As the designer stands down after 17 years, he explains how he turned an ailing raincoat maker – with a reputation for ‘chav check’ – into one of the world’s biggest luxury brands
In fashion, serious players tend to adopt outlandish characters. Karl Lagerfeld is the mischievous time traveller, with his powdered 18th-century pompadour and solid gold Apple watch. Alexander McQueenplayed the tattooed bad boy. Anna Wintour, with her titanium bob and poker face, is the sphinx of the front row. But Christopher Bailey is the most unsettling fashion luminary I have dealt with. Bailey, who leaves Burberry this month after 17 years, is the most successful British fashion designer of his generation, with a trophy cabinet full of industry awards, an MBE and a salary big enough to make business page headlines.
Bailey’s shtick is that he is normal. Bailey is nice. Not nice as in lethally charming, or nice as in seductively conspiratorial, just nice as in nice. It is hard to explain how disarming this is, when you are used to operatic ego. The week before his final Burberry catwalk show, I arrive at Thomas’s cafe inside the Burberry store in London’s Regent Street 15 minutes before I am due to meet him, but he is already there, tucked in a corner banquette. He spots me, puts away his phone and jumps up to greet me with a Tiggerish bounce. “How are you? Lovely to see you! Have you had a busy day? Did you have lunch? Would you like anything to eat?” Bailey’s wholesomely sandy-haired looks give him an air, even at 46, of having just stepped out of an advert for cornflakes, or Lego, or cocoa. He is unremarkably dressed in a neatly buttoned denim shirt and dark trousers, his only accessory a plain gold wedding band.
What Bailey has achieved, however, is not normal at all. He transformed an antiquated coat maker into one of the world’s top luxury brands. He gave Burberry such momentum that it had a halo effect on the rest of British fashion, making London fashion week a draw again. He is the only non-founding designer to have made himself so fundamental to a leading brand as to be awarded control of the boardroom as well as the design studio, as Bailey was for three years until last summer. But then, while on holiday in Italy with his husband, the actor Simon Woods, and their daughters (Iris, three, and Nell, two), he decided to leave Burberry. It was “one of the most difficult decisions I have made, but also one of the easiest”. The design studio has been handed over to his successor, Riccardo Tisci, but until the end of this year Bailey remains attached to Burberry in an advisory role, giving him a few months’ breathing space until he takes on whatever is next. Woods – Daddy to their little girls, while Bailey is Dad – is delighted.
At its best, fashion involves a kind of synaesthesia: put on a truly great party dress, and confidence and excitement seep into your skin like a happy pill melting on your tongue. A perfect cashmere sweater envelops you in comfort and nostalgia as evocatively as perfume. This effect has always been fundamental to the seductive power of iconic fashion brands, but at Burberry, Bailey realised that 21st-century technology would allow him to take this to the masses for the first time. Advertising posters dispensed squirts of Burberry fragrance when a wrist was placed beneath a sensor. With livestreamed catwalk shows and Spotify playlists, Bailey used the internet to bring the experience of high-end shopping to an audience watching on their phones. This was fashion’s Industrial Revolution.
Bailey was born in Yorkshire, near Halifax, son of a joiner and a Marks & Spencer window dresser. At 29, he had designed for Donna Karan in New York and spent five years as Tom Ford’s right hand at Gucci when he was approached by Rose Marie Bravo, the American businesswoman who had recently taken charge at Burberry and embarked on a revamp, hiring Kate Moss for an ad campaign. Both Bailey and Bravo tell the story of their meeting, in a hotel bar in Milan in late 2000, as if it were a first date. “I walked in and there was this glorious woman, smiling, fizzing with energy… she completely seduced me,” Bailey says. Bravo has described it as “like divine intervention”. They talked for hours about what they could make Burberry into.
“There wasn’t any other brand for us to emulate,” Bailey says. “We are not a traditional luxury company with a history of making shoes or bags for the aristocracy. We make coats. It’s quite practical.” In the 1870s, a draper called Thomas Burberry noticed how the crude lanolin coating on shepherds’ smocks kept out rain while being cooler and lighter than traditional waterproofs, and experimented with treatments for Egyptian cotton until he came up with gaberdine, a breathable fabric that kept rain out. He patented it, and soon after received a commission from the British army to make “trenchcoats” for officers. But by the time Bravo and Bailey arrived on the scene, Burberry had declined into “a check design heading towards oblivion… overdependent on tourists, licensees and the grey market”, Bravo said in 2002.
