Since the 19th century, various items of clothing have become staples in a person’s wardrobe, and at times, are even worn as status symbols of wealth, luxury, and success. There’s the crisp white shirt, the little black dress for women, and a well-tailored suit for men. When it comes to outerwear, however, no garment comes close to the trench coat – a sleek outer garment with wide lapels and a shapely silhouette. More than just a mere overcoat, its history and heritage spans most of the 20th century and is synonymous with one of the most revered labels in the fashion industry today: Burberry. Burberry has since defined modern British elegance and is considered to be one of the founders of luxury sportswear, a lucrative market in today’s fashion industry. And it all started with one man.
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The Man Who Started Burberry
Born on the 27th of August, 1835, Thomas Burberry established the now-beloved British label in 1856, when he was just 21 years old. He previously worked as an apprentice draper under a local tailor, focusing on outdoor sportswear and gaining a loyal list of wealthy clients who would buy his clothes for leisure activities like hunting and fishing. Upon its founding, the brand quickly developed into a well-known shop, eventually employing over 80 people (which at that time was already quite large).
While the brand saw commendable success, it gained even more popularity when Burberry invented gabardine twenty years later in 1879. The innovative fabric was created especially for rainwear, as a lighter and more comfortable alternative to rubber, which was one of the few, if not the only waterproof material at that time. Up until that point, garments worn for rainy weather were usually heavy and uncomfortable, mostly worn just out of necessity and not fashion.
Because of the success of gabardine, Burberry was able to open a shop in London’s Haymarket street in 1891. Back then, the brand used to be referred to as “Burberrys” as the ‘s’ hadn’t been taken out at that point. Not long after, the Minister of Defense commissioned Thomas Burberry to create new uniforms for the British Army, leading to the creation of the Tielocken. Using gabardine, the Tielocken was a water-resistant coat that was easy to wear and is regarded as the first version of the trench coat. It was one of the first garments to be worn unbuttoned and fastened primarily by a belt at the waist.
Burberry and World War 1
Burberry’s uniforms soon came in handy as the world was plunged into the First World War. Eventually, the government sought Burberry’s help again as the war progressed, asking for a new version of the Tielocken. Thus, the modern trench coat was born. It was comparatively sleeker than the Tielocken and was equipped with belt rings the soldiers can hang weapons and maps on, as well as straps on the shoulders to secure binoculars and gas masks in place. These garments were usually worn in the base’s trenches, hence, its eventual name.
After the war, Burberry introduced another now-iconic fashion staple, their trademark Nova Check, in 1924. It’s a beige Scottish tartan accented with white, black, and red, and was originally sewn as lining in many of the label’s outerwear products. It was one of the last few features Thomas Burberry himself saw before passing away on August 27, 1926, leaving the company at the hands of his sons, Thomas Newman and Arthur Burberry. In 1955, both sons sold the family company to the British retailing group, GUS.
The Financial Crisis and Evolution of Burberry – 1960’s to 2000’s
The clamour for the famous check began in the 1960’s, when the manager of the label’s Paris store featured it heavily on the window display, sparking interest among their customers. As a result, they began selling cashmere scarves and umbrellas featuring the pattern, all of which received universal acclaim. By the 1970’s and 80’s, both the trench coat and the Nova check became status symbols, worn profusely by the British elite and counterfeited by the lower classes. When the “logomania” trend of the 1990’s arrived, the Nova Check reached what is arguably its pinnacle of success.
Eventually, the Burberry staples soon became quite common, and the exclusive-loving upper class geared away from buying products from the brand for fear of looking tacky. Faced with a large counterfeit market in Asia, Burberry fell into a financial crisis by the late 90’s. As a response, GUS hired Rose Marie Bravo to be the label’s new CEO, who then lead it to a new direction with the help of Fabien Baron, Mario Testino and Kate Moss. In 2001, they also hired designer Christopher Bailey to be the new creative director.
Under Bailey’s leadership, Burberry gained new attention, specifically from the younger crowd. Their ad campaigns featured famous British youth icons and influencers such as actress Emma Watson, supermodel Cara Delevingne, and David and Victoria Beckham’s sons. Bailey also revolutionized the famous trench coat, making it in other materials like leather or satin, emphasizing the garment’s versatility over the years. From almost filing bankruptcy, Burberry became one of the most successful labels of the 21st century, defining luxury for the youth of the new millennium.
Christopher Bailey and Riccardo Tisci and Modern Days Burberry
In 2014, Bailey took up the reigns as Burberry’s new CEO, overseeing all aspects of the world-famous brand. Two years later, Burberry became one of the first labels to adapt “See Now Buy Now”, wherein customers can buy a piece or a look straight off the runway, instead of waiting for six months until they’re available in the store. Despite his recent success, however, Bailey eventually resigned from his positions as both CEO and creative director of the brand, cutting all ties in the process. He held his final Burberry show last February (in 2017), during London’s Fall 2018 fashion week. On March 1, 2018, the company announced that Riccardo Tisci, former creative director of Givenchy, will replace Bailey as the new creative director of the label. His first show is set around September 2018, for the London Spring 2019 Fashion week.
Burberry flagship in Michigan Avenue, Illinois. Chicago, United States of America. Photo: Tahaa