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In History: How Burberry evolved from humble raincoat maker to luxury fashion giant
11 September 2023

London Fashion Week gets underway at the end of this week and, once again, the big ticket show will be from Burberry. Widely considered to be the UK's only true global fashion superbrand, Burberry will be unveiling the second collection from new creative chief Daniel Lee on Monday 18 September.

Lee, along with the brand's CEO Jonathan Akeroyd, has promised to return Burberry to its British roots after several years under an Italian CEO and creative chief (Marco Gobbetti and Riccardo Tisci respectively). Lee's first outing at London Fashion Week in February got things off to a promising start, as did a new creative campaign, starring diverse British icons such as footballer Raheem Sterling, acting royalty Vanessa Redgrave, model Liberty Ross and musician Skepta among others.

Its front rows are no less starry with supermodel Naomi Campbell sitting alongside model and entrepreneur Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and actor Jason Statham at the last LFW show.

But Burberry's history is a checkered as its world-famous house motif and its origins can be traced back to a humble shop in Basingstoke. So, how did it become one of the most recognised global fashion forces? We take a look through its 167-year history.


Postcard of T Burberry and Sons shop circa 1907 (Alamy/PA)

Adventurous origins

The brand was founded in 1856 when 21-year-old former draper’s apprentice Thomas Burberry opened his first shop in Basingstoke, Hampshire.

Focused on creating outerwear that shielded wearers from typical British weather, the founder invented gabardine – a water-resistant but breathable fabric – and patented it in 1888.

“Prior to this, waterproof clothing was made of rubberised cotton which was cumbersome, not breathable and certainly not chic,” explains celebrity fashion stylist Miranda Holder.

“In contrast, garbadine’s individual fibres were waterproofed before the weaving process, creating a lighter, more fluid and comfortable piece.”

In early examples of celebrity endorsement, Norwegian explorer and zoologist Dr Fridtjof Nansen wore Burberry gabardine when he sailed to the Arctic Circle in 1893, while famed British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton chose the outerwear for three expeditions in the early 1900s.


WWI advertisement for Burberry coats (Alamy/PA)

The war years

The now-iconic Burberry trench coat was invented during WWI with a range of features designed for military use – including the gun flap and D-rings to carry grenades – many of which remain today.

“Each classic Burberry trench is composed of 90 individual, specially shaped components,” says Savile Row tailor Alexandra Wood, founder of Alexandra Wood Bespoke.

“The key design elements include its double-breasted front, shoulder epaulettes, beige colour, belted waist, buckled cuffs, storm flap, and a checked lining that the brand has become synonymous with.”

The distinctive beige Burberry ‘nova check’ was introduced in the 1920s and is still used as a lining now, with the ever-popular trench coats retailing from around £1,500.

“The appeal of the Burberry trench has to be largely due to its adaptability,” says Holder.

“The coat’s pale beige colour perfectly lends itself to a myriad of different outfit options, and the flash of luxury lining – nova check or not – makes it instantly recognisable as a luxury piece.”


Actor David Niven at Heathrow Airport in 1976 (PA)

The royal seal of approval

In 1955, Queen Elizabeth II granted Burberry a royal warrant as a weatherproofer, and by the Swinging Sixties business was booming, with the brand saying it made one in five coats exported from Britain.

The nova check graduated from discreet lining to designer status symbol, with coats, scarves and umbrellas in the beige print proving popular with shoppers in the Seventies, including stars of stage and screen, such as David Niven,

In 1990, Burberry secured its second royal warrant, as an outfitter, from the now King.


Danniella Westbrook with her daughter Jodie in 2003 (Yui Mok/PA)

Noughties notoriety

After decades of success, the Burberry shine was tarnished when a more mainstream audience embraced nova check in the late 1990s, snapping up entry-level items and causing the brand to discontinue sales of baseball caps.

“The pattern soon filtered down to the high streets and eventually the football terraces – it remains one of the most copied counterfeit designs today,” says Holder.

“As a result Burberry’s star fell hard, the brand losing any exclusivity it once had, being unable to control who wore the label.”

