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March 30, 2010

Plaid Dogs and Englishmen

It was always classic and utilitarian, but stylish and luxurious? Welcome to the world of Burberry now.

When Prince William gave his first press conference last September in the garden of Highgrove, his father's country house, he eschewed the stiff, traditional, double-breasted suit worn by Prince Charles and instead confidently donned a camel-colored lamb's wool crewneck sweater by Thomas Burberry. As the earnest face of "Britain's most eligible bachelor" flashed across the world, this casual look—subtle, dignified, and elegant—bespoke a self-possessed young man who had come into his own. But to fashion cognoscenti, it was a defining moment for an entire country. For after decades of playing an embarrassing sartorial second fiddle to the likes of Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Prada, Hermès, and even Polo Ralph Lauren—which, just to rub a little salt in the wound, had brilliantly adapted aspects of classic British style—England finally has a world-class luxury brand to call its own: the new Burberry.

Under the direction of 49-year-old American visionary Rose Marie Bravo, the reimagined company has risen like a phoenix from the ashes of a moribund old trading house marooned in an imperial past to become fashion's sexiest success story. Yes, Thomas Burberry—fabric revolutionary, inventor of gabardine, creator of the trench coat—is back again where he belongs: in the wardrobes of stars, statesmen, royals, and anyone else who cares about style, not to mention tradition.

Before Burberry's remarkable rebirth, one of the great mysteries of the past several decades was why the Brits had seemed so incapable of taking on their international competitors in the luxury market. There was a time, after all, when English tailoring set the standard for the world (the vented jacket, the front-and-back trouser crease—even the modern suit itself—were British inventions). And yet there was no British Brioni or Kiton, let alone a Giorgio Armani, in menswear. Even those esteemed purveyors of the Anglophile good life—John Lobb, Alfred Dunhill, Holland & Holland—are today foreign-owned.

Enter Rose Marie Bravo. In the three years since she left the presidency of Saks Fifth Avenue to become CEO of Burberry, Bravo has turned the 145-year-old London-based company on its ear. Without alienating its traditional (and aging) customers, she has vastly improved its menswear; opened it up to the young of both sexes; and added an inspired line of new products, from clutches to baby carriages to tongue-in-cheek dog sweaters. She has made the once-sleepy brand fresh and sophisticated—and synonymous with wit, quality, and style.

When the company, rechristened Burberry ("The apostrophe was just too confusing," Bravo says), opened a new flagship store on Bond Street last August, followed four months later by its first freestanding emporium in Japan—five stories high in Tokyo's Ginza district—it triumphantly turned its back on its anemic underperformance during the 1980s. Back then, after rapid expansion during the 1960s and 1970s, Burberry's was going the way of the dodo, having gradually been brought to its knees by licensing agreements that flooded the market with dowdy designs. Prime United States stores might have carried its trench coats, but they carried little else.

What it did have, on the other hand, was amazing name-recognition. "Ninety-five percent of people knew the name," says Bravo, "and there are companies who spend millions for that kind of name-recognition." A trim, upright woman outfitted in a soft burnt-orange tweed jacket and silk foulard, she is sitting exhaustedly in an alcove after the packed early-morning showing of Burberry's Prorsum spring/summer 2001 women's collection.

The original company logo, Prorsum (Latin for "forward") is now the name of the designer collection for both men and women. The emphasis at the show for womenswear has been on sheer glamour. There are caramel and cornflower-blue jackets in the softest leathers; artfully constructed skirts that wrap around the body in interlocking folds; and a hand-tailored buttonless version of the trench that seems to be held together by nothing but air.

The men's Prorsum collection is equally deft. Beautifully hand-finished, like the women's, the clothes are youthful, wearable, handsomely cut, and fashioned in an eclectic mix of materials, from stretch tweeds and super-lightweights to cashmere and treated leathers.

Of course, much of the kudos for the elegance of these collections goes to Bravo's newly appointed creative director, Roberto Menichetti, a brash young designer who cut his teeth with Claude Montana and Jil Sander. A regular windsurfer and motocross rider, he wears a ponytail and is built like a stevedore—indeed, he seems surprisingly un-British.

" 'Should the designer be English?' was one of the first questions we had to face," says Bravo. "In the end, we decided Roberto perfectly combined British design traditions with the pride in workmanship you find today in Italy and France. He also had the energy to take Burberry's identification with sport and make it both more modern and feminine without losing its integrity. After all," she adds, "In the area of wearability and functionality, Burberry was an astonishing innovator."

A south-of-England draper, Thomas Burberry made his fortune by revolutionizing outerwear, creating the 19th century's version of Gore-Tex. In the late 1870s, he invented a way of treating Egyptian cotton so that it became not only totally waterproof but lightweight, fiercely strong, and impervious to both heat and cold. Christened gabardine, it was rapidly turned into coats for every kind of outdoor activity.

