Lunch with the FT

January 11, 2013 7:29 pm

Lunch with the FT: Christopher Bailey

Burberry’s chief creative officer tells Vanessa Friedman about the ‘terrible’ experience that helped define his approach to the fashion brand
Illustration by Seb Jarnot of Christopher Bailey©Seb Jarnot

Christopher Bailey, chief creative officer of Burberry, is the politest person with whom I have ever dined. Not just the politest fashion person – the politest person. Every time our waitress appears anywhere within the vicinity of our table at Medlar, the London restaurant Bailey has chosen for lunch, to, say, hand us the menus or pour some water or tell us the specials, Bailey gives her an enormous smile and says, “Thank you!” with great alacrity. He puts so much heartfelt enthusiasm into his thanks, I start to worry that I am not holding up my end of the meal, and later the restaurant staff may say, “Oh, that Christopher Bailey was so nice but the journalist he was eating with was rather rude, wasn’t she?” It’s a rather disconcerting feeling, as I generally think of myself as pretty courteous. Bailey, however, puts me in the shade.

Of course, I should have expected it. It is part of his schtick; his point of difference in the fashion world. Bailey is famously nice. Famously normal. Famously un-diva-like in an industry of divas.

Indeed, Bailey is so famous for his un-diva-ness that it risks overshadowing his fame as the designer responsible for the anointment of Burberry as Britain’s greatest global brand. Since Bailey’s arrival in 2001 as creative director, Burberry has increased its revenues fourfold and now has 462 stores around the world. The only thing Bailey is, perhaps, more famous for than his niceness, which is reflected in the accessibility of his clothes, is his digital knowhow. As a result, Burberry has regularly been crowned the most connected brand in luxury by everyone from digital think-tank L2 to business and technology magazine Fast Company. The menswear show, scheduled for tonight, will involve several social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, and Sina Weibo. But if that digital fluency is a learnt skill, the niceness is a character trait. Which is not to say Bailey is ignorant of its uses, and its effect.

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Lunch with the FT

When, for example, he comes into the restaurant and finds me already sitting, he cries “HelllOOO!” – not in an air-kissy way but in a so-excited-to-see-you way. His voice is equal parts welcome – as if he can’t wait to get started, even though it took me at least six months to arrange the interview – and concern. “I am so sorry! Have you been waiting long?”

No, I say, it was fine. “Isn’t this nice?!” he says as he slides in to the booth across from me. “You know” – his voice sinks a little, conspiratorially – “this is my local place. My partner Simon [Woods, an actor] and I come here almost once a week for dinner. But I never come here at lunch when working. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever brought a professional contact here. It’s so nice! It’s so quiet!” He smiles, and I am duly flattered.

“Brilliant. Amazing,” he says to the waitress, accompanied by another dazzling smile, as she presents the menu. She swoons off, leaving us to make our choices.

. . .

Bailey, who is 41, looks very well. He is wearing a subtle-coloured Prince of Wales check jacket (Burberry, of course), a blue button-down shirt, top two buttons undone, and jeans. His dirty blond hair is spiky and messed-up looking. He has filled out a bit over the past few years – he’s not remotely big but he’s no longer as skinny as he used to be – into a sort of prosperous middle age, as befits his evolution into the not-quite-elder statesman of British fashion: two-time designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards (2005 and 2009), two-time menswear designer of the year (2007, 2008), winner of the international award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (2010), and mentor to students. Despite a recent slowdown in sales, Burberry is still the model other British brands, from Mulberry to Pringle to Aquascutum, want to imitate. However, as the difficulties those brands have encountered have shown, it’s not nearly as easy as it looks.

Not that Bailey makes it look hard. Indeed, when our conversation shifts from introductory chat to the nitty-gritty of shows, which it does pretty quickly, and I mention that I am finding the collections increasingly difficult to judge, in part because brands such as Burberry are blurring the distinction between trade and entertainment, and I am not sure that is a good thing – in fact, could that be the reason for the drop in growth, as consumers find the brand overly accessible? – Bailey whacks the table with his hand, gives his head a little shake, and announces, “Oh, this is going to be fun!” I raise an eyebrow, and suggest we order before we get into it.

