A declared Hillary Clinton supporter, Christopher Bailey never got to make a Burberry pantsuit for the candidate during the election last year. “No,” he smiles, “but she’s a very, very clever, articulate, experienced woman, and I think we’ve missed a trick.” In a year that already signified decisive personal changes for the designer, the political events of 2016 have weighed heavily on Bailey’s mind. “I was quite vocal [to] remain in the EU, and I was quite a vocal Hillary Clinton supporter. And so, certainly, I had to try to evaluate where I stood, which was clearly very different to the majority,” he admits. “What does [this] mean broadly, but also personally? How can you be so far away from the majority view? Are you living in a bubble? Are you not understanding what’s going on?” Ever the optimist, Bailey decided to move on—to deal with it. “I sometimes describe myself as a pragmatic dreamer. I’m very easy to go off into my own dream world, but I’m also intrinsically quite pragmatic.” In November 2015, before Brexit and Trump, Bailey had come to a conclusion: “I decided that I needed to focus more on the things I genuinely love.” At the creative helm of Burberry since 2001, the designer took the administrative reins of the British fashion house in 2014, turning himself into a unicorn in the industry—the Martha Stewart of fashion, if you will, icing the cake and running the empire, too—one leg in the atelier and one in the boardroom. But a year ago, something changed.
“I’m not sure it was born out of finding some things particularly difficult,” Bailey says, but he asked himself, “What do I love?” The answer to that question was creation: the referential design method that’s defined his work for Burberry, engrossed in the folds of historical and literary characters and events. “I think it’s a period of focus. We’ve been through a decade where we’ve been able to have a much broader view of many things, and I actually think we’re going into a period where focus and specificity are really, really important. With that comes integrity, authenticity, research [and] development, and exploring the creative process more. I’m in that moment now, which I’m actually really loving, again.” Preparing to step down from his position as C.E.O. to devote himself back to designing, Bailey hired Marco Gobbetti, who will leave the same position at Céline to join Burberry in July of this year. The designer’s transformed state of mind was already evident, of course, when he moved his September show—traditionally presented in a formal tent in Kensington Palace Gardens—into Burberry’s newest piece of property: the more intimate Makers House in Covent Garden, former home to the revered Foyles bookstore, a classic haunt for London’s eccentric literary types. Based on Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando: A Biography,” the tale of a man who lives for centuries and becomes a woman, it was a fanciful feast of the ages, more so than ever before at Bailey’s Burberry.
With elfin boys and girls in regal ruffs and cuffs, fairytale jacquards and cavalry frogging that would have made Michael Jackson swoon, the event was scored by a 21-piece live orchestra, a pianist and vocalists dramatizing a grandiose symphony composed by Ilan Eshkeri—commissioned, of course, by Bailey himself. It was a sensory overload that reinvigorated the Burberry he’s been behind for 15 years, and this made it more personal, more emotional than past shows.
Observing the handsome designer on a January afternoon in Burberry’s London showroom, his unaffected demeanor doesn’t easily reveal the mind that spawned all that pomp and circumstance. Wearing a simple shirt and crewneck, he’s the only person in the room—no publicists or posse present for hype purposes—and with his impeccable British gentlemanliness and contemplative answers, he must be the politest, most earnest person in fashion. He speaks a kind of John Cleese English, best illustrated in the tradition of old-school BBC newsreaders: articulate, chipper, and continentally posh, with an old-fashioned occasional stutter. There’s not much trace of the dialectal long vowels of his native Yorkshire, although every other aspect of his character is entirely in touch with his Halifax roots. Bailey was born in the North English town in 1971, the son of a carpenter and window dresser for the English retail institution Marks & Spencer.
We’ve been through a decade where we’ve been able to have a much broader view of many things, and I actually think we’re going into a period where focus and specificity are really, really important.