With the typical British flair for understatement, it also had some unusually rigorous field-testing by a few intrepid souls: For a period of almost 40 years it was worn on virtually every expedition to the North and South Poles. Both Sir Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott were decked out in Burberry's gabardine overalls, and Roald Amundsen actually left a gabardine tent at the South Pole to let Scott know he had arrived there first. (Amundsen later wrote: "Dear Sirs, Heartiest thanks, Burberry overalls were made extensive use of during the sledge journey to the Pole and proved real good friends indeed.")

But it wasn't only explorers who wore Burberry's—they were just making sure the coats worked properly. Kings and queens of Spain, Sweden, and Italy sported them with equal enthusiasm, as did the British aristocracy and everyone else on down the ladder. The versatile outerwear adapted perfectly to all the preferred pursuits of the landed gentry: grouse shooting, big-game hunting, trout fishing, skiing—and always with an air of sophistication that belied its functionality. The company's real coup, however, came during the early 1900s, when Burberry's began working on a certain rainwear design that would seal its future: the trench coat.

With its deep back yoke, storm flap, and buckled cuff-straps (to keep out the rain), its epaulets (to carry insignia), and its metal D-rings on the belt and elsewhere (to carry military accouterments), the trench soon adorned over 500,000 men and officers in World War I. From there it became a fashion icon embraced by a slew of stars: Bette Davis, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich. Who can forget Audrey Hepburn, dripping wet and radiant, clutching her cat under her Burberry's coat in Breakfast at Tiffany's, or Bogart and Bergman on the rainy runway, collars up, in Casablanca, or Peter Sellers' trademark trench in The Pink Panther? And though other companies the world over immediately fell over each other to copy the trench, Burberry's still had one card up its sleeve (so to speak): a signature plaid lining—chic, coveted, and unmistakable.

No one seems to know exactly where the plaid came from, but soon after its introduction in 1924 it migrated to a check umbrella, and from there to a decorative backdrop at the company's store in Paris. Whatever its origin, though, Bravo decided early on that the plaid and the trench coat (and Thomas Burberry's innovative way with fabrics) were the DNA out of which to create her new company. After recruiting new blood from Barneys New York and Saks Fifth Avenue, she quickly launched a campaign to protect the plaid as a trademark.

In his early lines, Menichetti created easy-wearing, postmodern takes on old Thomas' legacy. He reenergized the trench coat, producing it in buttery-smooth leather and transforming it into a slim, body-hugging raincoat. He made tweed jackets as soft as sweaters; lean stretch-wool slacks; and kilts, duffels, and quilted jackets out of novel and lightweight materials. He also played endless descants on the theme of the house plaid, rescuing it from linings and featuring it on dresses, shirts, skirts, and trousers—sometimes enlarging or shrinking it, darkening its stripes or lightening and dimming its colors—as in a new plaid called Nova—into brilliant new forms. But the greatest flash of inspiration was the itsy-bitsy plaid bikini.

It happened, as with many great ideas, over lunch—a tête-à-tête between Bravo and Anna Wintour, the editor in chief of Vogue, at the Four Seasons New York. "You know," Wintour mused, "people really seem to be into logos these days. Why don't you do a bikini?" An instant hit, it became the cheeky public calling card of the new administration.

At today's Prorsum show, however, the company appears to have entered upon a second phase. There have been almost no references to the plaid; it has been featured directly on one coat, and in scrambled and feather-edged or diamond-shaped forms on a few tops and trousers. This is Burberry International now, with its local origins all but shaken off, appearing only in echoes. Its touch is cool—Prorsum does not set out to shock or titillate; Burberry, after all, is not a member of fashion's so-called Brit Pack. What it is, though, is one of only a few global British companies capable of mounting a show of such luxurious sleekness.

Sleekness and luxury, in fact, are now watchwords across the whole of the Burberry product range. To refine their Burberry London menswear, the company hired a new designer, Irishman Michael McGrath, whose suits and jackets are now made in England (by Chester Barrie), in Italy (by Belvest), and in America (by Hickey-Freeman). Burberry also has made-to-measure menswear in the new Bond Street store, where it will soon introduce made-to-measure trench coats, with a choice of lining, silhouette, and detailing. In 2001 (the centennial anniversary of Burberry's invention of the trench), they plan to start the same service in New York.

Inside the new 15,000-square-foot Bond Street store, the atmosphere is that of an old country house that has been invaded by a hip new generation with a feeling for tradition but a taste for minimalism. The place is full of people, young and old. I ask Fabienne Kozel, the general manager, what she is selling.

"Everything! The Nova check, the Donegal plaid. There are waiting lists for our denims! The ladies are buying the beautiful hand-painted Prorsum leather. And accessories—wallets, mufflers, everything! We're selling 200 plaid bandanas a day!"

Welcome to the brave new world of Burberry.

Jo Durden-Smith profiled Penelope Fitzgerald in the November/December issue of Departures.