Jack Wardlaw explores Burberry’s changing image and asks whether Christopher Bailey has managed to rescue the check.
Let me paint you a mental picture. Close your eyes and no peeking! Picture the scene: A bustling, shabby street in London; an empty Carling can rolls across the pavement; there is graffiti over most of the boarded up shop windows and the ones that aren’t are tattered and decrepit. A group of young men saunter down the street, Lonsdale pants very much on display with one hand tucked firmly inside the front pouch, a grey Adidas logo on the track-suit jacket and then, topping off the ensemble, THAT check. The beige, black and red stripes that at the turn of the century became the proud emblem of a certain group of people. You know who I mean.
Logo-mania hit in the 1980s with Gucci monograming the shit out of everything they produced, but during the 90s a turn to grunge fashion sterilised the epidemic. That is until, for some unknown reason, Burberry became the new target for a group of people who wanted the world to know that they could afford expensive luxury items… except that they knew they really couldn’t.
Logos are a funny thing. They work to sell a brand to a mass market, to make it memorable and recognisable, but for the first time, the signature Burberry check became polluted, and commandeered to mean something very different from the luxurious and noble heritage of this centuries old brand. At the risk of generalising horribly, lots of people who bought Burberry were the people who didn’t exactly appreciate high fashion. You could bet any money on the fact that they would not have cared less about skirt lengths or whether chiffon was a better alternative to silk. Essentially, they wanted people to see the logo, in this case the check, and think “wow, that person owns Burberry. That’s an expensive and exclusive brand.”
This probably would have worked if it was a tactic adopted by small numbers, but this wasn’t the case. Burberry became the brand famous for a – shall we say – less than favourable consumer image which involved tracksuits, trainers and baseball caps. The mass appropriation of their logo corrupted the meaning of it and the image of the lifestyle that went along with it.
Think about it: broadly speaking, if you see someone driving an Aston Martin or a Jaguar, they seem like less of a show-off than someone driving a Ferrari. The same is true for fashion brands. The Burberry cap-wearers thought they were driving Aston Martins, but actually, they were driving Ferraris. Instead of looking sophisticated and wealthy, they leaned towards obnoxious and tacky.
What is fascinating, however, is the way this reputation has changed and developed over the later half of the 00’s and into the present day, through the arrival of Christopher Bailey as Creative Director. He was charged with the biggest re-branding in history and set about turning this horrendous symbol of mass culture back into the exclusive luxury brand it once was. His first step was to drastically cut all of the checked merchandise. Hats, shoes, belts, the lot was all scrapped. Seeing as the vast majority of revenue generated by luxury brands comes from these accessories, this was a risky move, but a necessary one. With no Burberry check to buy, the masses had to move on to a different brand to show off their imaginary wealth.
Ever since Burberry has gone from strength to strength, by investing heavily in technology, so that now Burberry live streams all its runway shows as well as other events around the world, as well as incorporating live music from emerging British artists into its brand image and championing British models and British personalities for its campaigns. We all know Cara Delevigne, the instagramming, tweeting, face-pulling bundle of cool right? She was adopted by the Burberry family very early on and has done so much work with them since it’s difficult to keep track. Irresistibly cool British talent like Sienna Miller, Eddie Redmayne and even Emma Watson have fronted campaigns for the brand, and British models Edie Campbell, Jourdan Dunn and new face Matilda Lowther take starring roles in the runway shows every season.
Burberry has worked very hard over the past ten years to be seen as cool once again, and in the fashion world, the work has paid off. Burberry is easily the biggest and most anticipated show of London Fashion Week and regularly attracts stars like Harry Styles and Nick Grimshaw to its front row. Their last show, the Autumn/Winter 2015, was particularly dramatic because it featured a couple of awesome tracks from Ed Hardcourt and Rhodes (‘Wandering Eye’and ‘Raise Your Love’ respectively – if you haven’t heard of them, seriously, have a listen, they are amazing!) Paloma Faith then made a surprise appearance as she emerged from behind a wall and performed a powerful rendition of her new track ‘Only Love Can Hurt Like This’, which practically knocked me out of my chair! Couple that beautiful music to a beautiful show of delicate dresses and elegant outerwear and it was a truly perfect show.
Interestingly though, if you say to lots of people outside the fashion bubble the word “Burberry” the first thing they imagine is what I described to you earlier – the tracksuit-wearing, lager-swilling, cap-wearer. Burberry clearly still has some way to go for people to forget about its past association, which is difficult when the check is still being used on scarves mainly, but on umbrellas as well, because those items are and will always be bought by a certain type of person. They are the same kind of person that would buy a Louis Vuitton bag in that hideous brown Damier pattern (that thing with the little symbols all over). Just like the Burberry Check, the Louis Vuitton signature print is being appropriated by a certain kind of person, a person that loves the world to think that they’re vastly wealthy and of exquisite taste, but by buying a Burberry check, a Gucci interlocking G or a Louis Vuitton Damier, they scream to the world the opposite – “Nouveau Riche”.
For those people who see nothing wrong with buying a bag, pair of shoes, a scarf or a belt with the check, or the Damier, or the Armani eagle emblazoned upon it, there is an old phrase that my dad used to say to me that I think you should think about. “Money talks, wealth whispers”.
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