Rainwear may be utilitarian, but rain is poetic, and Bailey made Burberry stand for both. There are 46 trenchcoats in the current collection, from the honey-coloured, belted gaberdine classic to a laminated silver lace that, while waterproof, would look more at home on a red carpet than trudging a footpath. “I used to cycle a lot as a kid, along Haworth moor, near where the Brontës lived,” Bailey says. “When it’s sunny, it’s beautiful, but when it’s misty and rainy, it’s almost more magical. I love proper weather.” In 2012, the show finale was a cloudburst that sent rain streaming down on the Perspex marquee covering the catwalk and audience. In 2014, a show in Shanghai ended with Cara Delevingne taking flight, Mary Poppins-style, with a magic umbrella. The company HQ in Pimlico, central London, which Bailey helped design, is built around a glass atrium made to amplify the noise made by raindrops. Why settle for identifying your brand with anything as analogue as a logo when you can appropriate the weather? What, after all, could be more British?
Bailey had been at Burberry less than two years when a paparazzi photograph of actor Danniella Westbrook in a Burberry check outfit and handbag, pushing her daughter in a Burberry check buggy, whipped up a tabloid frenzy about “chavs” driving the brand downmarket. Bailey remembers it as “a strange moment. On a personal level, I felt very uncomfortable with all the media aggression towards this one person. But also, I am just not snobby. I grew up in a working-class family. I went to quite a tough school.”
Bailey has tried to smooth the edges of the brand’s somewhat fractious relationship with class – he is fond of pointing out that the trenchcoat has been worn by everyone from Sid Vicious to Princess Margaret – but the tale of the “chav check” cast a long shadow. In his early Burberry collections, he worked hard to frame Burberry as a high-class outfit: a serene colour palette, an unflashy aesthetic, shows soundtracked by soulful singer-songwriters. This new Burberry projected an RP kind of Britishness, with moodboards peopled by the nation’s artistic greats, ad campaigns with sharp-cheekboned young aristocrats. Famous names – Freud, Delevingne, Beckham – recurred. More recently, a more democratic vision has emerged, celebrating working-class culture. Last September, by which time he knew he was leaving, though the audience didn’t, his catwalk show was accompanied by an exhibition of British documentary photography, from Ken Russell’s portraits of postwar London kids, posing and smoking in bombsites, to Martin Parr’s images of rainy picnics and jostling in the queue for the buffet.
Bailey’s own love of art began with the Yorkshire Sculpture Park near his home, and a Lowry in the hall. “In the house where I grew up, the telephone was at the bottom of the stairs, and where we sat to talk, my parents had a Lowry print – I mean, like a photocopied print. That is such a vivid memory, looking at that for hours while I was on the phone to my friends. I had an amazing upbringing, because of the values my mum and dad instilled and the beautiful place we lived, but it wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination fancy.”
When Bailey was a student in London, his father wanted to buy his mother a watch she had seen in a magazine for Christmas. “He saved up for it, sent me a cheque, and I cashed it and went to the store in Bond Street with a big wedge of cash in my pocket. I’d never bought anything from that kind of shop before; none of us had. We were all excited. But they were so rude to me, intimidating and snooty. They made me feel belittled to the point where it was a really awful experience. It was an ‘entry price point’ watch, but of course we didn’t know that. It was a lot of money to us. And when I called my dad, I had to lie to him, to pretend it had been this magical experience, because that was part of what we all thought we were buying. My dad worked really hard for that money, and that was a really important moment for my family.” He stops, and smiles. “But my mum loved her watch, anyway.”
As well as class, Bailey’s Burberry has been about gender. In a time when feminism, gender roles, equality and gender fluidity have been front of mind in newsreels and popular culture, the premier British fashion brand has been one whose iconic piece – the trenchcoat – is unisex. “That was one of the things that attracted me to Burberry in the first place,” Bailey says. “In 2001, when I was trying to work out what Burberry was about, I wrote a list and put both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ down. That is part of the magic of the trenchcoat. The only real difference is which way it crosses.” (By sartorial tradition, a man’s double-breasted jacket or coat fastens left over right and a woman’s right over left.) “My team and I have talked many times about doing away with that and having it just one way. But we are all so familiar with the motion, even if we aren’t conscious of it. The trenchcoat is unisex, but it talks about gender, if you know what I mean.”
If he crafted a Burberry that was about Britishness, class and gender, it was also, inevitably, about Christopher Bailey. “I came to this job straight from five years with Tom [Ford] at Gucci, which was a very nomadic life. For three or four years, I didn’t have a home. I mean, literally. I just lived in hotels.” Pining for home, he found Burberry, whose trenchcoats were made in Yorkshire, and made the brand into his own love letter to home. “I suppose, in a way, I made Burberry up to suit myself. I am from Yorkshire, I grew up cycling in the rain. Someone else might have seen this brand quite differently. Maybe I’m just, you know, a massive egomaniac.” He looks quite taken with this idea.
If he hadn’t been fashion’s first 21st-century visionary, Bailey could have made a great spy. He notices everything, remembers everything: he can place our waitress’s accent, remembers the names of my children. His everyman persona extends to a habit of disappearing himself from his own sentences, answering questions about what he thinks or feels with answers about what “lots of people” think or feel. The effect is somehow humble and distancing at the same time. He is always warm, but never intimate: he has a habit, when he makes a point, of reaching out as if to clasp my arm, but he never makes contact. When the waitress brings my pot of tea, she puts down a wooden egg timer, explaining the darjeeling will be brewed when the sands have emptied. It is a very Burberry touch: cosy, nostalgic. Bailey, who masterminded every detail of this most English of tearooms, is drinking a strong cappuccino.
