Changes do not intimidate Christopher Bailey. As Burberry’s president and chief creative officer, Bailey has elevated the traditional British marque, famous for its iconic gabardine trench, to the international luxury brand it is today. Also quick to ride the digital wave, Bailey has spearheaded many of the digital innovations in fashion from live streaming shows to the more recent see-now-buy-now trend.
“Digital is an incredibly exciting platform and it’s basically an industrial revolution,” says Bailey after Burberry’s first straight-to-consumer show in September. “We are a very international business with our roots very firmly British which I think lots of that translate quite broadly globally as well.”
Just when I was expecting to meet a radical mind at this dawn of changes – Burberry’s new CEO Marco Gobbetti comes on board next year – Bailey charms with gentle demure and witty intellect.
In a casual ensemble of a white oxford shirt and black jeans, Bailey turned out for our interview at Makers House, where Burberry showed its September collection at London’s bustling Soho. The show merged Burberry’s men’s and women’s collections and the looks were available for purchase right after the show for the first time.
Asked how he managed to keep his fingers on the pulse of the fast changing fashion world, Bailey says: “I’m always curious. I live with my eyes open and my feet firmly on the ground.”
Innovation has always been in the DNA of Burberry too, Bailey adds.
“Thomas Burberry created an insignia with a knight on horseback holding a flag that says Prorsum, which means ‘to move forward’,” he says. “It’s interesting that Burberry’s known as a classic company but it has always had the philosophy of moving forward. It’s what the company does.”
Speaking of groundbreaking changes, Burberry is one of the first major luxury brands to adopt the see-now-buy-now policy. Although instantaneity is the key catalyst for this action, Burberry presented the collection in a context that celebrated the precious time and workmanship behind its creations by collaborating with artisans from The New Craftsmen group.
“We need to understand the reason why, not just the end product,” Bailey explains. “You have to be able to articulate the ideas and inspirations. That’s why we showcase the craftsmanship and artisans.”
More changes are looming at the heritage maison – next year, Celine alumnus Gobbetti officially comes on board as CEO, while Bailey holds the title of creative chief officer and president of
the company. “Marco is someone I can’t wait to work with,” Bailey says. “I feel we’ll dovetail very effortlessly together. We’ve spent a good amount of time together already. I’m excited about working with someone who brings incredible skills to what we do.”
Having been with Burberry for more than 15 years now, Bailey was appointed CEO in 2014. With a new CEO on board next year, Bailey’s expected to focus more of his time and energy on design.
“We are living in a period where it’s very important to focus on where you add the most value,” he says. “Because you need to put more and more work and energy into everything today to do the best work possible.”
Joining Burberry in 2001 as a design director, Bailey still vividly remembers his first day at work.
“It feels like yesterday,” Bailey says. “It was a very beautiful company. It just [needed] shining again. It was like a beautiful diamond that’s been plotted into the ground and just needed dusting.”
During his tenure, Bailey, with former CEO Angela Ahrendts who left to join Apple in 2013, has not only expanded Burberry’s product offerings from ready-to-wear to beauty and fragrance but also pioneered various digital innovations to enhance the retail experience in brick-and-mortar stores and on e-commerce platforms alike.
“I don’t really distinguish too much between the virtual world and the physical world,” Bailey says. “In the end, whether we are doing something in the store or online, they have to work hand-in-hand.”
To make sense of the fast-changing world is a luxury for Bailey. “It’s a luxury to find something that I believe in – going deeper than the façade and really understanding the why,” he says. “Also, because we are bombarded with so much [information], I want to make sure that it’s authentic and has a point of view.” Under Bailey’s direction, Burberry has also been active in supporting British craftsmanship.
“It’s important to show that in this kind of instant world,” Bailey says.
“It’s a false idea that things just happen and that they come out of a machine. Actually, every single [garment] has a human touch in it. I feel that the celebration of human hands is really important as we merge two different worlds – this instant world, fast world and the slow world. They need to co-exist.”
Bailey’s passion for craftsmanship began at a young age when he grew up in Yorkshire, northern England. “My father was a carpenter and I’ve always loved and admired anybody who can do things with their hands,” he says.
Graduating from the Royal College of Art, Bailey worked as a womenswear designer at Donna Karan before moving to Gucci and worked alongside Tom Ford as a senior womenswear designer.
He joined Burberry in 2001 and quickly moved up the career ladder and became chief creative officer in 2009. Looking back, Bailey says the best lesson he has learnt was to build a great team.
“My best strategy is to hire people that are much better at everything than you are,” he says, “to make sure that you don’t feel intimidated or insecure by brilliant people but to learn from them and to help them grow.”
Bailey’s philosophy of promoting emerging talents is not limited to his in-house staff. Burberry has also been active in promoting emerging British musicians and artists. The brand’s September collection campaign shot by Mario Testino, for example, starred musician Cavan McCarthy alongside models Jean Campbell and Alex Dragulele. For its Burberry Acoustic programme, the brand flies emerging talents to shows at its flagship stores around the globe.
In addition to his professional progress, changes are also evident in Bailey’s personal life. Two years ago, he adopted a baby daughter with partner Simon Woods. “It has certainly given me a new perspective on the world,” he says. “It puts things into perspective and makes me reflect more. Having a daughter makes you think that what you are doing is the right thing, not just for the short to medium term but also for the long term.”
After a good 15 years at Burberry, Bailey says that Burberry is part of his life and part of who he is. It’s a legacy he wishes to leave behind. “I hope, when one day ... when I do leave, that I leave the company, the brand, the business, the design, the creativity better than how I found it.”
Christopher Bailey’s road to success
1994 Graduates from Royal College of Art
1994 Works as womenswear designer at Donna Karan
1996 Works as senior designer of womenswear at Gucci
2001 Joins Burberry as design director
2004 Becomes Burberry’s creative director
2008 Establishes Burberry Foundation
2009 Promoted to Burberry’s chief creative officer (CCO)
2009 Wins Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards
2012 Opens Burberry’s largest store on Regent Street, London
2014 Serves as CEO and CCO
2016 Launches Burberry’s first straight-to-consumer collection
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