Paparazzi photos of Eastenders actress Danniella Westbrook in head to toe nova check were seen as the final nail in the coffin, she adds: “Danniella was getting a lot of very negative publicity at the time, relegating the designer to the bins of bad taste.”


Cara Delevingne on the catwalk during the Burberry autumn/winter 2012 catwalk show (Gareth Fuller/PA)

The catwalk comeback

Attempting to rehabilitate the brand as the new millennium dawned, Burberry opened its first store on upmarket Bond Street in 2000 and its then CEO Rose Marie Bravo, who had joined the brand in 2007, brought in 29-year-old Christopher Bailey as design director in 2001. Bravo left the brand in 2007 to be replaced by Angela Ahrendts, who, along with Bailey, continued to drive Burberry forward.

“Christopher Bailey made a significant impact during his tenure as creative director by modernising Burberry’s image, introducing digital innovations, and collaborating with artists and musicians,” says Alexandra Wood.

“It made Burberry fresher and more relevant and helped to make the brand have an edge, whilst remaining sympathetic to its crisp, British design aesthetic.”

Scaling back production of nova check, Bailey brought glamour to the brand and staged blockbuster catwalk shows with live music from artists such as Tom Odell and James Bay.


Models on the catwalk during the Burberry Spring/summer 2012 show (Gareth Fuller/PA)

“He updated the classic trench, putting new twists on the heritage design and bringing in supermodel Kate Moss to give it a new lease of life,” Holder says.

“Bailey successfully repositioned Burberry as an industry leader and innovator, and as a result, tickets to their catwalk shows were some of the most sought after on the London Fashion Week schedule.”


Kate Moss and daughter Lila Moss at the Met Gala 2022 (Alamy/PA)

A-list appeal

Angela Ahrendts left Burberry in 2014 to join Apple and Bailey assumed the mantle of CEO and chief creative officer, which the financial establishment was uncomfortable with, arguing he held too much power. Former LVMH executive Marco Gobetti was drafted in as CEO with Bailey's role shifted to "president". The arrangement didn't last long and Bailey bowed out with a memorable rainbow-themed show. Italian designer Riccardo Tisci, with whom Gobbetti had worked at Givenchy, was appointed chief creative officer at Burberry in 2018.

“Riccardo Tisci injected some younger, more contemporary energy into the aesthetic, which was a roaring success,” Holder says.

“Influenced by streetwear, his collections attracted younger fans who appreciated his edgier styles, despite critics pointing out a lack of continuity with the brand’s more traditional heritage.”

Tisci enlisted model friends such as Kendall Jenner and Irina Shayk to walk the runway and dressed stars including Nicki Minaj and Kate Moss for the Met Gala.

He also reintroduced nova check, much to the delight of celebrities and a new generation of Burberry fans.


Rita Ora wearing Burberry on the red carpet (Ian West/PA)

Back to British

There were some, however, who felt Tisci and Gobbetti had lost the British essence of Burberry that was essential to its global apparel (despite Tisci being an Anglophile who had studied at Central Saint Martins).

In 2021 Gobbetti left Burberry to return to Italy to take up the role of CEO at Salvatore Ferragamo and it was widely assumed that Tisci would stand down soon after his mentor had left, which was exactly what happened.

Burberry appointed Brit Jonathan Akeroyd (formerly of Versace and Alexander McQueen) as CEO and he in turn appointed  Bradford-born Daniel Lee took to take over from Tisci. Lee had made his name in fashion by reviving the fortunes of Bottega Veneta with his bold and modern designs. The pair vowed to take Burberry back to its British roots.


Burberry's revamped Bond Street store opened on June 2023

Lee made his debut at London Fashion Week in February 2023. The autumn/winter collection – which didn’t feature any beige trench coats – teamed sweeping coats and chunky knitwear with irreverent accessories like a woolly hat shaped like a duck and hot water bottles carried like clutch bags.

The brand also set about revamping its Bond Street flagship store describing it as the perfect backdrop for Lee's new vision.

After a promising start with his first outing, next Monday's show is expected to be the first true expression of Lee's vision with the designer having had a full season to prepare. While the front row will be stellar, all eyes however will be on the catwalk first and foremost.

Main image: Daniel Lee's debut for Burberry in February 2023  (Jeff Moore/PA)

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