Mark Ritson: Burberry has a big brand challenge to replace Christopher Bailey

Burberry has finally parted ways with its totemic chief creative officer Christopher Bailey, leaving a tough task to find someone equally able to represent its brand DNA of functional, accessible luxury.

BurberryIn any large company the two most important people are usually the chief executive (CEO) and chief financial officer (CFO). The two work together, often on a daily basis, to run almost all aspects of the executive operation. That is true across almost every business sector, with the notable exception of luxury brands.

For luxury goods companies there is still the CEO or president at the head of the company, but the number two is not the man or woman who runs finance. Rather, it’s the person in charge of creating the product who fills the number two role. Rarely is there a story of luxury brand success that does not involve a partnership between a business-savvy CEO who runs the operations and a chief creative officer who runs pretty much everything else.

So when Rose Marie Bravo left her role as president of Saks Fifth Avenue and made the move across the Atlantic to become the CEO at Burberry in 1997, she immediately knew she had a problem. Bravo was smart enough to recognise that as a native New Yorker she might be able to run the brand but she would not be able to represent it in an authentic way. And while she had engaged Anglophile and all-round photography legend Mario Testino to art direct her first campaigns for Burberry, he too was about as British as a beautiful Peruvian rug.

READ MORE: Mark Ritson – Burberry’s tumbling profits show Christopher Bailey is overstretched

What Bravo needed was an authentic British designer for this most British of brands. For those with short memories, it may come as something of a surprise to note that back in the late 1990s Burberry was a very British basket case. Too many licensees, too much parallel distribution, a lack of strategy and an almost complete obsession with sales volumes at the exclusion of longer-term profit and growth objectives had rendered Burberry dangerously close to becoming a British equivalent to Pierre Cardin.

If Bravo was going to pull off her ambitious recovery plan, it would require a British creative director. She had already spoken to several candidates by the time she found herself waiting in the salon of the Grand Hotel in Milan in 2001. When Christopher Bailey finally arrived for their meeting Bravo later recalled that she knew, instantly, that he was the right choice.

More technical marketers might snort at the immediacy, instinct and emotion behind the recruitment decision. But it is so often this way in luxury. The industry is saturated with dreams and mythical stories – some true, some not so true – of emotion triumphing over the seemingly infallible rational option. I spent almost 15 years working for large luxury brands in Europe and never tired of the sheer unadulterated pleasure of learning the magical tales of the founders, their ridiculously reckless ambitions and their remarkable brands.

Burberry’s brand DNA: accessibility and functionality

At first sight Bailey was a great fit. His background at Donna Karan and then, more notably, Gucci had established him as one of the most accomplished young womenswear designers in the world. But there were even more persuasive factors also in Bailey’s favour. First, he was British, through and through. Second, his background – born the son of a carpenter from Halifax – gave him the kind of practical and accessible nature that ensured he possessed the perfect disposition for the job.

Despite his ultimate success and legendary luxury status, Thomas Burberry was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth either. He grew up in a village near Dorking, Surrey and apprenticed as a draper. This practical, functional start in life stayed with him for the rest of his days and has continued to be part of the DNA of Burberry ever since.

Yes, it’s a British star in a galaxy of otherwise Latin celestial objects. But it is also different from the Pradas, Guccis and Diors of the world for another important reason – it is a functional brand as well as one that leads fashion.

To see Bailey at work in his studio or working the crowd at one of the many hundreds of retail events and runways he attended was to witness Burberry’s brand personified. Here was a very practical British designer operating at the very top of the fashion and luxury food chain and being accessible at the same time.

Bravo knew this and was more than happy to stay in the background. Make no mistake: she ran the brand brilliantly, but she also let Bailey become the public face of Burberry. When she eventually stood down after a triumphant, transformative decade in charge and Angela Ahrendts took over, Bailey had become irreplaceable.

Obviously, Bailey deserves incredible credit for the remarkable product that he produced for Burberry during his 17-year tenure as chief creative officer. More fashion-forward writers at Vogue and Women’s Wear Daily will surely explain this much better than your humble, extremely unfashion-forward columnist. But Bailey somehow managed to create collections that were at once very functional and implacably fashionable.

It takes 10 years to establish a clear position in the market and most brands never get close.

Gradually he was also able to move the brand away from outerwear and from the eponymous check design, and find a more subtle and diverse look for Burberry. Each collection exhibited a consistency that was derived directly from the heritage of the brand, which ran through every piece like a beautiful checked ribbon.

And it was more than just the product that Bailey stamped his signature on. Rewind back to his arrival and then fast-forward through all the ads that have marked the almost two decades in which he has worked at Burberry, and you will see that most unusual of things – consistency. I have used Burberry’s advertising archive with about 20 different clients. I ask each of them to bring a library of their last 15 years of print ads and we look at them in sequence, and in horror, as the images deviate and alter course like a drunken sailor alighting from a fast spinning roundabout.

The value of consistency

BurberryIt takes 10 years to establish a clear position in the market and most brands never get close because a procession of different marketing directors and advertising agencies arrive and stamp their own idiosyncratic and entirely inappropriate personal ‘vision’ onto the brand, and its course never becomes clear.

