The Trench And Beyond

Burberry, once a staple of the trenches of the World War I, has now opened a mammoth new store in London

Some, if not most, of the great luxury brands owe their initial success to a single product, service or design. They may later develop this single product or service into an entire family of offerings or a brand philosophy, and this luxury portfolio may later evolve into an internationally renowned body of work.

But the origins are often to be found in well-made but exceedingly simple luxuries. Chanel’s No. 5 fragrance, Lacoste’s L.12.12 polo shirt, and Louis Vuitton’s original canvas trunks are all examples of such uncomplicated yet foundational products. These are products that established brands and seeded the brand’s approach to what it made.

The challenge for brands, however, is to stay true to that original success. How do you not let the complexities of the international luxury business dilute your heritage? Especially when that original smash-hit product may be less profitable than some of your later introductions. Profit is a worthy motive. But at what cost to your heritage? How many times have we seen brands stray so far from their soul, in search of new markets and in pursuit of new trends, that they end up losing their soul altogether? Think of all those elegant watch brands that launched massive timepieces to cash in on the “big watch" trend, and now struggle to be taken seriously again.

Therefore, it was refreshing and reassuring to visit Burberry’s new flagship retail store on the corner of London’s Regent Street and Vigo Street recently on one uncommonly sunny morning. It has been a miserable summer so far in the British Isles. But on this glorious morning, the sun poured through the store’s massive windows, drenching the spectacularly renovated space in light.

This year, Burberry’s Metallic Runway collection of clothing includes numerous pieces in spectacular metallic colours. This includes, for instance, a shirt in shimmering green, as if forged from liquid emerald.

At first glance, it seems worlds—nay, galaxies—away from the brand’s origins in making a tough, durable and waterproof fabric meant for brutal environments.

Burberry appears to have been a rather ambitious and enterprising man. Since its earliest days, his company sought to expand beyond its Hampshire footprint. In 1891, it opened its first store in London at Haymarket. By 1910, Burberry products were being shipped as far away as New Zealand, and the company had opened a store in Paris.

The real star of the company’s offerings was the Tielocken coat. Made of Burberry’s gabardine fabric, the coat combined fine performance with comfort and high fashion. It was a great success and, in the early years of the 20th century, the British government asked Burberry to design a version of the coat to be used by army officers.

First used in the Boer War and then worn by millions of soldiers during World War I, the top-coat was christened the “trenchcoat" and became a hit inside and outside the armed forces. Simultaneously, Burberry clothing also became the official clothing of explorers and daredevils of various persuasions. Roald Amundsen wore Burberry to the South Pole. George Mallory wore it to climb Mt Everest. And several aviators took it to the skies.

The trenchcoat became Burberry’s signature product. Somehow, this most utilitarian of accoutrements became an object of high fashion. According to Vogue Magazine’s archives, Burberry had already appeared in the magazine for the first time in 1904. The magazine’s writer suggested that the coats look particularly handsome when worn on horseback.

This balance between fashion and utility, sexy and sober abounds in the new Burberry store. The building, for instance, is both old and new at the same time. Constructed in 1820 as a complex of theatres, galleries and radio studios, the building was of London’s high-tech entertainment destination of its day. When Burberry acquired the location and began renovating the 44,000 sq. ft space early last year, the company decided to maintain many of the original features. So many of the rooms still have the original ceilings, skylights and restored chandeliers. An ancient Wurlitzer organ used to enliven old movie shows still lays hidden away upstairs, and I was told that somebody plays it once in a while to keep it in working condition.

At the same time, this is also one of the most high-tech retailing spaces anywhere in the world. The video screen in the main atrium-like space is one of the largest in any retailing outlet anywhere. Shortly after I walked in, the screen, in sync with dozens of speakers secreted away all over the store, began to play a multimedia piece designed to evoke the sound of rain. Except that the sound of the rain itself seemed to be generated by the sound of hundreds of people snapping their fingers simultaneously.

Burberry representatives told me the idea was to create a versatile space that can be used for much more than showing and selling merchandise. At the foot of the screen, for instance, is a hydraulic stage that can elevate a band. And many of the display shelves and hangers are mobile, allowing the atrium to be quickly transformed into a space for performance.

The company opened the store in phases starting September last year. And in April, it held its first full-blown gig with a performance featuring the Kaiser Chiefs. No less than 1,000 fans attended.

A part of the idea with such events is to maintain the soul and spirit of the original theatre and gallery space. But partly, it is also reflective of the mix of new and old that percolates through the brand’s products. So, while in one corner a classic Burberry trenchcoat in that brown-camel colour hangs, across the aisle, nearly exactly the same trenchcoat hangs in an eye-popping metallic blue. Entire generations of consumers and trends have come and gone between those two products. Yet they seem unmistakably to belong to one family.

Burberry divides its clothing into three families. At the top sits Burberry Prorsum, the brand’s high-profile collection featured on the catwalk. Then comes the Burberry London range, featuring sober, subdued colours and cuts suited to daytime wearing and the workplace. Finally, there is the Burberry Brit collection. This is the entry-level collection that is the most youthful, easygoing and affordable of the three.

I wonder aloud if the idea is to communicate or connect with different consumer groups. Perhaps the Brit speaks to younger buyers, the London to slightly older, more mature buyers, while the Prorsum caters to the high end. The brand insists that it is not. The idea is not to talk to different buyers, they tell me, but to the same buyers at different points in time.

Burberry’s new store at Regent Street, London.

“It was a neglected brand facing what looked like a slow but inevitable demise," the Guardian newspaper said in a profile story in April 2004. The turnaround started in 1994 when a new chief executive joined the company. Rose Marie Bravo moved over from New York department store Saks Fifth Avenue and started to rebalance the brand’s public image. Discretion became the watchword when it came to logos and check patterns. And then in 2001, Christopher Bailey joined as creative director.

Bailey is the heart, soul and conscience of the Burberry brand. Earlier this year, during the BaselWorld fair, I went to see Burberry’s ambitious new watch project. Named “The Britain", the watch is a solid, sober timepiece made with surprising attention to detail.

Attention to detail is rare when brands enter serious watchmaking for the first time. Watch stores all over the world are littered with terrible timepieces made by fashion brands trying to make a quick buck.

But The Britain proved to be a well-made watch, in an assortment of interesting colour combinations, being sold at a good price. Who was behind the project? Christopher Bailey of course.

And the great new store? Chris again. And the restoration projects inside? Chris indeed.

So far, Christopher Bailey’s influence has been phenomenally effective for Burberry. Most people agree that the brand has bounced back with some success. It has substantially recast its public image into once again becoming a reliable, sober fashion brand with the ability to shock you once in a while.

My last two stops before I leave the Regent Street store are the areas of the facility that deal with two of Burberry’s newest initiatives: Bespoke Trenchcoats and Tailoring services.

In case of the former, buyers can now go online and design their own trenchcoats from hundreds upon thousands of combinations of cuts and fabric and linings and finishes. The bespoke coats are then manufactured and then shipped to the end consumer.

A more recent innovation is Burberry’s Tailoring services for men’s suits. Burberry tailors measure you up and then make you a suit in one of three styles of suit cuts from slim to straight. It is a made-to-measure service, but with a twist.

I’d started my tour of the Regent Street store at around 9.30am, well before the store is opened to the public. It was now 11am and the store was slowly beginning to fill in with customers. Meanwhile, the big screen was snapping the rain again. I slowly picked up my things and walked out, past an array of utterly desirable trenchcoats.