The Burberry Trench Coat: From Wartime Essential To Practical Style Staple

What started as a humble family owned business evolved into a world-class British brand.
IMAGE Paolo Pineda

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 on lamb’s wool. According to company literature, gabardine is made from “yarn woven in a compact twill construction with over 100 interlaced threads per centimeter. The microscopic open spaces in the weave allowed ventilation while compact structure prevented rain from permeating the fabric.” In any case, the business grew exponentially after its creation. By 1891, Burberry and his sons Thomas Newman and Arthur Michael opened their first London store; the Paris branch would follow in 1909.


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 year it earned its first Royal Warrant, awarded by Queen Elizabeth. (The Prince of Wales awarded the second in 1989.) Though no longer family-owned, Burberry rolled along, its now famous trench coat making numerous appearances in Hollywood movies and TV shows in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. Then everything almost—almost—came apart, no thanks to the growing ubiquity of the check, the second-most associated facet of the label.

"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 is the red, camel, white, and black Nova check, first introduced as a trench coat lining. By the ’60s its use had spread to other objects including scarves, umbrellas, and luggage. A spate of licensing deals in the 1980s—which seemed like a good idea at the time—eventually eroded the brand’s upmarket, high luxury identity. (Nova check baseball caps, anyone?) By the 1990s, as Mark Tungate documented excellently in his book Fashion Brands: Branding Style from Armani to Zara (Kogan Page, 2005), “more than 30 licensees worldwide had plastered the Burberry name on everything from watches (in Switzerland) to whisky (in Korea).” The check had become a victim of its own success. “ hot that lately outsiders have been appropriating the look,” warned an article in Forbes.

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. Its most distinguishing characteristic? The utter absence of the check.

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 czar, if you will. Writing about the experience for the Harvard Business Review, she revealed Bailey’s vital role: “Anything that the consumer sees anywhere in the world will have to go through his office—no exceptions.”

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 (BRBY:LN) was trading in the mid-400s on the FTSE. A scary dip owing to the 2008 financial crisis was followed by a spectacular climb. The check’s rehabilitation was complete. The luxuriously soft, fringed cashmere scarf in the current collection, made from wool woven by a Scottish mill exclusively for Burberry, is one of the nest examples of the check tastefully employed.

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, 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.

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Pierre A. Calasanz
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