In a Swirl of Fashion Industry Shake-Ups, Burberry's Christopher Bailey Stays Unfazed

In a Swirl of Fashion Industry Shake-Ups, Burberry's Christopher Bailey Stays Unfazed

interview by Mickey Boardman / photography by Simon Lipman

Burberry is the blockbuster show of every London Fashion Week and typically features a lavish production, star-studded front rows and a parade of see-now, buy-now designs. Christopher Bailey started working with the iconic British band back in 2001, rose to the position of chief creative officer in 2009 and served as the company's chief executive officer from 2014–2017. Despite being the captain of such a lavishly appointed fashion supership, Bailey is friendly, down-to-earth and seemingly unfazed by the massive upheaval happening in the industry these days. We caught up with him about his stint as CEO, the changes in the global fashion business and our mutual obsession with singer Alison Moyet.

One thing I love is that your mother was a window dresser for Marks & Spencer. Do you feel like that had anything to do with your being interested in fashion? It's a long way from M&S to the Burberry boutique on Regent Street.

My mum and dad were both quite conventional and both quite creative at the same time. I guess they always instilled in me to follow my dreams, whether that was my personal life, with relationships or doing the things I love to do. My mum was always a big, big believer in you've got to only do what you love doing. She spent far too much time doing [just that]. I guess it was because she loved her job. I mean she loved it. I never felt like my mum was going to work because she loved it so much. The idea that “you can do something creative and it can still be called a job" was probably the thing that I got most from my mum.

I am actually quite glad that I was brought up in that kind of environment because I was from quite a tough neighborhood. My school was not about education or anything to do with the creative arts. It was really that you got a job in a factory or you got a job in a shop. You might go into the army or you might go to prison. I was the first person in my family to go to university. It was just a very different environment. At home, it was an incredibly open environment.

At school did you feel like you didn't fit in, or did you know someday you would find your place?

The interesting thing is that I kind of found my little community. I loved music, and my schoolmates and I bonded over it. In my school, it was either we chose sport or music, and I was really obsessed with music. So I've always found my little band, my little world, but the interesting thing is that it wasn't until I went to art school that I suddenly felt I'd found my place. I couldn't even believe that there was such a place where everybody thought in similar ways to me. I definitely always felt slightly like I didn't belong, but not in a tortured way. I just didn't know that there was anything else, and it wasn't until I went to art school that I realized this whole other world was there.

What kind of music were you into back then?

I've always had a broad range. I loved things like The Cure. My first concert was [Bob] Dylan, when he came to the UK. I loved Joni Mitchell and I was always obsessed with the Pet Shop Boys. I love The Smiths, The Cult, The Damned -- my love of music was really pretty broad. I went through quite a strong moment where it was all about ska, and next I was all into the new romantics. I liked the intensity of it. I liked that it was everything. It was what you drank, what you wore, how you talked, how you danced. I liked that you could escape into these worlds.

You always have some sort of musical entertainment at the shows, and it's often some super cool young performer. I was so thrilled a few seasons ago when you had Alison Moyet.

I love Alison Moyet.

Worship. She looked incredible, and I have to say, especially during her big song by Yaz, “Only You," Sienna Miller, Kate Moss and I were singing along to every word. Some of the young hipsters around us didn't have any idea who she was, but I just felt very happy.

Yes, at the beginning of Yaz I became obsessed with her. I loved her confidence and I loved her. I always felt that she was authentic. She was who she was. She felt to me in those days what Adele does to me today in some ways. She was just an amazing singer-songwriter and completely not pretending to be anybody or anything. She is someone who is who they are, and I always admired that.

What did the team around you say when you wanted her? Did they say, “No, we need the new hot, hip thing"?

You know, it's exactly like you just said -- some of my team had literally never heard of her, and it's like, “What? That's impossible. You've never heard of Alison Moyet or Yaz?" and the others are like, “Ah, oh my god, she's so epic." It was exactly like your experience, but then what I think was interesting was that people started to research her and they were like, “Oh my god, she was amazing." And then the fact that Alison still had her incredible voice -- I'd probably seen her 12 months before in a little concert, so I knew she still had it. She couldn't have been more magnificent in every way. This was a whole new world for her and she just loved it. I'm still in touch with her. The funny thing is that there are very, very, very few people that you'll meet that you're kind of nervous about. It's kind of a childhood person, and so I was like, “Oh god!" I was nervous.

It's funny, maybe 10 years ago we shot Duran Duran --

They are amazing.

They are amazing. At the shoot, Yasmin Le Bon came by and I totally lost my mind, completely freaking out and hiding in the corner. Simon walked over to me and said, “Are you OK? Why are you acting so crazy all of a sudden?" and I said, “I had no fucking idea that your wife was coming. I'm literally obsessed. I'm losing my mind. I don't know what to do." And he said, “Are you joking? I had no idea. You should tell her. She'll be so excited." And I did, and she was a dream.

