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Britain's Christopher Bailey Is What's Happening to Burberry

The young designer helps open a new store in Beverly Hills.

November 02, 2001|VALLI HERMAN-COHEN | TIMES SENIOR FASHION WRITER

If most luxury clothing stores seem like cold and remote art exhibitions, then Burberry's new Beverly Hills store is as warm and inviting as a petting zoo. When the bright and spacious store opened to great fanfare last week, everyone from movie stars to socialites to security guards seemed impelled to touch the fuzzy cashmere baby sweaters, stroke the velvety shearling coats and pet some of the most tactile fixtures around--life-size woolly sheep.

The packed grand-opening party not only debuted a fresh look for the company's boutiques, but also introduced Christopher Bailey, the new young designer behind the 145-year-old brand. His assignment? Follow through on the company manifesto to turn Burberry into a worldwide, accessible luxury brand.

The tousled and trim Bailey, 30, arrived at Burberry in May as a relative unknown, but he was mentored by two powerful fashion figures. Donna Karan hardly waited for Bailey to graduate from London's respected Royal College of Art before asking him to join her organization in New York, where he worked in everything from eyewear to ready-to-wear. Barely two years passed before Tom Ford of Gucci recruited him as a senior women's wear designer, a five-year stint that began just as Gucci was beginning its momentous rise.

"It's been a thing of my whole career," Bailey said over lunch at the Regent Beverly Wilshire hotel. "I never planned where I was going." Yet after half a decade with Gucci, Bailey said, he was beginning to think about his future options.

"I'm still very young, and I wanted to see other things," he said. Then Rose Marie Bravo, Burberry's chief executive, called, seeking a designer with a British sensibility, and, ideally, experience within a company she had admired, Gucci.

"He was the first person I met of 30," said Bravo, who also came to Los Angeles for the store opening. "He brought a whole portfolio of ideas for Burberry. It was so sensationally right for where we were taking the brand."

When Bravo arrived at Burberry in 1997, the American store executive studied Burberry's heritage as outerwear for farmers and soldiers and positioned the brand in a rather unpopulated niche--approachable, functional, premium fashion. Many items are under $100, and coats and jackets cost from $300 to $700. Unlike virtually every new designer boutique in Beverly Hills, the Burberry store, designed by Daniel J. Barteluce and Randall Ridless, doesn't have a secret VIP area.

The Wilshire Boulevard store is built on the site of the former Planet Hollywood and sits in a literal and psychological midpoint between the tourist-friendly Nike Town, where shopping is theater, and the upscale Barneys New York, the destination for fashion connoisseurs. The company's retooled philosophy is reflected in the colorful and airy store design, which is in stark contrast to the traditional dark wood interior of the South Coast Plaza store. The new approach reportedly has helped lead the privately owned Burberry to record profits last year.

Bailey, who joined Burberry mid-resurrection, will have to maintain and expand the momentum and give the collection a personality distinct from the sporty feel of his predecessor, Roberto Menichetti, who, after two years, suddenly announced his departure in March to pursue other projects.

As creative director over all of the collections, including the top-end Prorsum, Bailey is responsible for giving the brand a unified, British feeling, while keeping it current enough to entice repeat shoppers, not just tourists or logo collectors. That's a tricky position: Burberry's trademark, highly recognizable red, tan and black plaid could wither from overexposure if it's not given just the right edge.

Bailey's debut Prorsum spring collection featured slouchy pants, short and asymmetric skirts, but no noticeable logos or plaid patterns that appear in the lower-priced lines. As he sets upon proving himself in his first high-profile position, Bailey seems to accept the challenge with humility.

"My aim is not to be the star," said the designer, who lives and works in London. "Of course, there is a certain amount of prestige with the role. My priority is to understand the brand and the foundations that Rose Marie and her team have built."

It certainly helps that Bailey brings a firm grounding in the company's roots and culture. "Because I'm British, I grew up with Burberry," said Bailey, who spent his childhood north of London in "a tiny country town" with his carpenter father and display director mother. Raised away from the pretension of the city, Bailey retained an objective view of fashion and glamour while remaining passionate about design. He speaks excitedly about observing craftsmen at work in the factories and learning every detail of production.

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