Christopher Bailey is the man behind Burberry’s £2bn rebirth. Tom Bailey (no relation) talks soiled sketchpads and rock bands with a working-class fashion icon
Nice to meet you. Would you like water? Still or sparkling? Take a seat, how’s everything? Thank you for joining us. It’s beautiful out there today.”
Entering the realm of Christopher Bailey is like being enveloped by a swarm of sub-atomic particles. The effervescent, slightly rakish, Yorkshire-born son of a carpenter skates across the floor at speed, like a man who has a taxi permanently waiting outside on the meter.
It’s hardly surprising, given the 42-year-old’s workload. Spotted by Donna Karan at art school in 1993, Bailey joined Burberry in 2001 – a relative newcomer – and now oversees every detail of the company, from the collections and ad campaigns, down to the bathroom taps.
He skims past a Lowry hanging on the wall and sets down my water; his glossy quiff arrives a heartbeat before he does.
“I’m not going to pretend that I had answers when I came to Burberry, because I didn’t,” he concedes. “I was a kid, I was 29. And naive. But I realised through experience that I’m not very good at trying to be something I’m not.”
In an industry renowned for its superhuman feats of egotism and a startling lack of self-awareness, Bailey – polite and relentlessly unselfish – has become a refreshing (if unlikely) working-class hero.
Which is ironic. Because, back then, Burberry had become shorthand for hooky market wear, reaching its nadir in 2005 when Welsh rappers Goldie Lookin Chain created the ‘Chavalier’, a J-reg Burberry check Vauxhall. Bailey winces at its mention. He prefers to describe the company’s troubled past as “tired”.
The solution was drastic. In 2006, along with CEO Angela Ahrendts, Bailey removed the check from 90 per cent of Burberry’s products, hired the likes of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Emma Watson and Kate Moss for modelling campaigns, and injected a hi-tech ethos into the business.
It triggered a seismic shift in the 157-year-old heritage brand’s fortunes, with 2013 revenues nudging £2bn.
The ‘chav’ tag is gone, and Burberry now makes the headlines for its 4D holographic catwalk shows, witty social-media campaigns (a Facebook-powered online network for trenchcoat connoisseurs) and groundbreaking interactive online stores that allow fans to buy products straight from the catwalk (“Why should people wait six months?”).
“We’ve tried to build a design school,” Bailey explains. “We have everything from graphic artists to architects to furniture designers to bottle designers to print designers and musicians. It’s all part of the Burberry experience.”
In spite of this, Bailey cheerfully refuses to take the credit: “I feel a little embarrassed sometimes,” he admits. “It’s not like I invented the trenchcoat.”
One of the label's military coats
OF MICE AND MEN
It’s 2001, and Christopher Bailey’s first day at Burberry is not the riot of champagne and strawberries one may have imagined. “There’s no way to paint a rosy picture,” he sighs, casting his mind back more than a decade.
“I didn’t have an office or a desk. Naively, I hadn’t even asked if there was a team. It was a surprise to discover that there wasn’t one.”
Still, on the bright side, he wasn’t short of company: “There were mice everywhere. And because I didn’t really have a desk, I’d find mouse poo on my sketches every morning.”
At this point, I’m about to enquire – out of genuine concern – whether Bailey ever checked the bottom of his tea mug for droppings, when he suddenly remembers something.
“They had a tea lady!” he splutters, struggling to believe it himself. “It was really old-fashioned – and slightly weird, in a way – but so English. Like something from the Fifties. It spoke to me of an incredible history, and I thought, ‘Yes, it may be fusty, but there is still a beating heart here.’ And, even though the brand had been abused, it was authentic. There was still a soul, a little spark.”
Bailey gently cupped his hands around that spark, and hasn’t looked back. But the rest of the story will have to wait, because downstairs in Burberry global HQ’s breathtaking seven-storey Corinthian marble atrium, the world’s fashion press is assembled for the launch of Burberry’s Brit Rhythm.
It’s the company’s first ‘in-house’ fragrance – the final piece of Bailey’s blueprint for returning the brand to its former glory.
THE SMELL OF SUCCESS
Skinny red braces are paired unironically with tailored shorts; tiny eggs benedicts are hoovered up like they’re, well, going out of fashion.
And, amid shoals of Brit Rhythm-scented bubbles (“Maybe we could make G&T bubbles next,” ponders Bailey later), the chief creative officer bounces on to the stage.
Excitable and unscripted, he announces the company’s first in-house fragrance, which he hopes will “embody a specifically British music attitude” – with a dash of what he calls Burberry’s “dishevelled elegance”.
Cue applause and questions. Disappointingly, nobody dares enquire whether there will be any more of those eggs benedicts coming round.
As fashion editors marvel at the scented bubbles, I negotiate a glitter canon that’s busily carpeting the building in Brit Rhythm-scented foil strips, and head back to the top floor of the building (designed by Bailey) to rejoin him in his office.
He’s in a more reflective mood. “I’m not a natural speaker. Actually, I’m crap at doing big formal presentations – really rubbish. But when I took this job, I had to figure out my own way of speaking, and it was quite a painful process for me, because I ended up looking like a real pr*ck in so many presentations.”
But, with lessons learnt and the company on fire (in a good way – it’s now the biggest luxury brand in the world, with just under 16 million Facebook Likes to prove it), Bailey spends his time mentoring young artists and musicians through The Burberry Foundation and Burberry Acoustic – an online platform that has showcased the likes of Tom Odell (before he was Tom Odell).
“Tom had been in a band and it didn’t work out. Someone sent me a link and it went from there. I like that he’s intense. When we did a live rehearsal he made me, and most of the crew, well up. All these lighting guys – big burly fellows – were like, ‘Sh*t, what just happened?’”
Jake Bugg performing at the launch of Burberry Brit Rhythm
Bailey’s immaculate assistant pops her head round the door for the third time to remind him he that has to be somewhere else, but there’s just time for one more question.
Does his family ‘get’ the world of fashion? “My parents are incredibly cool. I was never particularly academic and I could have gone off the rails – smoking, sex, drugs – but they never put any pressure on me to be good at something.”
Then, leaning forward conspiratorially, he adds, “You’ll like this. My parents were watching the Milan show online. We’d done this pretty tight motorcycle pant in metallic colours. And, bless, my mum texts me afterwards: ‘The show was really brilliant, son. Well done. Me and your dad loved it. PS your dad really loves the metallic pants – should we get him some?’”
“I thought, ‘Are you serious? Dad’s almost 70! We live in a tiny village.’”
Sadly, Bailey Sr was winding him up and has more chance of taking a ride in the ‘Chavalier’ – which is long gone, by the way. Burberry’s lawyers mercifully managed to have it crushed. Let’s just call that a lesson in authenticity.