“Good idea,” says Bailey happily. He asks for the spinach and Parmesan gnocchi; I choose halibut ceviche and baby carrots. The waitress looks cheerful, and walks off only to reappear shortly with two tiny cups of gazpacho, courtesy of the chef. “Oooh, that looks delicious!” crows Bailey. When she offers bread, he says, “I will! Thank you.” It is a very affirmative experience, eating with Bailey.

“But, you know, I am a very fussy eater,” he confesses with an impish look. “I don’t like vegetables so much. I like meat and fish.” I point out that he is eating the gazpacho, which is made of vegetables. “Yes, but they are mushed up,” he says, implying that this means they don’t seem like vegetables any more.

. . .

Christopher Bailey grew up in Halifax, Yorkshire – he is, he often says, “a proud Yorkshireman” – with a carpenter father, a mother who was a window dresser for Marks and Spencer, and an elder sister. He still has a rolling accent from the area. After graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1994, he worked for Donna Karan before becoming senior womenswear designer for Tom Ford at Gucci from 1996 to 2001. From Ford, he learnt the benefits of having one clear vision, as well as the pitfalls of taking yourself too seriously.

Ford, after all, is about as close to an ultimate diva as fashion has, from his refusal to allow newspaper critics into his fashion shows to his refusal to let any photos of his work appear before the clothes go into stores. I ask Bailey if he sees his old boss, since they both live in London, and he says, “Every once in a while.” Then he adds, “I probably talk to his old chauffeur more than Tom.” This, I tend to think, is a premeditated statement. One of the keys to Bailey’s almost pathological niceness is his desire to present himself as the anti-Ford – he knows the control-freakery has backfired a little bit for his former mentor. Yet, truth is, I think the two share more than Bailey may want to admit, especially the desire to extend their remit almost ad infinitum.

You can see it in Bailey’s progress at Burberry, which began in 2001 when he was poached from Gucci. Bailey’s sole responsibility when he arrived in London was Prorsum, Burberry’s high-end luxury line, which had been launched in 1999 under Roberto Menichetti and was generally regarded as something of a pointless vanity project. Bailey moved the show to Milan, abstracted the trench coat into lace and print and little silk capelets, and otherwise transformed the brand’s position on the fashion stage. Indeed, Burberry established itself as a luxury force so quickly, competing in retail space with Gucci and Ralph Lauren, that it was able to bring the show back to London in 2009, where it has become the most dominant, celebrity-studded collection during womenswear shows.

The shows are just a portion of Bailey’s job, however. He says he is in charge of “everything that touches the consumer” visually, acoustically, and physically. Practically, this means more than 50 collections a year (Prorsum, Burberry London, Burberry Brit, fragrance, make-up, childrenswear, etc); plus store design; plus the music website Burberry Acoustic; plus the Art of the Trench social media site, where users get to post pictures of themselves in trench coats; plus the ad campaigns, which often feature young British stars from Burberry Acoustic; plus the events showcasing those stars at Burberry stores, and so on.

Last week Burberry celebrated the recent opening of its first men’s-only store in London, which follows last season’s opening of its new flagship on Regent Street. Bailey is in charge of those, too, from architecture to interiors, finding the artisans who could render traditional stone Georgian carvings, and marrying that to “lots of technology, so we have a stage that comes out and can host bands from Burberry Acoustic, which we can then live-stream to Facebook. I’m very interested in merging the physical and digital worlds.”

It is, by anyone’s measure, an enormous portfolio – Bailey’s schedule is planned 12 months in advance – and the board acknowledged it when they changed his title from the usual “creative director” to “chief creative officer” in 2009, but Bailey claims it’s all organic. One Night Only, for example, the band that featured in the Burberry eyewear campaign last April and wrote the music for the video, had also featured on Burberry Acoustic; the actor Eddie Redmayne, who was in the last ready-to-wear ad campaign (and whose association with Burberry helped land him on Vanity Fair’s best-dressed list), was a friend of a friend. Sometimes when Bailey talks about how he stays on top of all this, he can make it seem so accidental – it just happens! It’s easy! You could do it too – it’s hard to believe.

Pushed, he admits: “It got a little unbalanced there for a while. I was working from about 6.30am until 11.30pm. But other stuff was going on.” This is a veiled reference to a difficult personal time, when his former long-term partner Geert Cloet died of brain cancer in 2005. “But now”, Bailey continues, “I have a much better work-life balance. I have breakfast at home, and read the newspaper, and go to the office around 8.30am.”

