As Christopher Bailey sets out to disrupt the fashion calendar with a Burberry collection available the moment it’s shown, Hamish Bowles catches up with him in London to talk about fashion foresight—and gets an exclusive early look at the new pieces.
“It’s like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory!” exults Christopher Bailey as he walks me through the creative laboratory he has assembled on a light-flooded floor of Burberry’s London HQ. Bailey himself conceived the atrium interior of the imperially scaled prewar building, which is topped by a corrugated clear plastic roof designed to amplify the sound of England’s falling rain (and thus remind everyone of the brand’s roots as the rainwear supplier to the British Empire).
“We have everything from people who just paint, to 3-D printers, embroiderers, packaging designers,” he explains. “I have a whole group of coders, and people involved with photography, music, architecture—we do all our furniture and buildings. We’ve got photo studios and film studios. It’s a little design school.”
Along with supporting craft, Bailey has always been in the vanguard of technological and conceptual innovation—in 2009, for instance, Burberry was the first brand to live stream its runway show—and he is surprised by what he sees as the fashion world’s resistance to embracing technological change. “For an industry that loves moving forward—that’s about newness and inspiring people—how can we not be excited about the thing that has changed every one of our lives?” he asks. “For me, it’s the most thrilling thing—I used to cart my whole freaking CD collection around the world; people used to laugh at me. Now I have it all on my little iPhone. It’s magnificent!
“We will look back on this time as like the great industrial revolution—because it is,” he says. “Our lives are changing so dramatically. I find it exciting.”
Now, though, he’s aiming for a paradigm shift: The pieces pictured exclusively on these pages will be shown on the runway on September 19—while other brands are presenting their spring-summer 2017 offerings—and available to purchase in Burberry stores worldwide and online on the same day. The collection (which streamlines the former Prorsum, London, and Brit lines into a single Burberry label) will be called September, with February following early next year.
“I get very confused by the idea of seasons,” says Bailey, who remembers his astonishment—when he first worked in New York in the 1990s as a designer for Donna Karan—when after Labor Day everyone put away their summer clothes and brought out their fall wardrobes. “I don’t know if we live like that anymore—we have uniforms today, and then we pepper them with newness and fashion. It just feels more relevant to us to have collections that are seasonless.”
The September collection was born out of the frustrations that Bailey experienced trying to install Wi-Fi in his 1636 country house in his native Yorkshire, where until recently he escaped with his husband, actor Simon Woods, and their two young daughters (they’ve since moved on to the more easily commutable Cotswolds). “It was so bloody difficult,” he says, “because all the walls were so thick. It made me think about all the different lives that house had been through.”
Riffing on this layering of history, and the challenges and innovations that successive eras have brought (plumbing, electricity, the Internet), led him in turn to Orlando, Virginia Woolf’s time-traveling novel about a gender-fluid character who starts out as a beautiful page boy at the court of Elizabeth I and by 1928 has become a successful lady writer—along with Sally Potter’s 1993 movie based on the book, starring a young Tilda Swinton.
“I spoke to the teams about peeling back the layers of time and going from the past to the future,” explains Bailey, who gave them Woolf’s book to read. The collective inspiration gallery assembled by the battalion of designers included images of gardening doyenne Nancy Lancaster’s landscape plans, early–nineteenth-century military uniforms, Elizabethan dress, archive wallpapers researched at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and romantic rose prints created in-house—elements imaginatively combined into both the men’s and women’s pieces, which have been designed to be layered. Even the new Bridle Bag’s shape is designed for both lines. “Genders are not as defined anymore,” says Bailey, who has always shot the men’s and women’s campaigns together—and who was undaunted by working on two collections at the same time. “I do that all the time anyway,” he says, “designing a building or a collection or a piece of furniture or a fragrance or a book.”
Bailey, who joined Burberry as the design director in 2001, took on the role of CEO of the company in 2014, though in July it was announced that Marco Gobbetti (formerly of Givenchy and Céline) would assume that role beginning next year. In addition to remaining the chief creative officer, Bailey will become the company’s president. “I need to focus more on the things that a customer sees and feels and touches and smells,” he explains. “It’s trying to make what we do—which is about combining technology with beautiful craftsmanship—relevant for life that I’m excited about.”
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