Former Burberry chief executive and now creative director Christopher Bailey may or may not have voted for Brexit but he should certainly be thankful of its outcome. Whisper it, but Brexit has been excellent business for British brands. Despite announcing a 38 per cent fall in share prices in May, and slashing his own £7.5m salary by 75 per cent in the wake of a £100m cost cutting drive across the company, the brand has been beneficiary of a recent surge in tourist spending in the UK (up 36 per cent) thanks to the advantageous post-brexit exchange rates. Spending is up 31 per cent in Korea also. And while Bailey may no longer need to worry quite so much about the numbers, having stepped aside as chief executive in June in advance of the arrival of the former LVMH-executive Marco Gobbetti, he’s had something to smile about. The shareholders are happier at least.
Now for the next act. On Monday evening, the brand unveiled its debut men’s and women’s ready-to-buy catwalk show. Bailey announced his “see now, buy now” vision back in February, at one stroke dismissing a retail and distribution system that has operated for decades. To say the industry has had its knickers in a twist about the decision ever since is putting it lightly. Sides have been taken. Opinions are split. And while Bailey may have insisted he didn’t mean to start a revolution, these past six months have found the luxury landscape very changed. Burberry have been joined by Ralph Lauren, Tom Ford and Tommy Hilfiger within the “see now, buy now” club. Most other brands are now experimenting with limited ranges of “ready-to-buy” product.
So how was this new autumn collection? Or part two of the collection he showed in February and went on sale straight after. It was inspired by the interior designer Nancy Lancaster and Orlando, the pansexual, shape-shifting, time-defying transgendered star of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel. How perfectly apt. Whether Woolf would ever have imagined her heroine as the representative spokesperson for a gender fluid time-bending collection of clothes which took in Elizabethan-style tunic bodices and ruffs, 18th-century cavalry jackets, Thirties-style patterned pyjama silks and dressing gowns, rose pink velvet dinner jackets and gently sculpted shearlings fit for Dambusters is moot. But as a fitting symbol of the transeasonal, unisex world we inhabit right now, she ticked all the boxes. “It is a novel of such richness,” said Bailey of the book’s influence. “A love letter to the past and to English history, yet . . . fiercely modern.”
Taking a break from the shareholders meetings and balance book has been good for Bailey’s artistic growth. The collection was more varied, eclectic and charismatic than recent seasons, as though he’d actually had some time to get on with the design. But this wasn’t avant garde: the more directional styling disguised what were essentially very wearable clothes. The palette was soft and appealing; the prints and embroideries (some of which had been developed alongside the V&A) were charming and worked as well on the men as the women. The outerwear and knitwear were especially strong, and there was a great new leather Bridle bag, that was refreshingly uncomplicated and classic.
Had the new world order influenced the way Bailey had worked on the collection? “It felt very relaxed. More fluid,” he said backstage. “Completing the collection earlier gave us more time to work on the storytelling part of the show.” That said, he was far from complacent about the future. “Our brand is about moving forward,” he continued. “But we’re testing things out, seeing what we will be able to better in future.”
Did that test-case scenario mean he might yet revert to the old ways if this isn’t a smash-hit success. “There are no caveats”, Bailey insisted. “I’m not cynical about this decision. This was a very thoughtful and considered process, we didn’t rush into it. We’ve had to look at every facet of the business, from the suppliers, factories, media, every level of the process, to see how it works. And we’ll learn from this and build from there.”
As the show went up, I noticed the woman sitting next to me already wearing a pyjama suit straight off the catwalk. Bailey has already developed an exclusive capsule collection for Barneys based on the show pieces. After, models mingled among the guests. Ordinarily collections are spirited away, hidden from too many prying eyes. No worries about being copied here, or overexposure. The deed is done. The orders placed. On to the next. As a first outing, it felt very convincing. Now let’s await the results.