The waitress arrives with Bailey’s gnocchi and my two appetisers. “Thank you!” says Bailey. Then a looks of concern creases his forehead. “Is that what you ordered?” he asks, looking at one of my plates, which has little mounds of orange fluff on it. “I thought you ordered carrots?”

Well, I say, I think this is carrots; they are just puréed. “Oh!,” Bailey says, relieved. “Oh, well, that’s good.

“So here’s my feeling,” he continues, forking up some gnocchi. “It’s important to put this in perspective. Fashion has a tendency to be overly insular, and shows are the perfect example. We think we’re so innovative but shows haven’t really changed in 50 years. We want to let people into that experience, which is really entertainment: beautiful girls, handsome guys, nice clothes, good music. These [the non-fashion people] are people who are excited about fashion. Why should we tell them they can’t see this too?”

Burberry was the first brand to let people order from the runway, and the first to “tweet” walk its shows. “I love two-way engagement,” says Bailey. But really, I say, it’s not two-way, is it? Because, yes, people can post pictures of themselves, and they can make comments on your Facebook page, but you don’t respond. It’s not a conversation.

“Sometimes people message me on Facebook and I message them back,” says Bailey. “But we can’t be so democratic we listen to everyone. Part of what a brand offers is a specific point of view.”

It has struck me, recently, that the technology side of Burberry has become much more newsy than the fashion side – often, when you read reports on the collection, they barely mention the clothes – and I ask Bailey if this concerns him.

“No,” he says. “No. You know, when I was a student in London, my father wanted to buy my mother a watch from a luxury brand. This was a really big thing in my family, because we didn’t buy a lot of luxury objects. So he sent me the money and asked me to get it. That should have been a really beautiful experience, going in, choosing this special present ... but it wasn’t. It was terrible. It was so intimidating, and I was made to feel so inferior, probably because of my clothes and my very strong Yorkshire accent, and that ended up defining a lot of the way I think. Why should we be exclusive? And you never know, anyway. These days a kid in a hoodie walks into a store and, for all you know, he’s a billionaire.”

Speaking of Mark Zuckerberg, I ask Bailey if he has a Facebook page.

“Burberry does.” Well, yes, I say, we all know that. But do you? “Nope.”

Does he tweet?

“For myself? Nope. You need to draw a line somewhere.”

Does he have a lot of iPads?

“Yes!”

How many? “Four, scattered around the house I think,” says Bailey. “I’m a really loyal Apple brand person. I think [designer] Jony Ive is an incredible talent. But I don’t really like reading on tablets ... I really like to read in book form.”

Would you like to design a mobile phone? “Maybe,” says Bailey poking at his food. “One day. Digital is not going away. But neither is touch and drawing. I think you need both. I love that we have factories in Yorkshire where we weave our own twill – I love going there and touching the material. I think we will never lose the need for human interaction. It’s just that all these definitions are blurring.”

The waitress comes to take our plates. “That was delicious, thank you!” says Bailey, ordering an espresso. The coffee comes, and with it some truffles.

“Oh, amazing, thanks!” says Bailey. Then he whispers, “I’m a chocolate fiend.” When the bill comes, Bailey tries to pay. I have to remind him that the deal is that the FT always pays. He looks unhappy but agrees. Then he asks how I am getting back, and offers to drop me at the FT because he is taking a cab too. But isn’t that in an entirely different direction from Burberry headquarters? I say. He allows it is. We agree to go separately.

Bailey leaves first, as I am waiting for my coat. As I head out, the maître d’ comes running up. “Mr Bailey asked me to give you this!” she says, and hands me a card from the restaurant. On the reverse is a note: “I forgot to say thank you! Love, Christopher.”

He didn’t, of course. But in case I forget that he never forgot, it’s stuck to the bulletin board next to my computer.

Vanessa Friedman is the FT’s fashion editor

Menswear reviews

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Medlar

438 King’s Road, London

One-course lunch £18.50

Two-course lunch £21.50

Sparkling water x 2 £7.50

Cappuccino £3.95

Espresso £3.95

Total (incl service) £62.33

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