An Interview with Christopher Bailey: Fashion Loyalist
By: Godfrey Deeny
Aug 13, 2002/ FWD/ --- Though he's modest almost to a fault and seems not to want his name in lights, the next
time anyone mentions what a success story Burberry has become, mention Christopher Bailey,
the house's youthful designer.
One month ago, Burberry made a remarkable achievement given the current business climate --
a successful stock floatation on the London market.
Practically all of the kudos of that accomplishment has gone to the company's energetic
CEO Rose Marie Bravo, but it's also in part a compliment to Bailey, even if he's shy of
making any such claim.
"I'm just lucky, as Rosemarie gives me lots of freedom. She does not lay down any line I
have to follow. It's exhausting, but I love the whole creative process," explains Bailey,
who designs eight collections a year, and is responsible for creating the men's and women's
collections of Burberry's two lines, Prorsum and London.
Bailey's a great believer in loyalty, a term that peppers his conversation when we meet.
Slightly built with spiky hair, he has a distinctly handsome face with a hint of the Gothic,
fitting given his concern with the knightly virtues of honesty, fidelity and hard work.
And he's praised for those virtues: "Christopher has a strong appreciation for Burberry's
heritage and history. He combines this with a distinctive design sensibility and business
acumen. He is a rare talent indeed," says Bravo.
Since joining Burberry in May 2001 when he replaced the talented though volatile Roberto
Menichetti, Bailey's collections for Burberry have grown steadily stronger, culminating
in this summer's men's collection in Milan, widely hailed as one of the best in Europe this
Ironically, given his opening 15 months at Burberry, Bailey admits that as a kid the last
thing he planned was to go to fashion school.
"I wanted to be a vet!" he laughs, while conceding that he used to spend lots of time in
Bailey is one of those lucky fellows for whom life just seems to fall into place.
The son of a carpenter father and visual designer mother, at 18 he won a student competition
gaining him a place in a two-year fashion course in London's Royal College of Art.
Fortune favored Bailey again when Donna Karan came to visit the school.
"All of us students had to leave their book for Donna to look at. After seeing mine she
called and asked me to come and work for her," Christopher says, the surprise still evident
in his voice a decade later.
So, at the ripe age of 20, Bailey was on a plane to New York to become part of the design
team of Karan's signature collection.
"Donna has so much vitality, so much pure energy. It was a great place to work and learn,"
recalls Bailey, who became the right-hand man to the signature collection's head designer
Peter Speliopolous and worked on joint projects between Karan and artist Robert Wilson.
Bailey spent 30 months in New York, before returning to Europe to join Tom Ford's team at
"Tom called requesting I meet him. He has such vision and drive. I was seduced. It was a
great experience, especially as Tom likes working with small teams of people," explains Bailey.
Christopher ended up working five and a half years with Ford, but as Gucci grew to huge
dimensions, Bailey wanted a new role.
Ever the believer in loyalty he actually approached Ford before he began looking elsewhere --
an almost unheard-of move.
"Tom even called Rose Marie, as he knew she was looking for someone. He's such a gentleman,
so loyal," stresses Bailey.
Two months after being appointed the house's creative director, Bailey made his runway debut
for Burberry in June 2001 with a relaxed presentation in a Milan palazzo that signaled a
return to Burberry's British roots, and to a sense of playfulness.
The name Burberry was scattered over a loosely woven dusty pink cashmere sweater or heavy
white military jogging pants with the name inside the waistband.
The step back from plaid had begun.
"I want to get back to the British roots of Burberry. I want to explore what it means to be
British. It could be hippie, ethnic or any of the youth or musical movements. The list is
pretty long," Bailey said at the time.
Each collection since, for both men and women, has built on that concept, finding inspiration
from British traditions and culture, but tweaking and revamping the influences with
contemporary silhouettes, fabrics and finishes.
Like Bailey, the Burberry models tend to be shaggy haired romantics, graduate students with
an artistic bent, or cool yet professional intellectuals.
"I believe it's vital that you enjoy what you do each day, otherwise why bother? If I didn't
get a kick out of this I'd go an live on a farm in Yorkshire," he insists.
Bailey has been back and forth to the US, working with architects Mark Pinney, Daniel J.
Barteluce and Randall Ridless on the opening of the brand's immense 21,000-square-foot 57th
Street flagship store, scheduled to open in October.
The house has already opened major stores in LA, Dusseldorf, Berlin and New York's Soho
this year, and will also unveil boutiques in Barcelona and Knightsbridge this autumn.
"What attracted me to Burberry was the richness of the brand. Not just its archives, but
also the mentality. The founder Thomas Burberry was a brilliantly innovative designer.
He was the guy who invented gabardine as a weave. "
"In his day motorcars were becoming
important, so he pioneered a whole series of clothes for cars that changed the way people
dressed. He was also able to design an incredibly broad choice of clothes, everything from
coats for the Antarctic to dresses for a London cocktail party," says Christopher of the
house, founded in 1856.
In its latest financial year, Burberry saw profits increase 30 percent, to $132 million,
on an 18 percent rise in sales to $729 million.
Under Bravo, a former Saks exec, Burberry has witnessed a remarkable turnaround.
But not all the numbers are quite so pretty: Despite the successful flotation in July,
in an IPO that valued the house at $1.8 billion, the stock has taken a battering in the
international bear market, wiping about $0.4 billion in value (at last close, at the time
To her credit, Bravo gave Bailey a free hand to put his stamp on the label.
The designer wisely took a break from the signature house plaid that had become a mite
ubiquitous, but he has continued to tap into classic Burberry looks each collection.
"When I avoided plaid, Rosemarie never once wondered about my decision. She completely
believes in me, which is great feeling for a designer," he stresses.
Christopher is not a night owl, more a voracious reader, in particular of biographies.
He sometimes buys multiple copies of particular books to give to his staff and friends --
his latest big purchase, rocker Marianne Faithfull's candid tell-all.
And, like a lot of designers, Bailey is an image junkie who constantly reads magazines and
books of photography.
"When it comes to ideas I'm completely disloyal. I'm too inspired by imagery to be anything
(Above photo: Designer Christopher Bailey. Photo courtesy of Christopher Bailey)