take ownership of it and people recognize it, and you, as the same thing. I think a scent needs to be sexy; it needs to be something that is not overpowering and something that has personality.”

For the fragrance’s accompanying capsule collection and cinematic ad campaign, Bailey recruited These New Puritans drummer George Barnett and budding actress and model (and current squeeze of Bradley Cooper), Suki Waterhouse as headline stars – two emerging British talents who fit perfectly into Burberry’s ‘London Cool’ cooperative, which includes the likes of Sienna Miller and Tom Sturridge (faces of the Fall 2013 ad campaign), Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (Bailey’s Burberry Beauty girl), and front row patrons Alexa Chung and Poppy Delevingne. But despite the 20-to-30-something age range of his regulars, Bailey insists his Burberry is void of ageism.

“I always go back to the trench coat; it’s this weirdly elastic thing because you’ve got so many different types of people, age groups and nationalities, and each one has its own little personality, but it’s all grounded with this one iconic piece of clothing. I always look more at the attitude rather than designing specific things for a market that, actually, doesn’t exist. I think most people want strong designs, a point of view, something that is well-crafted and something that has an emotion attached to it.”

From the fresh-faced models – pristine mods and girl-next-door types – to the nostalgic referencing and heart-rending acoustic scores that so often threaten to overshadow the clothes, Burberry shows are all about authenticity; provoking a feeling and providing an experience other than, ‘Here’s what we have on offer this season!’

“They have just got such incredible voices and energy and focus when they perform,” Bailey says, referring to emerging Brit singer-songwriters Paloma Faith and Tom Odell, both of whom provided music for Burberry’s Fall 2013 show – Odell, in fact, performed live, belting out the euphoric single “Hold Me” backed by a gospel choir. For Bailey, it was the culmination of something special; not only was it the unveiling of a new collection and the staging of a London Fashion Week (LFW) highlight event in the capital’s glorious Kensington Gardens, but also the championing of a young musician he believes to be wildly talented.

“He’s just someone I’ve admired for a long time,” Bailey says. “We’ve done all of these little projects together and you know, these relationships build us and continue. And Paloma Faith is just incredible; she’s such a strong character and has a powerful voice, but there is a fragility in her words – I love that.”

It is music, he says, that “often defines the mood” of a collection, though this tends to happen subconsciously. "You listen to a piece of music, and something sticks but you don't realize. I did a show once where I just used Dusty Springfield music and that’s because I’d been listening to her while I’d been working on the collection – I think it can work both ways though.”

For the affable designer, music is so important that the company now has its own full-time “music division.” “I had a few friends in the [music] industry who started sending me demos and stuff,” he says, “and then more and more bands got in touch; it got to the point where I felt like I was being selfish by keeping all this incredible talent to myself. Then it just kind of went nuts with people really loving it and getting excited about it.”

The success of Burberry Acoustic, an online platform for emerging British musicians to showcase their work, has spurred the development of an event’s space and stage, complete with “a couple hundred major speakers” at the brands new behemoth store on 121 Regent Street. Dubbed ‘Burberry World Live,’ the store prioritizes the shopping experience over actual sales, with iPad-wielding assistants, interactive mirrors and virtually no till points. As always though, Burberry’s techy ambitions are offset by its rich traditions: the store itself, which was once a cinema, features spiraled staircases and ornate paneling, and a display of trench coats dating back to the 1900s.

It’s certainly a stark contrast to the Burberry offices of 2001 where, fresh from Gucci’s affluent Milan base and Tom Ford’s strict dictatorship (prior to that, the Royal College of Art graduate cut his teeth designing for Donna Karan in New York), Bailey would find “mouse poo” on his sketches every morning. Since then, he has blown away the cobwebs and found his feet (and signature) at the historic label.

The evolution is plain to see in the designer’s ready-to-wear offerings: His Spring/Summer 2002 debut offered an accessible, street-inspired core of low-slung pants, crinkled blouses and striped tank tops – wearable, yes, but hardly the stuff of fashion fairytale. Fast-forward to Fall 2007 and BAM!, Bailey’s Burberry girl is as self-assured as the designer responsible for her tough metal-studded trenchcoats, quilted puffa-anoraks and thigh-high patent boots – everything, from the collection’s thematic nod to Burberry’s iconic ‘medieval-knight-on-a-charger’ logo, to the quota of super-luxe materials and sophisticated styling, screamed confidence. He followed up with the sexiest version of Burberry yet for Spring/Summer 2008; all short dresses in ruched chiffon, rock-star shades and studded leather belts – an accurate riff on Nineties body-con dressing.

“I think what motivated me as a young designer was that kind of feeling inside where you want to create something that represents you and a moment and a mood,” Bailey reflects. “I think when you’re young it’s very difficult to articulate that, but when you get more experienced you understand it and you’re able to feel your way around it more purely.”

With a winning template in place, the hits have continued: Whether he looks to the classic cadet girl for a collection of giant-collared shearlings, or a Sixties harlot, as he did for Fall 2013, to rework the trench in rubber and offer flashes of giant heart-print pants under latex pencil skirts, what remains consistent is Bailey’s ability to produce extremely covetable pieces within a globally-appealing, well-rounded collection; one that has the power to seduce both the London hipster and the Wall Street worker.

“I guess you have things in life that you love,” he says, referring to his markedly British sensibilities, “like artists, for example: Lowry, Derek Jarman, Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry, David Hockney [who informed Bailey’s primary color-rich Spring/Summer 2014 men’s collection]. I think you have your vocabulary but I think it’s really important to keep being curious, you know, and to make sure you don’t become blinkered with things that you like.”

For Bailey, it made sense to bring Burberry back from its adopted home of Milan to show in London (the women’s collection made the move for Spring/Summer 2010 while the men’s followed suit earlier this year, for Spring/Summer 2014), given that a lot of the production was, and continues to be, done on home turf: The lace for next season’s ‘English Rose’ collection, for example, was made in Nottingham by a company that still uses Victorian-period looms and for the cashmere, the designer headed North, to Scotland.

“With ‘Britishness’ you have different worlds plaiting,” he says. “You’ve got this very traditional and classic history, something that’s quite uptight and put together, but then you also have the most incredibly innovative and stimulating art, film and music scene. I think when those worlds clash it becomes very intriguing and exciting.”

Blame the 2012 London Olympics, the Royal wedding, Andy Murray’s Wimbledon win or LFW’s blistering new wave of designers, but ‘Britishness’ has never been hotter. And with Bailey at the helm, Burberry looks set to ride the wave admirably.