Born and raised in Yorkshire, England, Christopher Bailey, creative director for the UK-based Burberry fashion house, did not plan a career in fashion. His father was a carpenter and his mother a visual merchandiser for Marks and Spencer, the British retailer. “I originally thought about being an architect,” Bailey notes. “I always loved everything about design—colors, texture, materials, creating things. I started to design at school when I was 13.” He attributes his love of fashion to his Italian grandmother. Then one of his teachers sent some of his work to the Royal College of Art in London and he won a place there. He graduated from the Royal College with an MA in fashion in 1994. “That’s how I got into fashion,” Bailey says.
While he was studying, Donna Karan visited the college and asked him to work for her. In 1994, he joined her business in New York and remained for more than two years. Then he met Tom Ford who offered him a place with Gucci in Milan, where he worked from 1995 to 2001, becoming senior designer of womenswear. But being British, when the opportunity arose to return home—Rose Marie Bravo, owner of Burberry, offered him a job—he accepted it, joining Burberry in May 2001.
As Burberry’s creative director, he is responsible for the design of all product lines as well as the definition of the company’s overall image and concepts for seasonal advertising. While there, he has built on the company’s legendary past while revamping it with contemporary silhouettes, fabrics and finishes. Bailey also oversaw the start-up of Burberry’s immense 57th Street flagship store in New York, which opened in 2002. In 2005, Bailey was presented with the Designer of the Year Award at the British Fashion Awards.
With all his product designs, Bailey always tries to understand the soul and heartbeat of the brand he is designing. “I think that’s the role of the designer today,” he explains. “It’s a competitive marketplace and we need to understand what our designs are all about and bring something fresh to them—whether it’s reinterpreting familiar icons or bringing in a new vocabulary to an existing brand.”
Bailey’s design philosophy is about keeping it real, but also making it aspirational—functional, but seductive. “Whatever the product, in the end, it’s all about details, proportions, fabrications,” Bailey continues.
“I actually base my philosophy on the Burberry trench coat. It’s very democratic,” he says. “With Burberry, we have a broad audience, seemingly full of contradictions. The coat can be both classic and conservative and also fashionable and stylish. It’s not sizeist or sexist or ageist. A small girl or an old man can wear it. We dress rock stars and royalty. We have pictures from the same period with the Queen of England in a Burberry and also Sid Viscious of the Sex Pistols,” he explains. “What I like about the coat is we can constantly reexamine it and then bring all the contradictions together into one product.”
Another product Bailey is very excited about is eyewear. Burberry has a licensing agreement for ophthalmic frames and sunglasses with the Luxottica Group, who launched its first Burberry eyewear collection early this year. “Fashion houses are no longer just about ready-to-wear,” the designer says. “They are about watches, fragrances, shoes, bags, eyewear— all hugely important to the overall look. Eyewear has become an integral part of style and wardrobe. It used to be primarily functional. Now there is a much more seasonal approach to eyeglasses, in large part because the consumer has a strong desire for newness. Today we change eyeglasses as frequently as we change a handbag or shoes,” Bailey explains. This keeps the industry constantly evolving and adapting, he notes.
What Bailey believes distinguishes Burberry eyewear from the competition is its British flavor and attitude. “We think our eyewear successfully embodies and reflects the contradictions of the Burberry brand.”
The designer wears ophthalmic eyewear and has three pairs of frames (rectangular and oval) and two sunglasses, which he describes as on the “smallish side.” The ophthalmics are in lighter colors—gold, silver and smoky brown to accommodate “my light British complexion.”
One of the biggest challenges in creating eyewear, the designer says, is getting the right balance between technology and the speed in which the market is moving. “With eyewear, the lead time is longer than with fashion. We create something ‘of the moment,’ but it won’t be on the market for nine months. Yet it has to be timely. And current. That’s a challenge.”
When Bailey designs, he is not limited by themes. “I keep my eyes open the entire time and incorporate ideas from books, film, talking with someone. I have been fortunate. As a designer, I have had incredible mentors— Donna Karan, Donna for me is one of the great American icons of design, Tom Ford, Rosemary Bravo, amazing people,” he says. He also has enormous respect for such legendary designers as Christian Dior and Coco Chanel. “They were revolutionary in a significant way, paving the way for what fashion is today.”
Regarding the future of fashion, Bailey thinks consumers will look for beautifully crafted pieces and brands that have a real point of view. “The fashion industry is changing at an enormous speed. Consumers are demanding newness and freshness and designers are responding,” Bailey says.
When asked about his personal definition of style, Bailey responded: “Individuality. And diversity. I’m not big on putting tags on people. True style is a feeling of confidence. It’s not changing with every passing whim.” As for color, he loves many hues. “Khaki, stone, strong primary colors—red, yellow, blue. I have always loved all shades of blue from cobalt to denim. And I love black.”
For the future, Burberry under Bailey will continue to open new stores in England and the U. S. and will work on its new global headquarters in London. And for himself, Bailey says although he has always thought about being an architect, he likes what he does. “Fashion is an amazing business. My job allows me to do so many things—not just design fashion, but create eyewear and other products, work with architects on store designs, develop merchandising programs… And for my leisure time, I have a lovely cottage in Yorkshire. I’m a happy chappy.”
— Gloria Nicola