Burberry parts ways with Christopher Bailey as new CEO refashions brand

Christopher Bailey, who fashioned British trench coat maker Burberry into a global label, will step down next March.
Christopher Bailey, Chief Creative Officer of Burberry, poses with the trophy for Menswear Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards in London.
Christopher Bailey, Chief Creative Officer of Burberry, poses with the trophy for Menswear Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards in London.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON/PARIS (Reuters) - Christopher Bailey, who fashioned trench coat maker Burberry into a global label, will part ways with the British company next year, as its new chief executive revitalises the brand.

Bailey joined Burberry from Gucci, where he was senior womenswear designer, in 2001. Working with former CEOs Rose Marie Bravo and Angela Ahrendts, he made Burberry's camel, red and black check designs must-have items for fashion buyers.

While sales rose in the early 2000s, helped by ad campaigns fronted by model Kate Moss, Burberry became a victim of its own success when its check pattern was widely counterfeited, but Bailey successfully re-established its upmarket credentials.

Although Bailey also became CEO when Ahrendts left for Apple in 2014, Burberry's growth faltered, first as demand in Asia slowed, and then as it struggled to ride a rebound.

Bailey, who was paid 3.5 million pounds (S$6.3 million) in the year to end-March, will surrender share awards worth more than 16 million pounds when he leaves, Burberry said on Tuesday, adding he had decided it was time to pursue new projects.

In 2014, shareholders voted against a near 20 million pound share award to the 46-year-old designer which was not linked to performance. Some of these are included in those surrendered.

Burberry said Bailey would step down from his board positions of president and chief creative officer at the end of March, but would support Marco Gobbetti, who took over from him as CEO, until 31 Dec, 2018.

Bailey's exit will enable Gobbetti to revamp Burberry's creative direction as well as its operations, analysts said.

"Burberry... has become somewhat predictable and deja vu," Exane BNP Paribas said.

The company, which still manufactures trench coats in Yorkshire, northern England, poached Gobbetti from Celine to overhaul the business earlier this year, leaving Bailey with creative control.

Gobbetti has already made changes to the company founded in 1856 by Thomas Burberry, cutting costs and striking a licensing deal for make-up and perfumes after they were bought in house.

Under Bailey, Burberry moved upmarket, emphasised its British heritage and launched new leather goods like the Bridle bag. He also used social media and shook up traditional fashion production cycles by enabling people to buy designs as soon as they were shown on the catwalk.

The Burberry check baseball cap, a symbol of its earlier ubiquity, was resurrected in Bailey's recent collection, priced at 195 pounds.

Shares in Burberry, which listed at 230 pence in 2002, were trading down 1.4 per cent at 18.95 pounds at 1530 GMT.

Shareholder Old Mutual Global Investors said Bailey's departure was not a surprise as his role had already changed.

"Had this been a few years ago then it potentially would have been a big deal, given how important Bailey has historically been to the success of the brand," deputy fund manager James Bowmaker said. "Since then, however, Burberry has broadened out its creative talent."

Analyst Jelena Sokolova at Morningstar said Burberry's new products were doing well, but staples like coats had lagged and a creative overhaul was never a sure-fire winner for a brand. "A transition is always a risk," Sokolova said.

Kering's Gucci has been reinvented by Alessandro Michele over the past two years, with colourful, rococo designs that have fired up sales at a far faster rate than competitors.

Finding a new designer can be a long process - France's Christian Dior took around eight months before appointing a new creative head last year and new designers don't always spell commercial success.

France's Lanvin is on its third designer in two years after parting ways with its one-time star Alber Elbaz in 2015, while French luxury powerhouse LVMH recently denied a report that Celine designer Phoebe Philo was set to leave the label.

But the Business of Fashion report fuelled fresh speculation on Tuesday that she could follow Gobbetti to Burberry.

The pool of potentially readily available top names includes Elbaz and Bouchra Jarrar, two Lanvin alumni, Ricardo Tisci, who left LVMH's Givenchy earlier this year, and Hedi Slimane, former artistic director at Kering's Saint Laurent.