Burberry’s trajectory, as plotted by Bailey and inimitably executed by Testino, was as close to perfection as you will ever see. It was functional. It was British. It was fashionable. And it was accessible.

The products and the models changed over the years – from Stella to Kate to Sophie to Emma to Cara – but Burberry’s position and its associated aesthetic remained steadfast over the years. The juxtaposition of some of my clients’ advertising campaign histories set against Burberry’s approach was painfully obvious to anyone I inflicted it on. One client I was working for actually began to sniffle, she was so embarrassed at her own brand’s indiscretions and so awed with Burberry’s focus.

In an era when most brands simply wanted to let digital drive their strategy, Bailey was smart enough to ensure Burberry’s strategy drove the way his brand used digital.

It would be a mistake to focus exclusively on Burberry’s print ads. Bailey worked for the company during the period of greatest change in marketing communications. When he began his role, print was still at the centre of the luxury advertising universe. During his tenure, the digital revolution occurred and Bailey responded.

He was among the first to use websites, live streaming, social commerce, Instagram and all the other passing tech fancies of the last 10 years to embolden Burberry’s modern credentials. The Art of Trench – Burberry’s accessible, functional website, in which customers could show off their best look in their favourite Burberry coat – remains one of the great brand-driven pieces of digital communication. In an era when most brands simply wanted to let digital drive their strategy, Bailey was smart enough to ensure Burberry’s strategy drove the way his brand used digital.

READ MORE: Burberry rethinks how it markets product launches

But perhaps his greatest achievement was the singular ability to be a decent, humble and entirely lovely person. That might sound easy. But when you have been feted for 15 years as a demi-god of fashion by every designer and celebrity on the planet, it can be easy to start to believe in your own bullshit.

In an industry famed for back-stabbing, ego-driven eccentricities of the worst possible kind, Bailey was that rarest of things: a decent bloke from Yorkshire who smiled at everyone and treated even the most cloying associates with respect and genuine approachability.

And he was loyal. More than one big luxury brand knocked on his door during his time at Burberry, especially when its turnaround was far from certain, and offered the keys to some pretty spectacular luxury studios. But Bailey stayed loyal to the brand and the people that had made him so successful.

That’s astonishing given that the behaviour of many creative directors half as famous as Bailey remains lodged somewhere between Darth Vader and Vlad the Impaler with a hangover. Bailey retained a sense of humour and humility even through to his pleasant and thoroughly genuine goodbye announcement on Tuesday. There were no dark threats or veiled ‘fuck yous’ in his sign off, just genuine thanks and best wishes for the future.

Bailey’s failure as CEO

Bailey’s only real mistake was to elevate himself into the CEO role in 2014 when Angela Ahrendts departed for Apple. At the time, many in the industry proclaimed it an obvious and ideal move. After all, hadn’t brands like Armani and Ralph Lauren prospered with a single person in the creative director/chief executive role? Natalie Massenet, the super smart chair of the Net-a-Porter Group, endorsed the move at the time and claimed that Bailey “really created the DNA for Burberry as we know it today”.

But, of course, she was wrong. It was never Bailey’s DNA at the heart of the brand, it was always Thomas Burberry’s. Armani and Ralph Lauren weren’t managed by a single person in a combined creative director/chief executive role, they were run by their titular founders. That’s something very different. People like Ralph and Giorgio come along once in a lifetime – even Bailey is out of his league when compared to these all-stars. His move to straddle both management and creativity proved disastrous at Burberry as both the business and the creativity suffered.

In came Marco Gobbetti as CEO a year ago and Bailey was sent back to the creative side of the business. At this point I must declare a slight interest. I worked with Gobbetti at both Givenchy and Celine. He is friendly, self-effacing and about as tough and brilliant as you will ever encounter in the luxury game. The clever money was always on Marco taking total control at Burberry and that meant eventually installing his own choice for creative director.

And that choice is obvious. In 2008 when he became CEO at Celine, a faded and almost irrelevant brand, he worked closely with Phoebe Philo the  British designer who had previously worked at Chloe. In the annals of luxury turnarounds there is a special chapter dedicated to what Gobbetti and Philo accomplished at Celine. Their success and the spectacular results that followed remain a high-water mark for almost every luxury brand eyeing a revitalisation.

Expect it to take a week, maybe two. But Burberry will appoint Phoebe Philo as their new chief creative officer before the new month is out. Gobbetti will need her help. History has repeated itself and he finds himself to be about as British as Bravo. He now needs a British sensibility to direct the next chapter of Burberry’s success story and Philo is surely his only option if she can be prised from Celine.

Together they must write the next chapter for Burberry. While the story of brand revitalisation and turnaround was a challenging one, the tale of taking a wildly successfully brand and making it even more prosperous is even more difficult. Expectations are now sky high and the existing performance of Burberry is already very impressive. He certainly designed some beautiful clothes during his time at Burberry, but Christopher Bailey also left some very big boots to fill as well.