Christopher Bailey tells Suzy Menkes the thought process behind his gender fluid show and “see now, buy now” philosophy
Вurberry electrified London Fashion Week — and the entire fashion world — with a collection that is a game-changer for the industry. The giant tents packed with celebrities for twice-a-year shows are no more. Instead, the show took place in Maker's House — a historic building in central London — as Christopher Bailey, Burberry’s driving force, moved the company 180 degrees in a new direction.
Out are international shows with clothes available in-store in six months. In are “see now, buy now” collections — one of the most challenging developments in the fashion and retail industry. Out too is the concept of showing men and women’s clothes separately, recognising that in a transgender world, sexual fluidity is a reality for fashion.
In an exclusive interview, I asked Christopher Bailey, Burberry’s Chief Creative and Chief Executive Officer, the how and why of the brand’s new direction.
Suzy Menkes: So this is a tremendous moment for you — folding Burberry’s big tent and its international attitude to come back to its thoroughly British roots. How did this happen?
Christopher Bailey: I felt like I wanted a change. Just on a personal level, I think that as designers we crave the new. I felt that maybe I’d become formulaic in presentation. And when we decided to have the clothes in the stores and on-line after the show, it meant that we had the opportunity to look at everything. This meant that we finished designing and putting the collection together in May/June of this year, which has given us time for story telling.
These are all the things that our customers really care about, and I think that’s what has changed quite dramatically in the industry. The customer wants to know the real story about a product. It’s not just about a brand or a label. They want to understand why and where the inspiration came from.
SM: What was the inspiration for all this in and around the Burberry show? Where does it come from?
CB: Weirdly, it was about complete coincidences. This building reflects a lot of it. I started looking at how buildings change, or the fact that the building often stays the same, but the people inside it change completely. You know, we had a house in Yorkshire from the 1600s and I was having a nightmare installing Wi-Fi there. It got me thinking about how we’re all moving so fast and working in very different ways. That brought me to time travel. It got me thinking about Nancy Lancaster and how she broke down the formats of the garden and interiors. Historically, gardens were very formal and classic, but she brought in a relaxed spirit to gardening and interior decoration. I started reading Orlando [Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel about a poet who lives for centuries, changing from man to woman] and thinking about time travel and what was masculine or feminine. I felt that everything came together; it wasn’t just one theme. I like blending historical references with very modern references — it’s very contemporary.
SM: What about putting menswear and womenswear together? How did you feel about that after all the other changes? It made the show quite long.
CB: Yes, it did make the show long. I was very conscious of that, but I also felt we had a story to tell with men and women. We’ve got these different sides to Burberry. There is the fashion side, where we can tell that part of a story. But we also have this formal side, which is very classic. You can see all the gentlemen behind us wearing suits!
It was important for me to show male and female together because I think society is getting much closer. I don’t even know if I distinguish them anymore. When we used to do our menswear show first, I kept finding that menswear and womenswear were getting so close that I was forcing it. So last November I decided that we just have to do this “runway to reality” route. I’d been putting men’s and women’s together — you remember, I was putting men on the runway during the women’s shows and felt I was forcing it, so actually I feel quite free with putting them together. Maybe I should have edited more? I don’t know; this is a learning process. It’s the first time we’ve done it. It gave me a passion. I felt quite energised by it. I like changes and taking risks.
SM: What about all the handwork downstairs at Maker's House? I was very excited to see it and I know it’s on display to the public for just a few days. Is this just to show that Burberry believes in handwork?
CB: No, it’s a decision. It is just for us. We are reflecting on how important craft is today and we take it very seriously as a company. I feel we don’t talk about it enough, or express it, or articulate it enough. We do a lot of things with craftspeople, whether that be people doing embroidery, or creating textiles, or music or acting — we want to show the importance of craft.
SM: And how about that embroidery on your collar? I hope you made that yourself in your spare time!
CB: Of course! I embroidered it! No, not really — you have to go see the lady who did — she’s in the little tent. Basically if you handwrite something she embroiders your handwriting identically. It’s so beautiful.
Perhaps the best way to summarise the show comes from Christopher Bailey's own commentary in a special edition of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, A Biography:
“Orlando has always been a treasury of ideas for me. It is eccentric and it is beautiful. It is a love letter to the past and to English history, yet it is also fiercely modern. And, above all, it feels as though it speaks to us today with utter clarity in its merging and overlapping of male and female, of past and present, of the playful and the serious.”