Burberry repurposes for a new generation

Models in Gosha Rubchinskiy’s designs for his collaboration with Burberry.
Models in Gosha Rubchinskiy’s designs for his collaboration with Burberry.PHOTOS: BURBERRY/ INSTAGRAM

With Burberry lagging in sales and 1990s inspiration in vogue again, the company must breathe new life into its iconic design

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

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

Burberry Group 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 centre than snapped by bloggers.

The plaid came to define the much-derided "chav" look.

Fast forward to 2017 and fashion cannot get enough of 1990s 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 Group 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... Fast forward to 2017 and fashion cannot get enough of 1990s inspiration or brash logos.

Burberry creative director Christopher Bailey and new chief executive Marco Gobbetti need to forget those "chav" connotations and repurpose the pattern for a new generation.

Some of the tech-savvy shoppers whom luxury brands are desperate to woo were not even born when Oasis frontman 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, Mr Bailey gave his blessing to Rubchinskiy and was in the front row at his show.

Burberry should build on this start to make some brave creative choices.

Mr Gobbetti inherits a company that has plenty of cash and is making good progress in cutting cost.

But it lacks sparkle.

That is 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, said Mr Luca Solca, analyst at Exane BNP Paribas.

If Burberry does not 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 be more accessible. Smaller collections might help it figure that out.

With Mr Gobbetti taking up the role of chief executive on July 5, Mr Bailey will soon be freed from the strain of a dual-leadership role and able to take full creative control.

That also means he will have no excuses if the product does not sell.

If that is the case, then the Burberry board will have to take a brave decision of its own: Hire a new creative director.

Wholesale change is risky and can backfire spectacularly. This danger might be tempered if Burberry were to, say, approach Celine's Phoebe Philo, with whom Mr Gobbetti has worked in the past.

Her clean lines could not be further from 1990s bling, but bringing the designer on board would be another way to breathe life back into the company.

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

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

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

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2017, with the headline 'Repurpose for a new generation? Check'. Print Edition | Subscribe