Christopher Bailey is so sweet and unaffected – pouring sparkling water for me and offering up the other half of the sofa; answering each of my questions at length and with palpable enthusiasm – that it’s not until hours later it becomes clear that everything he says is meticulously on-message. His soft Yorkshire accent and trim, boyish good looks help with this, but there’s also infectious enthusiasm for Burberry, the British fashion house whose flagging fortunes he helped reverse, and what seems like genuine respect for his customers, whether they are fashion-world titans or ordinary people who can barely afford a tartan umbrella.
“I hate the idea that people might be made to feel not good enough,” he says. “Somebody who saves up for twelve months to buy a purse deserves exactly the same treatment as somebody with endless amounts of money, because it means the world to them. I feel very strongly about making sure that people feel comfortable.” It’s a noble sentiment, but it also makes good business sense, especially when a purse retails at around the AED2,000 mark.
It’s days before the launch of London Fashion Week and we’re in the VIP suite of a brand-new Burberry flagship store on Regent Street, which is ridiculously high-tech, with plasma video screens scattered about that show close-ups of a handbag, say, when you pick up a real-life handbag and put it on a special plinth. Similar screens in the changing rooms show catwalk models showing off the exact clothes you have chosen to try on; there are iPads for kids to play with in the childrenswear section; and music plays in different sectons by “Burberry Acoustic” artists: handpicked British musicians who you can watch performing gentle folk and rock in spiffy trench coats on the brand’s website, or in the flesh at monthly in-store concerts.
All this invites speculation about what’s to come in the Middle East when a new flagship for the region arrives in Kuwait in December. All we know so far is that it won’t be quite as huge as the London store, that it will be one of the few outlets in the world to sell products from Burberry Beauty, the makeup range set up by Bailey in 2010 that is currently only available online, and that it will be situated in The Avenues Mall, the country’s biggest shopping centre, which is about to complete its new 100,000m2 expansion. And its feel will be quintessentially British.
“A Burberry store is a little piece of Britain in the middle of Beirut or Dubai,” Bailey says. “It’s not like in the Middle East we do something differently. For me it’s always about that authenticity and being true to who you are, rather than saying, ‘now we’re going to New York, we have to do a store that’s right for the New Yorkers.’”
In the UAE there are nine Burberry stores – more than anywhere else in the Gulf – with dedicated kids’ shops in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The reason for this high demand, Bailey says, is a local love “for things that are beautifully crafted, that have a history and a heritage and have a point of view.” He also says that Middle Easterners like luxury, and, “that weird term ‘luxury’ is important because luxury can be a lot of different things. It can, of course, be a beautiful jacket, but it can also be an experience. It can be just being made to feel comfortable in an environment or knowing that there’s a history behind a product. And that takes it from being a very nice bag” – he picks up a clutch with a clasp in the shape of a fox’s head – “to, wow, someone carved that. Suddenly there’s a soul there.”
Christopher Bailey’s rise and his role in revitalising a brand that had once evoked football hooliganism more than high fashion has been well documented. The younger son of a joiner and a Marks and Spencer window dresser, he was spotted at art school by Donna Karan, with whom he worked for three years before moving to Gucci in his mid-twenties. At the age of 29 he became creative director of Burberry, and the company’s revenue has more than doubled in the intervening twelve years. Bailey oversees the design of everything from store fixtures to new variations on the classic Burberry trench coat.
“I love getting into the details,” he says, and starts talking about the piping on the sofa and the particular curve of a chair that “was a bloody nightmare because it never felt comfortable.” Everything in the store, he says, “has a little story behind it,” and he can’t wait for his father to see the place. “We spent a lot of hours and time and passion and love.”
One of the most magical details that I happen to witness is the “digital rain shower” that happens a few times a day, and which makes customers and staff stop in their tracks and look around them in awe. I’m looking at vintage coats trimmed in materials like fox fur, pony skin and mink when I notice models on the plasma screens around me clicking their fingers rhythmically. The clicking intensifies and multiplies on all 100 screens in the store, which are showing images of rain, and then as suddenly as it started it fades away. I don’t know what subliminal messages they put in those videos, but I suddenly want a Burberry raincoat more than anything else in the world.
It’s all very clever branding – there is a reason Burberry has won awards for marketing and digital innovation – and it doesn’t feel gimmicky. The teenage superblogger Tavi Gavinson has given a about how brands should focus on creating their own aesthetic in order to attract fickle members of Generation Y, and she singled out Burberry as a company who is getting it right. Its Art of the Trench project, for which anyone can send in a photo of themselves in a Burberry trench for inclusion in an online collage, gives the coats “the status of something you just own; it’s just your Burberry trench,” she said. The fact that Burberry catwalk shows are streamed on the company’s Facebook page and archive designs are displayed on its website helps create a personality that doesn’t feel forced.
“When I first joined Burberry 12 years ago,” Christopher Bailey says, “I always talked about it as this character. A brand for me has a heart and a soul, like a person. It is about creating “the world,” like, what does music mean to Burberry, what does a physical experience mean to Burberry, how do I want someone to feel when they come into a Burberry store?”
Once this identity is established, you can play around with it, hence a different version of the classic Burberry trench coat for every season and every line, plus a Bespoke version that you can order online or in the London store, with all the pink plaid lining or studded epaulettes that your heart desires. Emma Watson has one already, and if your budget stretches from AED7,895 for a no-frills trench to AED18,495 for a monogrammed Wiltshire shearling sheepskin version, you can follow suit. Bailey says that he’s not sick of his company’s signature item, which has been worn by everyone from Kate Middleton to Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, just yet.
“I’m intrigued by it,” he says. “That trench coat is like a chameleon, which changes with different people. And it’s not some tailored thing that you have to be careful with. You can throw it in your bag, but it can be very formal and very sartorial. It’s amazing.” Unsurprisingly, he lists the trench as a key trend for spring/summer 2013, along with colour and “things that make you smile,” and this becomes clear after seeing the Burberry Prorsum catwalk show at a giant greenhouse in Kensington Gardens on Monday. It’s big on metallic, tailored coats and capes in bright blues, pinks and purples, and ends with models parading in an almost-rainbow of bright, shiny coats.
As a high-profile figurehead for a FTSE 100 company, it’s understandable that Christopher Bailey’s comments may sound a little rehearsed, but the one time his professional polish momentarily slips is when he talks about tabloid infringement on his privacy. The Daily Mail has printed gossipy stories about his personal life that suggest that they have been following him to an unsettling degree. “It was all really awkward and a bit sad-making,” he says. “But never mind; it’s done.” What matters, though, is that he’s happy, and “being happy is the most precious thing in life.”
And, luckily for someone who is opening a giant new flagship store and showcasing a new collection at London Fashion Week in the same fortnight, being busy is one of the things that make him happy. “It’s generally nuts,” he says about his schedule, “but I wouldn’t change it. I have a lot of energy, and I need to get it out somewhere.” And then, at the end of a long day of interviews, he’s thanking everyone diligently, and sweeping off to Fashion’s Night Out.