Burberry was founded by Thomas Burberry, who opened a draper’s shop in Basingstoke, Hampshire, in 1856. He found a steady stream of clients who came to the shop in need of garments for their traditional English pursuits—hunting, fishing, and riding. When he discovered a way of making the clothes weatherproof, it would be his ticket out of the small town and to international fame.
No one knows for sure how he learned how to make his gabardine fabric (invented in 1879, patented in 1888), but an apocryphal story says he stumbled on the idea after noticing how a local shepherd’s smock had become water-resistant after coming into contact with an oily substance found
Jessica Kienle Maxwell in Burberry
It helped greatly that Burberry was a master of self-promotion, and perhaps one of the first to exploit the market-influencing powers of the era’s celebrities and adventurers. To promote his outerwear, Burberry outfitted top military strategists and officers including Boer War hero Lord Kitchener and Lord Baden-Powell, who later became famous for founding the Boy Scouts.
Burberry also supplied Major F.G. Jackson during an expedition to the Arctic Circle and then the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his team on their successful quest to reach the South Pole. In 1910, when pioneering aviator Claude Grahame-White flew from London to Manchester in under 24 hours, he was wearing a Burberry coat.
Hindy Weber Tantoco wearing a Burberry trench coat.
Combined with this stable of influential patrons, Burberry also relied on print advertising (“almost negligible weight!” excitedly proclaimed an ad for a waterproof suit in 1908) to further enhance his brand’s reputation. Another one from 1916 advertised an outfit called the “Trench-Warm,” a name that thankfully didn’t stick.
Burberry is best known today for two things: its trademark check (much more on that later) and the trench coat. Since launching its Art of the Trench photo-sharing website in 2009, the brand reports that it has had more than 24 million hits from more than 200 countries, underscoring the enduring global appeal of the iconic fashion item. Its origins, however, are far removed from its current luxury trappings.
Thanks to his military connections, Thomas Burberry was able to secure in 1900 a contract to supply the British War Office with lightweight overcoats. When World War I broke out, he designed a lightweight waterproof coat with a vented back, deep pockets, and significantly, it could be quickly fastened around one’s body with a single strap instead of buttons.
Amina Aranaz-Alunan in Burberry
This, however, was not yet the trench coat, but the suspiciously German-sounding “Tielocken,” patented in 1912. Further refinements, including the addition of epaulets (to show officers’ ranks), shoulder straps, and the D-ring on the belt strap, which officers could use to attach military gear, created the template for the beloved trench coat that we know today. Its gabardine fabric is still produced in England, woven from fine cotton that has been spun into yarn through a special process called “doubling.” The color of the fabric is tightly controlled, with each batch tested several times by experts. And though the modern trench is assembled by craftsmen in Castleford following time-honored methods, new waterproofing techniques have been developed, ensuring the user’s added protection against the elements.
“The survival of the trench is proof that good design is timeless and that classic styles can be refined for each generation,” wrote fashion guru Suzy Menkes prophetically in 2000, as the Burberry trench entered a new century. This season, we were introduced to the Heritage collection, composed of slim and handsome trench coats in honey, stone, and black, inspired by designs from the label’s archives.
Thomas Burberry died in 1926; his eldest son Thomas Newman did not outlive him by much, as his obituary appeared in the New York Times just the year after; Arthur Michael died in 1954. Burberry was sold to Great Universal Stores Limited a year later, in the same
"The survival of the trench is proof that good design is timeless and that classic styles can be refined for each generation,” wrote fashion guru Suzy Menkes.
The check has been part of Burberry since 1924, coming in various color combinations, but the most famous
An American, Rose Marie Bravo, previously of Saks Fifth Avenue, was brought in and began the long process of scaling back the use of the check. A new upscale women’s line, Burberry Prorsum, was created by Roberto Menichetti, the creative director at the time, to partially address the issue.
Bravo was succeeded by a handpicked successor, Angela Ahrendts, poached from Liz Claiborne in 2006, arguably Burberry’s most influential CEO to date. She continued what Bravo started, buying back the company’s global licenses, but also made the crucial move of making Christopher Bailey, who had replaced Menichetti in 2001, the exclusive arbiter of Burberry style, a brand
After a shaky start, the strategy paid dividends, literally. The use of the check pattern was whittled down to a few highly exclusive products, approximately five to ten percent of the brand’s offerings. “In luxury, ubiquity will kill you—it means you're not really luxury anymore,” reasoned Ahrendts. When she joined Burberry, its stock
Echoing the Burberry motto, CEO Christopher Bailey must now push forward. There’s no turning back.
On May 1, 2014, Christopher Bailey officially took over as CEO. You have to wonder how he balances developing Burberry’s global business strategies while overseeing the twice-yearly collections for the brand’s core lines (Burberry Prorsum, Burberry London, Burberry Brit, Burberry Children, Burberry Beauty). But before Ahrendts left for Apple (which dangled the prospect of warm California summers as well as $68 million in stock options spread out over four years, according to CNN.money), she confidently reassured stakeholders: “Christopher, as one of this generation’s greatest visionaries, will continue to lead Burberry to new heights.”
Echoing the Burberry motto, Bailey must now push forward. There’s no turning back.