There is only one point during our two conversations when any spiky edges come into view. We are talking about how Bailey’s own upbringing contrasts with his daughters’ lives, since he earns “a lot of money – as the world knows”, he says, turning pink. Shortly after he became the first gun-for-hire designer to combine the CEO role with design duties in 2014, a salary package that was estimated at almost £15m provoked one of the biggest shareholder revolts in British business history. After a series of bruising boardroom encounters, Bailey handed back the CEO role last July, appointing Marco Gobbetti from Céline. With hindsight, was taking on both roles a mistake? He looks down at his hands, which are suddenly busy brushing crumbs from the tablecloth. (There are no crumbs. The artisan cookie on the saucer of Bailey’s cappuccino is untouched.) “Look, it was never something I aspired to do. It was not on my radar. I still believe I – we – made the right decision for that moment.”
The business world, he feels, was not prepared to believe a designer could be a CEO. “Tom understands business, a brand, how to motivate people, and I learned a lot from him. But for lots of people, the idea of a designer is this person throwing chiffon into the air and seeing how it falls.” Anyway, the dual role didn’t work out. “And if I had known how much it would end up taking me away from the things I really love to do, I probably wouldn’t have done it.”
The next time I see him, it is the Saturday night of London fashion week, after his final show, and he is taking a bow in front of Naomi Campbell, Chelsea Clintonand 1,200 others, stars of the British fashion industry who have come to say goodbye to the Burberry-Bailey era. Farewell catwalk shows tend towards mawkish overindulgence of ego – designers walking the aisle flanked by adoring supermodels, the front row reaching out to touch hands as if for a papal blessing, carnations on every seat to be thrown in gaudy heartbreak – but the focus of this show is a new rainbow version of the Burberry check, which Bailey has designed in order to have this collection stand for LGBTQ rights. The visual symbolism is of the Burberry check, lightning rod for class division and social prejudice, recast as a badge of tolerance. Backed by donations to charities, this goes beyond the fuzzy kind of lip service to equality and diversity commonplace in fashion right now to something more tangible.
After the show, Bailey is mobbed by well-wishers – Kate Moss has to elbow her way through the throng – until he disappears to have dinner with his husband and his parents, who have travelled to London for the show along with his closest friend since schooldays, a psychiatric nurse who still lives in Yorkshire. His daughters stayed home and watched the show on livestream. (“Look! It’s Dad!” Iris called out to the babysitter when Bailey took his bow.)
Three days later, Bailey comes down from his sixth-floor office to fetch me for a cup of tea. We are at Burberry’s London headquarters now, rather than the store. The top button of his shirt is unbuttoned this time, and he is wearing suede desert boots instead of polished shoes. He makes a point of being the one to hold the lift door open for everyone else as we rise to a sixth-floor meeting room full of enormous bouquets that arrived on the day of the show. An assistant brings builders’ tea for me, mint tea for Bailey.
“I didn’t want to do a greatest hits,” he says when I ask about the last collection. “I knew early on that I wanted this last show to have a positive message, a real one. It might be seen as commercially sensitive, but the area of LGBTQ rights is personal to me, and I’m really happy we did it.” Sunday morning was lovely, he says – “We had a nice walk, before my parents went home” – but since then he has been feeling pensive. “It will take some adjusting to figure out what my identity is outside of… this,” he says, sweeping an arm around the room, the flowers, the meeting table, the assistant stationed outside. “And I literally hadn’t given it any thought until Sunday. When it hits me is when I think about my team. Seventeen years is a long time to work with people. They have been there with me through incredible sadness [Bailey’s previous partner, Geert Cloet, a fellow fashion designer, died of a brain tumour in 2005 at the age of 36] and then finding happiness. They were at my wedding, they know my children. And I have been through the same with them. And that’s what it comes down to in the end, isn’t it? People.”
What Bailey wants next is “some balance in my life”. The family have recently moved from Kensington to north London to be close to Hampstead Heath while the girls are growing up. He is looking forward to having more time for family life. “Simon is so much cleverer than I am. He is an extraordinary man and an incredible father. I am learning how to do lots of things from him.” As to 2019, he claims innocence. “I don’t have a plan, I really don’t. I am excited by doing something new, but that could be something big, or something small. You can bop me one on the head if it turns out later that I’m not telling the truth right now.” It might be a more tangential move than to another design studio. (Angela Ahrendts, with whom Bailey worked closely at Burberry from 2006 to 2014, left to join Apple, and Bailey’s interest in technology is well known.) “I will say that I wouldn’t have left this job that I love just to go and do the same thing somewhere else. That would feel strange, because this was a bit special.”