Although overtly recognized by its trademark check of red, black, white, and camel, Burberry is principally renowned for its innovation in waterproof clothing, rather than for the design of the lining material that traditionally lies beneath the outer gabardine cloth. Yet such is the power of reinvention, that to many the reverse is true. Burberry as a company is a rare thing—a British brand of clothing and goods that has successfully held on to its traditions while being able to remold itself into a covetable luxury brand that competes in a worldwide market. Thomas Burberry’s invention of waterproof gabardine cloth has ensured that the form of apparel his company sold became bound to his name, so that the definition of Burberry in the Oxford English Dictionary reads “a distinguished type of raincoat.”
Born in 1835, Thomas Burberry opened an outfitters shop in Basingstoke in 1856 at the relatively young age of twenty-one. As an ambitious country draper, Burberry was inspired by metropolitan ideas of fashionable dress, but drew upon local examples of work clothing to develop his ideas. His starting point was a loose-fitting linen smock that farmers and shepherds wore all year-round. Noticing that it kept the workers cool in summer yet warm in winter, he found on closer inspection that the close weave of the fabric helped to keep out the wet, while the looseness of the garment allowed for the circulation of air without inhibiting movement. By 1879 Burberry had refined his prototype fabric from his own mill to a cloth woven from long-staple Egyptian cotton. It created a fabric that was waterproof, breathable, rip-resistant and crease-proof. Burberry termed it gabardine cloth, reviving an old term for a loose coat or cloak. It soon came to the attention of motorists, travelers, and explorers who used the weatherproof overcoat, often referred to as a “slip-on,” in all weather conditions. When supported on four sticks, many an intrepid Colonial knew its additional use as an impromptu bathtub.
With a London store opening on Haymarket in 1890 (it remains the company headquarters to this day), the company grew to include a wholesale division and shops in Paris and New York by the turn of the century. Ever ready to protect the interests of his business and its products, Burberry registered the logo in 1904 and the eponymous check in 1920 (it did not appear on the lining of the raincoat until 1924). Further, in 1932 the company pioneered the department-store concession devoted exclusively to the sale of Burberry’s goods.
The British War Office in 1900 commissioned Burberry to design an overcoat to replace the heavily rubberized mackintoshes that were then standard issue. The lightweight cotton raincoat designed incorporated D-ring belt clasps, straps, and epaulettes for better function in combat and it soon gained popularity when endorsed by Lord Kitchener. As the most suitable protection from the appalling conditions of trench warfare, it is the origin of what we now refer to as the trench coat.
In 1970, Burberry opened a New York flagship store on east Fifty-Seventh Street. With the resurgence of the luxury goods market in the last decade of the twentieth century, the financially flailing company appointed Rose Marie Bravo in 1997 from Saks, New York as Chief Executive whose responsibility was to revive the brand. According to a story in the Daily Telegraph, her American friends dismissed her new job as “selling raincoats in London,” but within five years the value of the company rose from Ј200 million to Ј1.5 billion ($350 million to $2.67 billion). The linchpin of this transformation was the decision to use the check of the lining on the outer gabardine cloth of the raincoat in the first collection shown at London Fashion Week for A/W 1999/2000. When the model Kate Moss was caught by the paparazzi wearing the raincoat in the street rather than on the catwalk, demand for the item was unparalleled. In being worn in such a casual way, the raincoat signaled a metropolitan savvy that claimed as much an understanding of the visual heritage of British clothing, as an understanding of fashionable taste.
Although credited to Roberto Menichetti, the first appointed fashion designer for the company, the fashion-ability of the item was influenced by the subversive ideas of American fashion designer Miguel Androver and British fashion designer Russell Sage, who had both flaunted the inside-out Burberry raincoat in their catwalk collections for A/W 2000/1. While Androver mined the cachet of the checked lining in terms of the selling of vintage goods and their reuse, Sage questioned the legal permissibility of appropriating registered goods, sardonically titling his collection “So Sue Me.” Later in the same year, Burberry commissioned Mario Testino to photograph their campaigns, astutely hiring Kate Moss as the chief model.
The allure of the check reached unprecedented heights: young mothers dressed their babies in checked bibs, hooligans wore Burberry scarves in tribute to the Casuals who wore them on football terraces in the 1980s, and even Cherie Blair, prime minister Tony Blair’s wife, once sported a handbag. Menichetti’s response to this popular exposure was to make the high-end Prosorum range showcased in Milan even more directional, causing him to be replaced by Christopher Bailey in 2000, who brought a more commercial and digestible level of reinvention to the product range. To this end, the variation on a raincoat remains core to the company’s design repertoire.
From the water-logged trenches of military warfare at the beginning of the twentieth century to the swimmingpool terraces of the twenty-first century, the insatiable demand for the Burberry bikini in 2001 indicates that the kind of water protection the company is now investing in may have diversified considerably, but it remains curiously consistent with Thomas Burberry’s sense of reinvention.
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