Before he ventured into fashion, earning an M.A. from London’s Royal College of Art in 1994 and working for Donna Karan and Gucci, he was raised on local legends. One was Henry Moore, whose double-Os do get the Yorkshire treatment, and whose 20th-century abstract sculptures, which Bailey saw as a child in Yorkshire Sculpture Park, would become the inspiration for his February 2017 collection. “Barbara Hepworth was born in Wakefield just next door, and David Hockney was born in Bradford just next door to that. I grew up with those three people, as well as the Brontë sisters, who were born on the other side of the hills. That area is quite bleak, but it’s also very inspiring,” he says. “The interesting thing about Henry Moore, of course, is that he was born in Castleford, which is a small town in the north of England where we have always manufactured our trench coats,” Bailey points out. “Basingstoke, which is where Thomas Burberry was born, was where he had one of his foundries. I was born very close. It was kind of weird, these connections.” Possibly as grand as its predecessor, the February 2017 collection draws on Moore’s artistic process and the skeletons he’d build for his monumental sculptures, in a princely sense of decortication that involves a lot of lace. “That’s a nice word. I like ‘princely,’ because I think of them as these immensely reverential structures that are there to be gauped at,” Bailey reflects.
He merged the shape-shifting volumes of Moore’s work with the majestic British militaria at the heart of Burberry, capturing a rare tension between modernism and romanticism in over-dimensional detailing on trench coats, cascading ruffles and broderie anglaise, and sculptural forms and figures applied to military classics. “Henry Moore always saw his work in landscape, so much so, that when he was doing preparation work for these gigantic structures, he had a wall in his studio that he painted with the sky so that he could imagine how it would be set against it,” the designer says. “And I kind of love that. This was as important as the piece itself: how it was going to be seen.” In Bailey, who lives an almost traditional family life in West London with the actor Simon Woods and their daughter, it’s hard to draw a parallel between his newfound sense of grandeur and the unassuming way in which he presents himself. “Hmm,” he deliberates. “I think sometimes it’s the idea of how you see yourself and your world, and the things you’re attracted to and that excite you. I certainly don’t say ‘that’s for me’,” he says, surrounded by delicate men’s lace numbers, “but you have to believe in what you’re doing and usually there’s a personal side to that as well—whether it’s yesterday, today, or tomorrow.” Does he have a hidden Liberace side to him? “Yeah,” he chuckles. “Probably. I like things that touch your emotions and have an impact on how you look at things. I don’t know if it’s a dramatic side but I don’t really like bland. It’s that Marmite thing. I’d rather people loved it or they hated it.” As it turned out back in September, strong reactions wouldn’t be a problem.
Ten years ago, Bailey had an outrageous idea. Ripping open the guarded gates to the hallowed fashion institution, he wanted to broadcast his Burberry show to the unanointed masses, using that newfangled contraption known as the internets. “I said then, and I remember it very vividly: ‘This will actually have a much broader impact than just live-streaming a show,’” he recalls, making 2007 seem but a distant century. “I made a decision.” He would make all outerwear and bags in the collection available to order straight off the runway, allowing the public watching from home to receive next-season pieces months in advance. It was the early beginnings of a social media era of fashion where product is now flogged directly to the consumer, filter-free of curatorial editors and buyers, thanks in no small part to the bold mind of Burberry’s irreverent designer, who—for a few months yet—also serves as its C.E.O. Christopher Bailey M.B.E. is the symbol of evolution in the fashion industry: the frontrunner for nearly every cycle and format change that’s happened to the establishment over the past decade, and the man responsible for the see-now-buy-now system that had fashion traditionalists hyperventilating during the Spring/Summer 2017 season in which he showed that grand September collection. It was presented discreetly to press and buyers months before the show at London Fashion Week, retailed in full on the internet minutes after his bow and in stores the day after. “I was certainly surprised at the impact the decision had, and also the strong reaction against it, which I was not anticipating. I never claimed it was right for everybody. I was like, this is what we feel is right for now,” Bailey says.
