Legendary Burberry creative director Christopher Bailey, left the design house in March 2018, after a rollercoaster ride of 17 years. His Spring / Summer 2018 show a year before, was the key at London Fashion Week. It saw the return of Burberry’s tartan after an absence of almost two decades.
The check revival collection was created after a collaboration with Russian skater brand designer, Gosha Rubchinskiy. Ironic, since its Burberry’s affiliation with streetwear – and one paparazzi shot – which had knocked the design house from its luxury pedestal in the first place.
The significance of Bailey’s collection in making Burberry great again, awards the opportunity to revisit the brand’s archives; its history steeped in British classism, society’s interpretations of luxury, and a pop culture status inextricably woven into the world’s most recognisable pattern, Nova check.
Burberry’s of London was founded in 1856 by Thomas Burberry, then aged 21. He rolled out the coat 20 years later made from a waterproof gaberdine which he had diosciovered and pattened. And in 1891, opened his first shop in London’s West End at 30 Haymarket, thus making Burberry a household name.
The trench was such a trusted must-have that it became standard issue for officers during World War I (1914 – 1919), thereby coining the name, ‘trench coat’. Also favoured by aviators and arctic explorers, Burberry was known as an outdoor brand prior to reaching luxury status.
The iconic check was created in the 1920’s; a Scottich tartan of black, red and white on a beige background. Originally used as lining, it only saw daylight 40 years later when the manager of Burberry Paris, seeking a pop of colour, hung a coat with the hem facing out. Customers fell in love! prompting the company to produce several hundred umbrellas which sold out.
Cashmere scarves followed suit and immediately Nova check became to Burberry what the doubles C’s are to Chanel; an instantly recognisable symbol of quality and luxury.
The good ol’ days
The brand became a status symbol among the Brit elite in the 70’s and 80’s. Its ostentatious yet stylish design highly favoured by the ‘stuffy pearls- and-paisley-cravats’ brigade of Sloane Square, as well as the creative crowd who’s fingers drummed out the beat and pulse of trendy London. Burberry’s popularity peaked when it appeared in the Sloane Rangers Handbook, the bible of the fashionable uppercrust set led by Princess Diana.
The fall from grace
As the label reached luxury status symbolising financial wealth, the working class also wanted in, if only for the sake of appearance. Here’s where the pattern fell victim to its own popularity.
Classism in the UK is a complex socio-economic issue which requires in-depth and sensitive analysis. In brief, the snobby, privileged are leveraged by the have-nots. ‘Chav’ is term a derogatory term for the Brit working class used in conjunction with football hooliganism, anti-social behaviour, poverty and from a sartorial persspective, sportswear.
Heading into the late 90’s logo wave hit hard and fast, adorning everything from Gucci belts to Chanel purses. As a sign of financial arrival, Burberry’s check cap, priced at only £50, became an entry level acquisition for ‘chavs’. Burberry HQ may not have been happy about a luxury brand’s association with the working class but ‘we don’t want money’ said no one ever. An attempt to ride the logo wave culminated in thier 2000 Kate Moss ‘Wedding’ campaign which was checked from bride to bestman.
The defining chav statement reared its ugly head by photobombing a paparazzi shot in 2004. Brit Eastenders soap star Danielle Westbrook, equally known for her cocaine habit was spotted on the high street draped in check hat, bag, scarf and tights with her baby in a matching skirt and stroller. This cemented Nova check as the ultimate nouveau riche symbol, and the upper crust disappeared like a Baker’s tennis biscuit in hot tea. British high streets abandoned stocking the brand, heralding the end of Burberry in the UK, as sales registered only 15% on home soil.
The money game
On the flip side, it gained success across the pond. Burberry exploded onto the international market licensing products left, right and centre stage. JayZ serenaded a Burberry bikini-clad Beyonce in their 2002 musical collaboration, ‘03 Bonnie and Clyde’. UK and Eastern European football fans madethe check their own coining the less complimentary term,‘Burberry lads’. Copycats also clamoured onto the check bandwagon, kicking luxury status into the gutter en route to counterfeit.
Those caps proved the strength and power of branding. Sadly, it also hailed the demise of a brand which lost control of its intended market. Something needed to be done. Quickly.
Christopher Bailey, joined Burberry in 2001, faced with a daunting task of cleaning the streets of Burberry check caps. To regain the reins of a once luxurious brand, he started by severing the beast’s head. Alongside then CEO Angela Ahrens, they pulled licensing, discontinued the cap, and streamlined the check from 20% to 5% of Burberry’s prodution line.
As expected, profits circled the drain when Chinese shoppers pulled the plug on their interest in the brand. By 2015, shareholders took a 75% pay cut from £7.5m to £1.9m.
A revolution was needed to resurrect this dying brand. In a strange twist of fate, the concept required to bring Burberry back was on its proverbial doorstep.
10 years on from the Dannielle Westbrook’s photo, athleisure became the normcore, the working class aesthetic modelled the urban landscape and chav was no longer a term in use. So, when Russian streetwear hero Gosha Rubchinky approached Chritopher Bailey for a collab, it signified a complete 180 from what had been done to clean the brand up. However, as he (Bailey) explained, “His reinterpretation of some of our most iconic designs feels exciting, new and relevant whilst paying enormous respect to their British cultural heritage.”
As broad as this statement may appear, the concept signaled a tribute to the ubiquitious design which brought Burberry fame in the first place. Bailey drenched his SS2018 show in check; on coats, gilets, dresses, bags and caps. In so doing, the return of Nova check has made Burberry the most sought after luxury brand in the pre-owned market. And you can shop it The Changing Room right HERE.