Established in 1856, Burberry is one of the oldest fashion labels in existence, one with a history of innovation. Thomas Burberry, the founder, invented gabardine in 1880, offering England a comfortable yet waterproof fabric for riding, shooting, and other soggy country pursuits. The company became famous for outfitting explorers, including Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole in 1911. In 1914 Burberry invented the trenchcoat when it was asked to adapt a design for practical wear by World War I officers in the trenches. But while Burberry's stock only rose and rose in the twentieth century, as its hardworking wares crossed over and became fashionable—with style icons from Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca to Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's making the trench look unforgettably chic—it wasn't until the late 1990's that the house became known for much beyond mackintoshes and that famous beige check.
Rose Marie Bravo came on board as chief executive in 1997, leading the company as it began to mine its potential as a luxury brand. The Burberry Prorsum ready-to-wear collection was launched by Roberto Menichetti after he was hired in 1998 as creative director. An ad campaign shot by Mario Testino and starring Kate Moss and Stella Tennant followed, recasting Burberry's conservative, rather fusty image as youthful and sexy while still emphasizing its quintessential Britishness. In 2001 the house appointed Christopher Bailey, formerly a Gucci womenswear designer under Tom Ford, as creative director. The introduction of fragrance, menswear, and accessories has boosted the company's bottom line. And Bailey's designs have managed to balance Burberry's venerable heritage with a hip and contemporary aesthetic. When you think of Burberry today you still think of the trench—but redone, for instance, in python.
In 2001, Christopher Bailey, 29, assumed the post of creative director at Burberry. A veteran of Donna Karan and Gucci, where he'd spent over five years as a womenswear designer under Tom Ford, Bailey was faced with the challenge of forging a hip and fashion-forward identity for the 150-year-old British company known for its sturdy coats and tartan plaid.
Enlivening the timeless classics of Burberry's past with the punky vibe of London street fashion, Bailey set to work on the Burberry Prorsum ready-to-wear collection. The outerwear is still there, but the traditional trenchcoat might be rendered in silvery metallic brocade, ivory leather, or black emblazoned with metal studs. As for the trademark, oft-copied Burberry check, it crops up occasionally on the edging of a bikini or a handbag—supersized, distressed, or in an unexpected color like green. (The standard plaid is still found all over the umbrellas, golf gloves, and luggage in the retail stores, but it's been banned from the runway.) Bailey tends to work in monochromatic neutrals instead—black, brown, and gray for fall; white and khaki for spring—but adds unexpected flourishes such as tiers of feathers or ruched chiffon.
Fashion critics have deemed Bailey's image overhaul a success. Style.com's Sarah Mower writes that turning "the frumpy old country lady's Burberry into a fashionable thing" is "something of a cause for national pride in Britain." The public agrees: Burberry's profits have skyrocketed since Bailey's arrival.
The son of a carpenter and store display designer, Bailey grew up in working-class Halifax. He currently lives in London, where he oversees the Burberry empire, but keeps a country house in Yorkshire.