BURBERRY creative chief CHRISTOPHER BAILEY'S unflagging energy permeates everything from the four Burberry lines he oversees to the company HQ, which he helped design.
By Georgie McCourt.
Christopher Bailey is a multi-tasking genius. It’s the morning after the S/S 2011 show, photographer Mario Testino has just left his office, and he’s got journalists lining up for interviews. But Bailey, the wizard creative director of Burberry since May 2001 (promoted to chief creative officer in 2009), is probably the calmest man in the building. “I try to live with my eyes open,” the 39-year-old Bailey offers, with his characteristic English charm, boyish grin and dishevelled light-brown hair. “I try to feel what’s going on. It’s not tangible, it’s not rational, it’s not something you can write down. You have to feel things. I’m a fairly sensitive person. I listen to my gut instincts, and always ground it with the heritage and history of the company — that is who we are, that’s what we do and that’s what we stand for.”
I was terribly intrigued when I began to read this interview on Christopher Bailey. He doesn't seem your average creative director. Click the 'read more' tab to see the rest of the interview. It’s an approach that’s working: the British fashion brand is now among the five largest luxury brands in the world.It was founded in 1856 by a 21-year-old draper’s apprentice, Thomas Burberry, who opened a small shop in the town of Basingstoke, in south central England. Bailey is sitting in his office on the seventh floor of the company’s headquarters in Horseferry House, a converted 1930s government building, located behind the Houses of Parliament and around the corner from the London Eye. He clearly has a zeal for fun gadgets. On his big glass desk I spy a Mac, an iPad and an iPhone. “They’re revolutionary,” he says of the iPad. “In fact, it’s all I carry now, just my keys and my iPad.” Downstairs, things aren’t so relaxed. As models parade the spring collection, fashion buyers fervently scribble down the looks they’d like to buy, eagerly punching numbers into their calculators. Everyone wants to purchase the studded gabardine trench coat, but can they afford to get the studded python-leather jacket, too? The buyers’ conundrums continue, while upstairs, I tell Bailey I’ve been following his footsteps all week. Not literally, of course: the designer has been tweeting on the Burberry Twitter account in the lead-up to London fashion week. “I was at dinner with friends two nights ago, and they were like, ‘You better not be tweeting while we’re having dinner!’. It’s quite addictive,” says Bailey. One minute he was “in all weekend with my amazing Burberry team prepping the show. Normally I go up to Yorkshire on a Friday.” Next he was “Fitting and listening to the Eurythmics”. And finally, tennis supremo Serena Williams jumped on the Burberry Twitter account while front row at the S/S 2011 show: “Sat next to Sarah Jessica Parker and was so happy! Just wanted to say hi and trying to convince CB to carry on tweeting!” Williams and SJP were seated in the front row alongside A-list Burberry aficionados Alexa Chung, Poppy Delevigne and Andy Murray. I don’t mention those biker platforms that one model stopped to remove mid-walk in last night’s show. Yes, those 130-millimetre skyscraper shoes that sent a few girls tumbling, before lovely little Nina Porter — the 16-year-old new face of the Burberry Beauty makeup range — closed the show, after first plummeting dramatically to the floor. But shoe malfunctions were forgotten as soon as Porter awkwardly hobbled off the catwalk, with the room exploding in glittering silver rain and enthusiastic applause for Bailey and his glamorous, spike-heeled collection punctuated by electric blasts of colour and wild jungle prints. The collection, entitled Heritage Biker, was inspired by the outfits Thomas Burberry designed for England’s first motorbike riders in the early 1900s. “I wanted the collection to be more sexy, more confident and to be trans-seasonal as well,” says Bailey. “When you’re talking to a global consumer, you have to think differently about the clothes. You can no longer think, ‘OK, we’re only working spring/summer, therefore it has to be all about lightweight dresses’, because in some parts of the world, it might be very cold and wintry.” Bailey, who now looks after four clothing ranges — Burberry Prorsum, Burberry London, Burberry Sport, and Burberry Brit — has brave ambitions. The brand launched the Burberry Retail Theatre, enabling the first-ever live simultaneous virtual trunk shows to 25 