In The Trenches With Burberry's Christopher Bailey

Burberry, best known for tartan-lined trenches, has amplified runway whiplash with innovations like holographic models and buying live from the runway. Ahead of the opening of its new London flagship, chief creative officer Christopher Bailey discusses balancing tradition and innovation.

For a 156-year old brand that was dangerously diminished when Christopher Bailey arrived as creative director in 2001, Burberry has made more than a comeback. You could say the British luxury label has stitched its timeless, iconic plaids and classic trench coats together with modern, technological dazzle into a magic carpet destined for the land of multi-billion dollar revenues and hefty profits. The 41-year old Bailey, now chief creative officer, has led a charge that’s defied the U.S. recession, a Eurozone crisis, and global spending slowdowns while continuing to amass extraordinary numbers of fashion-forward (and tech-savvy) devotees.

Since his arrival, Bailey has consistently re-imagined every aspect of the brand. Once cutting edge for its innovative fabric (founder Thomas Burberry invented gabardine) and outfitting explorers to the South Pole and officers in the trenches of World War I, Bailey’s Burberry goes beyond designing consistently critically acclaimed collections for its namesake label and the trendier Burberry Prorsum (the term is Latin for forward).

Bailey has deployed a digital arsenal to transform the way the brand speaks to its customer. Under his direction, “fast fashion” went from meaning cheap designer knockoffs to a “Tweetwalk” in which Burberry’s newest collection was visible to anyone on the Web before its models hit the runway. Likewise, his efforts to democratize a haute house of style don’t come from deep discounts. Instead, he made some items, such as the trenches, available to purchase immediately after the show-effectively blasting through the barriers of fashion’s old guard and the arduous months-long wait for them to hit the stores. Bailey’s also responsible for turning store openings into a sensory spectacle. This April, he made it rain in Burberry’s new Taipei flagship, thanks to a lavish event centered on a 360-degree projection of models strutting their stuff against the elements in Burberry trenches.

When Fast Company caught up with Bailey, he’d just taken off the hard hat he’s been donning regularly while monitoring the progress on the site of yet another new flagship. Though much closer to Burberry’s Horseferry Road headquarters, Bailey told us that the digitally enhanced audiovisual shopping experience that was showcased halfway around the world will also be very much in evidence on London’s fabled Regent Street, set to open in September.

Juxtaposed with more traditional racks of clothing and accessory and fragrance displays, Bailey’s plan for Regent Street includes one large-scale video screen to draw browsers in. In addition, “there will be many screens throughout the space,” he explains, “which are not going to be gimmicks,” he adds with a quiet laugh. Rather, Bailey’s intent is to merge the physical and digital retail worlds by providing an evolving array of visual and musical content that informs all aspects of the brand. “It is going to talk to very different types of people,” Bailey says.

Whether they are interested in heritage, true bespoke, or even just music, “hopefully they’ll find their corner in the store as they travel through.” And if you want to just fondle the fabric or try things on, that’s fine, too. “You can interact with [the screens] or it can just be visual,” he says. What it won’t be is intimidating, says Bailey, confessing that he dislikes the kind of store that makes a customer feel like they’re not cool enough to cross the threshold. “I love being greeted with a smile as much as I love tech,” he says, and his goal for Burberry store staff is to ensure the customer feels welcomed and engaged with the salespeople as well as the technology.

This is all feeds into Bailey’s larger vision for Burberry to be more than just a fashion brand. He believes the company is now just as much a content generator as it is a design house, and as such is responsible to provide a context for the consumer experience.

Though he insists there was no one eureka moment that led the way to his embrace of its digital array, Bailey says, “I sometimes describe it as a young old brand. We have a very young team and they have already embraced technology. It would be counterintuitive to say to them that everything you do outside is one thing and then you come in to work and do something different.” He says it's the same for Burberry’s Millennial customer, who communicates more naturally via digital and social media channels and as such have made initiatives such as Art of the Trench so popular that the servers are sometimes slow to load all those user-generated photos.

Though he prefers to make occasional appearances on the corporate Twitter account (now with 1.2 million followers) he does have a personal one (“I prefer to use that as voyeurism,” he says) and keeps his Facebook very private (the company has over 13 million fans), Bailey says that is what he loves about technology, it can be defined by one’s own culture and generation.

But when it comes to communicating, whether it’s with CEO Angela Ahrendts, members of his team, suppliers, or store architects, Bailey’s decidedly low-tech. “I prefer talking,” and admits to being “a big scribbler.” “I have a big pad of paper” he says, in order to draw out concepts so others can understand what’s going on inside his active mind. People need to “feel the idea,” he says, something that he believes can be accomplished quickly with a picture. “It immediately takes you to the point and you have a more intimate conversation.”

Bailey says Burberry does use Facetime video conferencing for its offices outside the UK and its factory. And every month, he and Ahrendts tape short video update on the company’s progress. “It’s like a storybook. It builds so you have this big portfolio that is like our own internal YouTube that unites the company,” he says.

And he’s big on bringing everyone together to encourage new ideas. “It’s part of our natural culture of broadminded thinking. We like this idea of being entrepreneurial but with structure,” Bailey says. So about once a month he schedules an intensive session to gather different points of view. “Sometimes it can just be big dreamlike conversation that feels unrelated to anything on practical level,” Bailey explains, “But it is very important to keep that dynamism.”

He has similar blue sky conversations with his CEO. Ahrendts and Bailey share a work history that began at Donna Karan in the early 1990s. “She and I have natural dialogue and energy that feeds off each other,” he says, which may be part of the reason she’s given him free reign to implement all these innovations. Says Bailey: “We like to dream but we are both doers. We move fast and have a bazillion thoughts every second. People find it hard to keep up but we are very good at dividing and conquering. It’s a very effortless relationship.”

As for Bailey, he’s no cliche of a design diva swathed in frippery and totally removed from the reality beyond the runway. He contends that though he’s much more of a right brain creative, he does tap his process-oriented left brain, too. “I am good at putting things in boxes. I can go from a big brainstorming meeting about tech or fabrics, then close box and go into a meeting that is more structured about supply chain.”

Enjoying the challenges of both appears to come naturally to Bailey, who remains affable and charming throughout our conversation, but especially when making the final point that brings his leadership vision full circle. “If you live in your little bubble, context is more important than anything. I love technology and moving fast but it is very important to remember human interaction. The way we live today, nothing is independent.”

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  • BluteauDeVenney

    As noted, I think a lot of Burberry's success has to do with the relationship between Ahrendts and Bailey. Other insights helpful but wouldn't be possible if the two didn't buy into what the other is doing.