Burberry was founded by Thomas Burberry in 1856 when the 20 year old former draper’s assistant opened a small store in Basingstoke, Hampshire. By 1870 the store had developed a reputation for selling a quality range of outerwear. In 1880 Thomas Burberry invented a new hard-wearing and water resistant fabric and christened it gabardine.
In 1891 Burberry opened his first store in Haymarket, London which until recently remained the headquarters of the business. Around this time the name of the company was changed to Burberrys as many customers were already calling it Burberrys of London. This name remained until the re-branding of the company at the end of the next century.
It was during the years between the two World Wars that Burberry developed his ubiquitous Trench Coat and the trademark Burberry Check pattern, originally used as a lining.
During the 1970s the brand became popular with the British casual clique and the company’s export business increased rapidly during the 1980s, fuelled by the American and Japanese thirst for British heritage goods. By the mid 1980s exports constituted two thirds of the company’s sales.
Discerning that “a fine tradition is not in itself sufficient today”, Burberrys sought to increase their appeal to the younger more fashion aware client. The brand began licensing their name, their famous check and their knight logo to other manufacturers and the market was flooded with products from handbags and belts to boxer shorts, not all of the highest quality. By the mid 1990s their efforts appeared to be paying off as the company’s sales had increased by more than a third. However the luxury heritage of the company had been severely affected. With its largest market Asia rocked by economic troubles and the market being flooded with grey goods, it was becoming clear that the company had lost its prestige. Associations with British football fans and ‘chav’ culture also abounded. Newsweek described the label as a “mouldering, old British clothing line”.
In 1997 Rose Marie Bravo was brought in as CEO from Saks Fifth Avenue. Bravo began re-building the brand by controlling licensing and selling to only luxury retailers. Her key strategy was to appeal more to the lucrative womenswear market. To this end she hired Italian American designer Roberto Menichetti. Together they set about re-branding the company and bringing the focus back to design.
By the dawn of the new millennium the brand saw financial improvements as the new strategy began to pay off. Menichetti quickly made the new line, Burberry Prorsum, fashion’s hottest ticket, cleverly cutting way back on the ubiquitous Burberry check which had become an albatross around the company’s neck.
When Menichetti left the company for Cerutti he was replaced by the virtually unknown designer Christopher Bailey. Bailey was tasked with bringing modernity to the brand without sacrificing the heritage of the company. Bailey initially abandoned the use of plaid showing his early intentions for the brand and its more fashion led future.
Since Bailey’s appointment he has received great praise for both his men’s and women's collections. He is fanatical about detail and quality and this, combined with his interest in practical clothing, has been crucial to his work at Burberry.
“I’m a very down-to-earth designer in the sense that I love that mix of really classic, traditional, historical design with real fashion”.
Bailey has carefully rejuvenated the company’s image, without ignoring its heritage. He has raided the archives but has never tried to recreate the past.
In 2005 Bailey was awarded Designer of the Year at the British Fashion awards, an award he received again in 2009. He was awarded Menswear Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards for successive years in 2007 and 2008.
Burberry’s current commercial success has been a testament to the skill of its designer and its marketing. Going against the trend for economic downturn its current success is even more remarkable. There are now several lines under the umbrella including Burberry London, Burberry Brit and Burberry Prorsum.
The digital revolution has left many heritage brands lost in the wilderness. Not Burberry however and there are few fashion houses that have so readily embraced and utilised new technologies. After early forays into social networking the company’s digital approach has engaged a new generation of loyal customers.
April 2012 Christopher Bailey helped launch British Vogue’s first ever ‘Vogue Festival’.He also announced that Burberry had seen an 11% rise in profits for 2011.