stores worldwide. The label’s S/S 2011 show was broadcasted directly to VIP customers who had been invited to the in-store trunk shows via a digital invitation with a personal video message from Bailey. “Our customers were able to watch the show live as it happened, they could feel the energy here in London, and then order immediately. Their pieces will be delivered in six to eight weeks. The concept of ‘Yes, we’ll show it to you today, but we’ll ship it to you in four to six months’ is very weird to me. It’s exciting when you’re talking to a digital consumer — they want things now.” Bailey is a big advocate of e-commerce. “Digital technology is making every industry look at things differently. I sometimes describe Burberry as a ‘young-old’ company. It’s a very old, historic brand [154 years old] but it has a young team and a youthful energy. We all grew up in a digital world; it’s part of the culture within the company.” However not everyone is as thrilled with fashion’s digital revolution. Karl Lagerfeld recently told WWD: “E-commerce deprives people of the pleasure of shopping in beautiful shops. Fashion is not only what the clothes are made of; it’s the feeling of luxury where you shop, how you shop, the way parcels are beautifully wrapped. [Online] there are too many fakes. Originals still have to be seen and touched.” He has a point. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of standing in a swanky boutique. However a lot of us find it more convenient to shop online. “You can’t stop the internet,” says Bailey. “It’s important for a brand to be thoughtful about the way you use it … but you can’t ignore it, because there’s a whole generation of people that live online.” Bailey has always been extolled by the press. Testino, who has shot the Burberry campaigns since 1998, once described him as exuding, “a certain peace. You never see him lose control or get annoyed”. His success story hasn’t been without heartache, however. Tragically, he lost his partner Geert Cloet, who worked as the brand director for Miu Miu, back in 2005 to a brain tumour. He spends as much time as he can “doing all the normal things in life”. Gardening, cooking, eating, drinking, listening to music … “I have a great balance in life. I have wonderful friends and I’m very close to my family.” Each weekend, he escapes to his country home in the northern English county of Yorkshire to spend time with his family and friends. Not surprisingly, he loves music as much as he loves fashion. The first gig Bailey ever went to was Bob Dylan, but it’s the British music scene for which he has the most passion. The Courteeners, the Sex Pistols and the Rolling Stones are his favourites. “So many of my treats in life, such as music, cross over over into work,” and so he created the Burberry Acoustic initiative, which promotes emerging British talent via filmed music videos exclusively available on live.burberry.com. Bailey comes from a working-class background. His father is a retired carpenter; his mother, a window dresser at Marks & Spencer. Growing up to be a fashion designer wasn’t on his to-do list, although on weekends he used to work at a bridal shop. “I didn’t even know what [fashion] was,” he says, with a grin. “I always loved drawing and I just inched my way into it.” In another life, Bailey would have perhaps been an architect (he designed Burberry’s headquarters in collaboration with the architectural firm Gensler). “I love fashion, but what I really wanted to do was be an architect, but I never ended up [going] down that pathway. My job now is creating buildings, working with musicians, with designers, on ad campaigns and images. It’s this perfect fusion of everything that I’ve always loved.” It appears there’s no slowing down for Burberry. The brand now has more than three million Facebook fans, making it the most widely followed fashion brand on the social network. Also, later this year, Burberry launches an online bespoke service for trench coats. You will be able to pick your own buttons, studs, initials … There will be more than 12 million options. There are plans for expansion in Australia, too. Later this month Burberry will open a shinynew store on George Street, Sydney, in a restored former bank building. So what does the next chapter involve? “The biggest challenge is not being complacent and lazy,” says Bailey. “You can’t always go back to what’s been successful and use that formula. Human nature is to keep going, but sometimes it’s good to say, ‘It was successful for the right moment, but I need to now rethink everything completely’.”