As the story goes, the invention of fashion's nattiest scarf was a complete accident. In 1967, the manager of Burberry's Paris store was arranging a group of the brand's signature trench coats in the front window. The display was a bit on the plain side (khaki is just khaki), so she decided to add some panache by turning up the coat's hem, revealing the signature black, red and camel plaid—the "house check," as it's known—of the lining. Customers responded immediately, so the store began making umbrellas that featured the check pattern—and hundreds of them sold, too. Seeing a good thing in the making, Burberry decided to put its house check pattern on cashmere scarves. And the rest is fashion history.
Today, Burberry's signature plaid scarf is easily the most recognizable, coveted, timeless rectangle of Scottish cashmere that style-conscious consumers can wrap around their necks—and there are precious few 50-year-old fashion accessories about which that can be said. "The Burberry scarf is really a phenomenon, the most recognized plaid in the world," said Andy Gilchrist, keeper of the influential blog Ask Andy About Clothes. Erin Gates, founder of the Boston-based interior, fashion and event-styling firm Erin Gates Design, still fondly recalls her first Burberry scarf. "Purchasing one seemed to be a right of passage in the transition from college student to young professional," she said.
The scarf's irrepressible popularity is also a textbook example of branding alchemy at work. After all, who drops $435 for a 12- by 66-inch piece of wool just because it's soft and pretty? People buy Burberry scarves for the same reason they buy Chanel No. 5 perfume: it's a way to sport a designer name without incurring five figures of credit-card debt. "It's an affordable status symbol," Gilchrist added, "since most everyone you meet will identify that plaid, accept it as high status and project that image onto the wearer."
Funny thing that that plaid was initially more about function than fashion. Thomas Burberry's gabardine "Tielocken" coats were standard issue for British officers during World War I (it's where the term "trench coat" comes from), but only after their popularity spread to the civilian market did Burberry decide to add a lining. Neat, understated and oh-so British, the check has since become more recognizable than the knight on Burberry's label.
Which has also made Burberry a victim of its own success. The plaid, Gates said, "has been knocked off to high heaven, which reduces its allure to those who own the real deal." It's why Gates still cherishes her first Burberry check scarf, and why it remains hanging—unworn—in her closet.