The History of Burberry's Check
- Words Brenden Gallagher
- Date December 07, 2017
Legendary Burberry creative director Christopher Bailey is set to leave the following 17 years with the company. The Spring/Summer 2018 collection this February operates as his final contribution. But for all the soul-searching that will result from Bailey’s departure, it also marks an opportunity to look back at Burberry’s hallowed history and examine the fascinating journey the brand has taken over the years. The buttoned-up British brand has always been deeply tied to class; its fortunes have ebbed and flowed largely based on how UK’s various social strata have viewed it. The vision of the brand in popular culture is inextricably connected to the iconic Burberry check, one of the most recognizable patterns in the world. This history of the Burberry check tells a story about class, Britain and many interpretations of “luxury.”
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In 2001, when Bailey was brought on board, one of the biggest concerns at Burberry was
brand dilution. For decades Burberry had been a symbol of British luxury, yet all of a sudden the check had become a favorite of young working class “chavs” and football hooligans. While in America, working class cache can help build a brand (just ask Carhartt or Levi’s), in Britain, the embrace of a luxury brand by populist culture can spark a boardroom panic. When the Burberry check was showing up on bikinis and household appliances all over the UK, they brought in Bailey to regain control of the brand.
But, to understand how Burberry got to that point, you have to understand the various transformations the company has undergone over more than a one and a half centuries. Though the company was founded in 1856 by Thomas Burberry—at the time only 21—it wasn’t until he rolled out water resistant trench coats twenty years later that the brand became a household name. In 1891, Burberry opened a shop in London’s West End at 30 Haymarket, signalling to all of Britain that the clothing company had arrived.
The trench quickly became so trusted that Burberry coats became standard issue for officers during World War I. This is, in fact where the term “trench coat” comes from; before the War, these coats were known as “Tielocken.” Numerous adventurers, from arctic explorers to aviators, also wore Burberry on their expeditions. Before it evolved into a luxury brand, Burberry was primarily an outdoor outfitter.
In the 1920s, Burberry saw its next great brand breakthrough with the creation of its iconic check, a Scottish tartan design with a beige base, accented by black, red, and white. Originally, the check was only sewn into the company’s coats. In fact, it would take more than forty years from the check’s origins for the design to become a fashion statement of its own.
The Burberry scarf was created in 1967. Its origins were the result of a happy accident. The manager of Burberry’s Paris store wanted to add a splash of color to a display of trenchcoats. He placed some of the coats with the hem facing out, showing off the “house check” pattern. Customers loved the look, and were soon clamoring for merchandise featuring the check. The store made several hundred umbrellas that sold out immediately, and soon decided to start making cashmere scarves as well.
Immediately popular among the British elite, the Burberry check quickly became a status symbol. In the late ‘70s and ‘80s, the “Sloane Ranger” style, the UK’s answer to the American “yuppie,” grew to prominence in London. The style referred to a set of hip, upper crust Londoners who lived in and around Chelsea (near Sloane Square). A Sloane Ranger took on a more traditional style, often reveling in class and status: men in suits, women in pearls. This style was stuffy and ostentatious, a stark contrast to the “Champagne Socialist” look of previous decades, when young Londoners’ politics and fashion often had to endure accusations of “slumming it.” As with preppies, the style became ubiquitous among the upper class, peaking with the publication of the Sloane Ranger Handbook in the early ‘80s. Burberry, among other luxury brands, was a favorite among this set.
As recognizable luxury brands became synonymous with financial success, lower classes began seeking out luxury logos, whether the product was authentic or counterfeit. The rise of the Burberry check among chavs was a part of the ‘90s “logo wave.” This period saw the rise of iconic brands like Gucci, Chanel and, of course, Burberry, among lower income and international customers. Though Burberry wasn’t totally thrilled about its newfound working class cache and its potential impact on its high-end, if stuffy, reputation, they did embrace it to some extent. The now famous Kate Moss Burberry campaign in 2000, in which an entire wedding party is outfitted in the Burberry check, resonated across the UK and US, making the pattern truly ubiquitous. A luxury reputation that was once gated off by price and prestige slowly became a cultural staple—a highly exported icon with plenty of status both within and without the rest of the Burberry brand.
Cue the so-called brand dilution that Bailey was brought in to combat. In 2002, a now famous tabloid photo of British soap opera star Daniella Westbrook in full Burberry check—wearing a Burberry check miniskirt, holding a Burberry purse and pushing a Burberry stroller—took the British media by storm. Westbrook had even outfitted her young daughter in a matching skirt. This moment has stuck in British pop culture as the nadir of Burberry’s chav moment. It’s difficult to overstate how big a deal this was in the class-conscious British media. Take a look at The Guardian’s brutal words from the time:
“But, there is one image in the history of Burberry that sticks in the mind, with the same lingering cloy as a half-sucked toffee: a picture of the actress Daniella Westbrook clad top to toe in Burberry check: the hat, the skirt, the scarf, her baby dressed up to match, as if she had gorged herself upon it, rolled about in it like a pig in muck. It looked like the end of the much heralded Burberry revival: the Burberry check had become the ultimate symbol of nouveau rich naff.”
As the upper crust began to abandon Burberry, and high-end retail stores stopped stocking it, international sales skyrocketed. UK sales only totaled 15 percent of Burberry’s income in 2004. Following the money, the company went along with this trend, over-licensing the check for all sorts of products. British working class interest in the brand continued to explode during this period. UK and Eastern European soccer fans became obsessed with the brand, earning the nickname “Burberry Lads.” One writer joked that if it rained in London in the early 2000s, a sea of Burberry umbrellas would envelope the street.
Following this massive popular resurgence (and subsequent overexposure), Bailey worked with executive Angela Ahrendts to right the ship. They bought back numerous licenses as they became more protective of the brand. The check was once again a more exclusive design. Bringing the check back in-house led to huge increases of revenue, hitting 27 percent growth in 2011. Though in recent years this success has tapered off (and some industry insiders view the exclusive approach Burberry has taken as limiting for overall profit) the company has seriously rebounded.
Just before Bailey’s announced departure, the regime teamed with Russian streetwear designer Gosha Rubchinskiy on his Spring/Summer 2018 collection creating pieces that lean into the check’s “chav” reputation. This approach is similar to streetwear collabs we’ve seen in the luxury space as of late, like Louis Vuitton’s Fall/Winter 2017 collection blending high and low culture in the form of a collaboration with Supreme. Considering Rubchinskiy’s ability to design highly sought-after (and somewhat exclusive) designs off of his own experiences in the grungier Russian skate and soccer scenes (both adjacent to “chav” culture in their own respective time and place) he’s the perfect designer to reference Burberry’s past working class appeal and evoke ‘90s street style. As is the case with several of his earlier runway shows, some of his models were styled to look like football hooligans. All in all, it’s a move that runs counter to what Bailey was brought in for in the first place, but—in a twist of irony—might very well be the buzziest thing that Burberry has done as of late.
This current moment feels like the logical end point of Burberry’s history. Rubchinskiy’s designs are essentially low fashion as high fashion, a combination of the “Burberry Lad” and “Sloane Ranger” ethos; it’s hard to ignore the fact that we live in a time where flaunting your wealth with logos (or in this case prints) isn’t embarrassing, but embraced. While Burberry has spent decades see-sawing between stuffy elitism and chav ubiquity, this new collection may have been finally brought balance to the brand. As Bailey eyes his exit, the Burberry check may, cheekily, be in exactly the right place.