Some saw it as a foreshadowing of a future fashion reality leaving tastemakers obsolete. Others were gobsmacked by their newfound desire for instant shopping, having been accustomed to a six-month purchase decision process. (Those Napoleonic ruffle shirts, though!) To Bailey, who personally came up with the idea, the concept wasn’t a commercial decision. Rather, “I just felt that the world had changed quite dramatically, yet we were still working in a format with the same timings as we have been for decades, irrespective of how much change there has been,” he reflects. “It just seems a bit bonkers in this world where you’re at a party and you’re instagramming somebody with a hat, and it all happens within a matter of seconds, yet as an industry we invite people to watch the show via lots of different platforms, but then we tell you that this is not really for you.” To Bailey, the winds of change are inescapably connected to that momentous 2016, which changed life as we know it. “I think the world is changing really dramatically in many, many ways. Of course, lots of political decisions have been made fairly recently, but also just the way that we behave and engage and experience things and communicate has meant that all facets of the world are evolving. Design and creative mediums are not immune to that, and certainly the fashion sector is not immune to it,” he says. “I find it a very fascinating time. It’s very challenging, because there’s so much change going on, but I find it kind of exciting as well.”
Hopefully we’re not sat in some bubble where we’re so protected from the things that are happening that we can no longer relate to the world.
You could attribute Bailey’s sensible outlook to the unique position he’s held at Burberry for the past four years, which has enabled him to deal with the full scope of the industry. “I’ve always seen those two roles hand-in-hand, because it’s important as a creative that the things you design are in an environment that is of a vision that works with what it is,” he notes. “If you take it down to that, the commercial side is as intrinsic to the creative process as sketching or model-making.” Following Burberry’s announcements early last year to not only amalgamate their men’s and women’s shows into one, but transition to the see-now-buy-now format (a term Bailey didn’t come up with, by the way, and doesn’t really use), online fashion news pages were on fire with breaking news and fear-mongering headlines about the “broken fashion system,” reactions that baffled Bailey. “That’s what fashion’s about: moving things forward. That’s what design’s about,” he says. “For me, it’s really the question of what is the objective of the show? It does feel a bit disingenuous to pretend it’s all about mystery when everybody’s sole occupation today seems to be how many likes and watches can people have.” Tom Ford, Tommy Hilfiger, and Topshop Unique followed suit, showing their own straight-to-retail collections, while houses such as Bottega Veneta, Gucci, and Kenzo have also merged their men’s and women’s shows.
“Every company will find its own way of doing things,” Bailey says. “I certainly think it’s a mistake to underestimate the changes in the way people view the world, and I wouldn’t have that our industry ignored it because we were so entrenched in ways of working and business-as-usual,” he argues, “because that happened to the music industry, and it took a decade to find its feet again.” It’s the Northern no-nonsense approach that keeps Bailey level-headed in these times of upheaval, both in his industry and its surrounding world. While he never mentions Trump, his political stance is unquestionable, a courageous attitude for the designer of a mega brand like Burberry, which caters to a broad spectrum of customers, which doubtlessly includes a few Trump supporters, too. “Of course, but I think the political process is democratic and the majority of countries have the right to vote, which means you have the right to an opinion,” he says. “It doesn’t always mean that your opinion is going to be similar as someone you work with, collaborate with, love—but I think it’s okay to talk about those things. They’re big deals. They’re changing the world. I may not feel that somebody reflects my values or the way I see the world, but that’s okay, too.” Would he dress Melania Trump? “We have no intentions of reaching out to her,” he pauses.
“I don’t want to be rude about an individual, because I hope I’m not rude about anybody on a personal level because we don’t share similar views or similar values. And I wouldn’t want to start some kind of dialogue that is kind of cruel about another person, who, by the way, I’ve never met. It’s not someone I will reach out to, but I don’t have more of an opinion on it. I’m not sure how I would react if she would contact us,” Bailey admits. “My views are pretty strong on who I felt was the right candidate in the U.S. election.” It’s the frank pragmatism that makes Christopher Bailey entirely unique in a fashion industry that often overprotects its designers, effectively boxing them in that creative category too many creative directors end up in, where all they get to talk about is their views on beauty. Empowered by his freedom at Burberry, Bailey represents a future age of top-level designers as comfortable in the boardroom as they are in the ateliers he’ll now be spending more time in. As he says, “Hopefully we’re not sat in some bubble where we’re so protected from the things that are happening that we can no longer relate to the world. Then I think it’s dangerous, because you very easily become insular. More so than ever, [the world is] moving so fast that it’s more and more about being a part of a broader voice.”