Chavtastic

Bring Back the Burberry Check

Christopher Bailey, it's no time to be shy.
From
Photographer: Matt Green

If menswear’s man of the moment is enthralled with Burberry check, maybe it’s time for the company to head back to the future.

Gosha Rubchinskiy, a designer who also works with Adidas AG, recently sent models clad head-to-toe in the pattern down the catwalk for a one-off collaboration.

Burberry Group Plc has worked hard to forget the check shirts and baseball caps that defined it a generation ago. The look was all the rage in the 1990s, but in the noughties the brand became associated with inner-city youth, more likely to be brawling in a provincial town center than snapped by bloggers. The plaid came to define the much-derided “chav” look.

Fast forward to 2017 and fashion can’t get enough of 90s inspiration or brash logos. Just look at Gucci’s use of its once-dated double-G motif, and LVMH’s tie-up with skate brand Supreme. In contrast, Burberry’s use of the check today is subtle to the point of invisibility.

Burberry Creative Director Christopher Bailey and new Chief Executive Officer Marco Gobbetti need to forget those “chav” connotations and repurpose the pattern for a new generation.

Some of the tech-savvy shoppers that luxury brands are desperate to woo weren’t even born when Oasis’s Liam Gallagher sported a Burberry shirt. And anyway, the red, black, white and tan fabric will look great on social media, appealing to domestic consumers and Chinese buyers alike.

There are some signs that Burberry is prepared to venture back into its lost decade. After all, Bailey gave his blessing to Rubchinskiy, and was front row at his show.

Burberry should build on this start to make some brave creative choices. Gobbetti inherits a company that has plenty of cash, and is making good progress cutting costs. But it lacks sparkle.

That’s evident in the most recent quarterly sales, where Burberry is lagging.

Consumers these days need a reason to spend on a new coat or handbag, so this is no time to be shy, says Luca Solca, analyst at Exane BNP Paribas.

If Burberry doesn’t want to lose its current aesthetic (although it really should), it could always use the Rubchinskiy tie-up as a springboard for more experimental collections. “Chav light” would be less risky, but would still create excitement. Alternatively, it could collaborate further with a third-party designer or artist. LVMH has long taken this approach, teaming up most recently with Jeff Koons for its bags based on famous artworks.

Analysts at Bernstein have argued that Burberry must decide whether it wants to be a luxury brand that shoppers aspire to, or more accessible. Smaller collections might help it figure that out.

With Gobbetti taking up the role of chief executive on July 5, Bailey will soon be freed from the strain of a dual leadership role and able to take full creative control. That also means he’ll have no excuses if the product doesn't sell.

If that’s the case, then the Burberry board will have to take a brave decision of its own: hire a new creative director. Gadfly has already argued this is needed.

Wholesale change is risky, and can backfire spectacularly. This danger mighty be tempered if Burberry were to, say, approach Celine’s Phoebe Philo, with whom Gobbetti has worked in the past. Philo’s clean lines couldn’t be further from 90s bling, but bringing her on board would be another way to breathe life back into the company.

With sales stagnating, the brand certainly needs to do something, and fast.

It is one of the few luxury houses unencumbered by a family shareholding, and has already attracted the attention of Groupe Bruxelles Lambert SA, which also took a stake in Adidas.

If Burberry can’t rediscover its creative mojo, then it could be a new owner checking those archives for inspiration.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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