Burberry, Back in Fashion

NEW YORK Until the 1990s, when people thought of Burberry what mostly sprang to mind was its iconic trench coat. Famous for its tailored lines, functional gabardine fabric (created by Thomas Burberry, who established the brand in 1856) and signature plaid lining, its mannequins included no less than Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca and Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Suffice it to say, a brand does not get to that level of cool very often.

But despite the Bogie/Hepburn bump, the brand began to lose its cachet with the fashion crowd. That is, until 1997, when New York native Rose Marie Bravo left Saks, where she was president, to become Burberry’s CEO. During her tenure (she retired this past June), Bravo tackled the brand’s revamping in two ways, according to a company rep: through a clothing line extension that turned the somewhat stodgy company into a fashion house worthy of celebrity-filled runway shows, and a hip, of-the-moment image campaign aimed at the luxury market as well as a younger demographic.

To turn the brand into a fashion powerhouse, Bravo, in 2001, brought in designer Christopher Bailey, hired away from Gucci, as Burberry’s top designer. Bailey’s creations received critical raves in fashion publications and blogs. (In 2003, style.com wrote that Bailey “shoulders the responsibility for making Burberry’s many product lines both cool enough for hipsters and classic enough for conservatives, a balancing act that he carries out with almost preternatural maturity.”) The brand also added line extensions, such as ball gowns, bikinis, shoes and fragrances, per the company. New lines included Thomas Burberry, in 2003, which focused on sportswear. The company continues to roll with the times: In 2006, it limited use of plaid in its runway line Prorsum, a key part of its strategy to shake off the damage done to its high-end image after the pattern was adopted by a British working-class group called “chavs.”

To change its image in the marketplace, Bravo (replaced by Angela Ahrendts) brought in Baron & Baron in New York, which hired boho supermodel Kate Moss as the face of Burberry. (While Burberry severed ties with Moss in 2005, thanks to a photo of her allegedly snorting cocaine printed on the cover of The Mirror, it welcomed her back in 2006.) Adding to the behind-the-scenes glamour were celebrity fashion photographers such as Mario Testino, who helped create the brand’s new look. According to Hoover’s Online, the company’s sales went up 287 percent since 1999, from $334 million to $1.3 billion in 2006.

“You [hardly ever] see anyone [over] 25 in their ads anymore,” observes Michael Lowenstein, vp, senior consultant for Harris Interactive Loyalty. “That’s a function of where they’re going. Their products used to be for the 50-and-over crowd. But their whole tone has changed. They’re building on their own tradition, but they’re taking it in totally new directions.”