This 158 year old British Fashion brand, Burberry Group plc, is one of the top five luxury brands in the world, with the flagship brand, the raincoat or trench coat priced at $4,000 apiece and the clutch handbag priced at $3,000 apiece which are the sails that keep the ship on the present day turbulent waves of sales.
‘Burberrys of London’, as it was called for a while by the loyal customers, has a story; not a miraculous ‘rags to riches’ story or an artistically fabricated story, but a story that has long historical evidence.
In 1880, Thomas Burberry, the founder, introduced gabardine, the fabric that kept that rain water out yet let the air in, and with that the waterproof raincoat made its way into the real outdoor clothing market. In 1911 it reached the South Pole on Ronald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole; in 1914 it crossed Antarctica on Ernest Shackleton, the leader of the expedition; after commissioned by the War Office in 1914 it fought wars, keeping several British military officers warm in the trenches, thus given the name trench coat; in 1924 it almost conquered Mt. Everest being on George Mallory’s shoulders on his ill-fated venture; in the form of aviator suit, it won ‘MacRobertson Race’, the air race between London and Melbourne, giving a 71-hour warm ride to aviators Tom Campbell-Black and Charles William Scott in their freezing open cockpit; in 1964 it won the Olympic laurels by making the British Women’s team look chic and elegant.
And to come to the present era: in 2011 it, as a £650 trench coat, enjoyed the warm company of the Princess of the United Kingdom, the wife of the British crown Prince William, boosting the sales to the unexpected heights; and more recently, in 2014, in the form of sneakers, Burberry adored His Little Highness, Prince George, the son of Prince William and Princess Middleton and great-grandson of Her Majesty the Queen, on his first birthday.
What more patronage is needed to make Burberry the House on the hilltop of English Heritage! (‘bur’ meaning the cottage or house and ‘beorg’ meaning hill or mound)
However, it hasn’t been an easy battle for the knight on the equestrian logo who has been bearing the pennon with the word “prorusm” meaning ‘forwards’ since 1901.
The Phoenix rose from its own ashes… twice.
Two American Dames and one British Knight brought the drenched trench coats and soaked bags back to their ‘sun never sets’ glory.
The first dip: in the late 1990s, Burberry faced with a self-inflecting marketing strategy. As a part of the dashing diversification, Burberry lent its trademark to foreign companies producing different items. The slump in the Asian market made it to sell its products cheaply there or re-route to the Western market.
Despite the encouraging figures shown on the charts, the company felt that all was not well. There was an immediate need for some refurbishment. Burberry appointed an American businesswoman, Rose Marie Bravo, a shrewd Anglophilic entrepreneur with a clear vision, focused on product and design development and Burberry rose from slump to success.
The second dip: in about 2003 the image of Burberry fell from the up-end market to low-end, if not the gutter-end. Though the advertisements showed the beautiful silvery moon supermodel Kate Moss shining brightly, there were several incidents that exposed the ugly dark spots on it. The Heritage House became the Whole House. The exclusivity was gone!
A woman was denied entry into a gas station bar in the city of Aberdeen in the States for carrying Burberry’s handbag and umbrella; the managing director of a security supply business maintained that Burberry was trouble; and a bar owner in a classy neighborhood confirmed that he would chuck out anybody with Burberry items because Burberry spelled thuggery. In fact, Portsmouth Football Club in England had boasted a gang of fans who called themselves the ‘House of Burberry’ and wore their colors with pride!
What else can be more damaging than this commonality for an exclusive fashion brand that enjoyed the royal and elite patronage for over a century?
The Top Brass at Burberry made another American woman Anglophilic entrepreneur, Angela Ahrendhts, its CEO, and since taking the reins, she focused all her attention on the “Englishness” of Burberry which had been lost quite for some time. She felt the immediate need for dry-cleaning the Burberry of its reek of commonality!
Burberry was not low-class soap actress’ apparel, nor was it a street gang favourite. Nobody was going to benefit on Burberry’s ruins… never again. With this determination, she appointed the Knight, Christopher Bailey, who was ready to aid the Dame in distress, as the chief creative officer with the task of reinventing the label. She fought tooth and nail to wipe out the ‘Chav Culture’ reek of contaminated even the perfume labels of Burberry.
And the Phoenix rose again from its own ashes the second time.
However, sailing a Fashion cruise ship with the elite passengers who keep complaining headache at the slightest sway of the ship is not a birthday party on a decorated boat, and the sea of fashion is not so glamorous as it seems from the shore. There are rough seas, the stock market and financial crashes, which can push the ship to the shore; there are ice-bergs, the fake and copyright infringements, which can sink ships as formidable and unsinkable as the Titanic; there are these ghost waves, the dependence on Asian market with China as the prime profit-making zone, those waves that suddenly materialize and swell so high in the calm seas that they easily drown a container ship silently; and there are these Bermuda Triangles, the internal squabbles that snowball into power-mongering battles, which can just swallow up the entire convoy before any business analyst can predict.
In the early months of 2014 when Angela Ahrendts left Burberry, Christopher Bailey was asked to fill the gap. The present CEO is not a new entrant; he has been with Burberry since his appointment as the chief designer and later as the chief creative director.
Not all those who are loyal to Burberry were happy about the change. A columnist stated that the Ahrendts’ departure leaves Burberry at a major crossroads. It may be so, but remember the Phoenix burns down of its own fire and rises up from its own ashes… the third time.
Some analysts are in the opinion that Bailey is an artist; not an executive. His experience in working with the likes of Angela Aharendts may help him hold the horse’s reins steady but making the horse run for the finish line before others, with likes of their prime rival Aquascutum, is not all that simple. You need somebody who slit a throat all the while keeping the charming smile on their face intact, especially when a court case like the one filed by Stephen Bogart, the son of the 1940’s actor the Late Humphrey Bogart, against Burberry for posting his father’s photo wearing a trench coat in the film ‘Casablanca’ on their Facebook. Though the court ruled in favour of Burberry, these are the tough times when things can go wrong for no apparent reason… the ice-bergs, and only the roughneck administrators can come out victorious!
There is also this ‘too much pay for a CEO’ issue being discussed that might disturb Bailey’s peace of mind. Bailey is going to receive an annual salary of £ 1.1 million with a cash allowance of £ 44,000 in addition to £ 26 million worth of shares from next year. Furthermore, Bailey has to manage two most important posts, as the creative director and the CEO, which, some experts doubt, might tip the balance towards inefficiency.
Time will decide how far Bailey can take the Burberry’s horse with the pennon still fluttering high!