When I saw Burberry chief creative officer Christopher Bailey this summer, he mused on the unforeseen opportunity, on surprises. "It's really important to be disruptive and do things that actually are kind of a little scary and bold," he said as we sat in an office that he designed atop Burberry’s headquarters in London. "You've got to push yourself and push yourself out of your comfort zone."
Now the Yorkshireman has his chance. When Angela Ahrendts, Burberry’s current CEO, returns to the U.S. to join Apple in the spring, Bailey will become CEO. His ascension returns the leadership of the venerable British retail giant—it has 11,000 employees and about $3 billion in annual revenue—to British hands. But given his close partnership with Ahrendts over the past seven years, not much should be expected to change in the near future. Here's a look at how Bailey described his vision recently:
Bailey On Branding
"The brand is not this kind of cold, static name outside a shop or outside a building or on a piece of clothing. People actually sewed this jacket. Somebody actually designed it. Somebody actually shot it. There are values and a culture behind it."
Bailey On Storytelling With Products
"We try to create product and design that is about craft, it's about function, it's about feeling. Clothes and product give you a feeling—confidence, a feeling of protection and security. That’s about understanding the endgame: Somebody has actually got to live with it. It becomes a part of you. It becomes something that you know how you put your hands in and you know where you put your phone or your wallet or your keys or the way you tie it or the way you throw it down or the way you hang it or maybe you don't hang it or maybe you just hang it on the doorknob.
So we don’t think of a product as just a product. We think about the environment it’s going to sit in, the way we’ll communicate with it, the ways somebody might interact with it. And it's like clothes, they become you ... It’s not just a coat. That coat has a story. The fabric for that coat was woven in this incredible factory in the north of England. Then that roll of fabric was driven to another factory, where somebody unrolled it and chalked it all out and cut it. Then somebody else started sewing it together. And that story began over a hundred and fifty years ago and has evolved like this, so that you have this quite traditional old-fashioned craft but we’ve also put in a little RFID chip into the piece. So when you go to the Regent Street store and near a RFID-enabled mirror, it turns into a screen and all of a sudden you can see the story about that roll of fabric and where it came from. People want the soul in things. They want to understand the whys and the whats and the values that surround it."
Bailey On Playing With History
"We've been around for a long time—158 years. So you've got history and you've got heritage and you've got this wonderful story. That’s the foundation for everything that we do, the rock that we build everything else from, but it should never hinder the way you approach things. Our point of view comes from our heritage and our history—that’s our story, but then we tell it in completely different ways. We’re not changing what happened, but we’re telling it in a different way. We’re also a young company. We talk about this energy of living in the moment. We talk about innovation. We talk about playing and exploring and being curious. Sometimes we say we’re an old-young company."
Bailey On The Retail Experience And His Philosophy Of Inclusivity
"We like to be inclusive and not exclusive. We like people to come into our stores and actually feel welcome and not feel like they're inferior and they shouldn't be there. This isn’t about money. This doesn’t have to be about price. And it doesn’t have to be about buying something. This can be an experience, and that comes in a lot of different ways."
Bailey On The Importance Of Workspace
[Bailey designed Horseferry House, Burberry's HQ] "The basis is empathy. We work incredibly hard but we've all got families and we've all got lives outside this world and those lines always blur. The values that you have at home you need to bring here. When we moved into Horseferry House, Angela and I said, ‘Guys, this is your home. This is where you will spend a lot of time. Love it in the way that you would love your home. Treat it in the way you would treat your own home. This is built for you. It’s not built for us.’"
Bailey On Music
"Music permeates everything that we do, from the virtual to the physical. We’ve got a little music team now. We focus on acoustic sound. It’s usually a voice and one other instrument. We love to work with people who are just emerging into music, and it’s usually music that feels very personal. We try to make sure that the music always has a personal resonance. We also often talk about the craft of music in the same way that we might cut and sew a trench coat—somebody has made that instrument and now somebody is actually using that instrument to play something. We had a lot of things that only existed online, so when we built the Regent Street store, we decided we needed the physical version. We built this incredible platform, got two hundred speakers, and can now host thousand-person concerts in there. We can livestream from there. We are constantly playing with things, asking, if it starts digital, how can we make it physical? And if it starts physically, how can we put it into the virtual world?"
Bailey On His Perfectionism
"We’re not complacent. There are always things that you could have perfected, things that we wish we’d done this way instead of that way. But that’s the beauty of what we’re doing—we’re allowed to. It’s that hunger that drives you and makes you excited to keep saying, ‘Shit, man, I wish we’d done it like that!’ And then there’s always something else that we can do. We’ll just do it next time. But that frustration is actually what drives you."
Bailey On Flexibility, Nimbleness
"As soon as you get tight and stuck in your little way—‘This is how we do it’—well, that was written like that two years ago and now it's not like that. So it's always this weird balance of process, structure, thought, data, but then also experiment, innovation, curiosity."
Bailey On The Future
"It’s practically impossible to say what will be happening in three years, you know? What’s important is that you talk and work through your three-year strategies, but then you have to have a culture that is flexible and dynamic, where you can say, ‘Guys, the world has changed. We need to go faster forward on this because that's really exciting now.’ It’s doing all the thought and all the work and all the process of laying things out but then also being dynamic enough to be able to say, ‘Guys, it's not set in stone. It's a guide.’"