When you grow up with these people, they feel quite remote because we only ever saw them on TV, and then suddenly they're there and talking to you. It's kind of amazing.

Do you have any guilty pleasures musically?

I love ABBA. I love the Bee Gees. I love as popular as it gets. I'm not embarrassed by any of that stuff. I think it's what I always gravitated towards. I love Culture Club. I love Wham!

And now, speaking of gayness, you were the first openly gay executive in a FTSE 100 company in England. Do you feel like you're a role model, or are you just being who you are?

Yeah, it's funny because I gave a Q&A and a bit of a talk at a bank recently that wanted to do something for the LGBT audience and the employees that they had. It was there that I suddenly realized that I've always been comfortable in my own skin, even in Yorkshire, where it's a place where being gay when I was growing up wasn't something that was particularly accepted or something that you would talk about. I was always fairly confident about who I was and never really saw it as an issue. I think that's because of my parents. So I always said that I'm not really a spokesperson or ambassador for that because it's just who I am. But then I was talking to these people who come from a much more corporate world than the one that we live in, and I suddenly realized that we are just bloody lucky that we live and work in this world where no matter how fluid you are with your identity or sexuality or the way you live your life, it's pretty much accepted. It's pretty rare in our industry that those things can be shocking or misunderstood. But actually, amongst that audience, I suddenly realized how fortunate we are and how I shouldn't take it for granted, and how if there are moments where I need to stand up for those kinds of audiences to tell them about my experience, then it was important to do so. I've always been really comfortable. I had girlfriends. I had boyfriends. I settled on boys.

I love it. You did a sampling of everything and stopped at your favorite. You recently stepped down from your role as CEO. What was that experience as CEO like? What did you learn? And what didn't you learn?

I had always known that I wanted to do this for a period of time. There were lots of reasons why I decided to take that [position] when our board asked me to do it. I knew that it wasn't going to be a forever thing. I didn't know how much I would need to let go of the things I love to focus on the other things, and so I learned through that process, the things that I really love, I really do love them. I want to spend as much time as I possibly can on the creative side. I also realized that I'm quite good at compartmentalizing and saying, “Today is a numbers day and I'm with the analysts or I'm with the investors or the financial people or the operational teams," and that just didn't give me enough time to do the things that I loved. If it's one thing that I learned through life's experiences, it's that life's just too short. It's really important to follow your heart, so I decided that I needed a partner. The press always thinks that there's something deeper and darker to these things, but the reality is that I decided I wanted to spend more time doing the things that I love, and I felt that I could add much more value to those things and I could bring someone in to partner with me, so that's what I did. I have the kind of personality that does things when they feel right. I don't overanalyze and get caught up in the concern of who says what and what will they think and their perception. I just generally try to say, “This is right for now." Things change. I kind of love that about our world, that things change and there are evolving things.

What are the things that you love that you wanted to get back to?

I love design. I love the creative process. I love image-making, whether that be stills or moving images. I love music. I love creating environments, moments and experiences. What does a brand mean today? What does design mean today? How do we put clothes together, and what's the context of those clothes within society, within the industry and with customers? How do we talk to people about what we do? What will inspire people? I feel, Mickey, that the world has just changed dramatically in the last 3–4 years. I just feel it's a moment to reassess everything again and re-look at who we are and are we doing things in the right way? How can we make sure that we're not [just sticking] with formulas, and [instead] test and pioneer and try new things?

It's such a time of upheaval in retail and in fashion. Some people are very afraid of that. Do you find that scary? I find it kind of exciting.

I find it exciting. You definitely need to hold onto your chest and say, “OK, here it goes again," but I actually like that. I've always liked to throw myself into crazy moments and new challenges. I feel that's what keeps me excited and inspired. I'm not saying that it's easy, because usually these things are really tough. But that's what's inspiring and what makes it all exciting.

People are very excited about Burberry's collaboration with Gosha Rubchinskiy.

It's wonderful, right?

Business of Fashion had an editorial about how Burberry should embrace its “chav" moment from back in the '90s. What do you think about that?

I've actually worked on a couple of projects that will come out early next year that basically go down that track. It's a bit like what you were just saying with the music [and people thinking] they're too cool for school. You know, it's part of that history, it's a part of that heritage and it's a very relevant one. Seems like it's a moment to start playing again with that world. It's not by accident, these things. I certainly would not have done what I did with Gosha if it wasn't the right time to do it and the right moment.

Because I'm a big monarchist, what are your thoughts on the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge?

Well, they're wonderful. I love the modernity they have. I feel that they are contemporary, relevant. I love the way they've balanced the history and the heritage and gravitas and weight of that role and that title and that privilege. I love the fact that they talk about feelings and impressions. They've got a big campaign about making sure that people talk about mental health and talk about their feelings and their past and how they impact personalities and life. I just think they're great.