A vertiginous 90 percent rise in stock price in the last 12 months. Stock trading at 25 times earnings. Wide expansion into global markets. Success is rapidly cresting for Britain’s largest luxury retailer, Burberry Group. But from where did this absurd bounty come, and how can it be emulated or sustained?
The company began when a 21-year-old named Thomas Burberry opened up a shop for outerwear in England in the 1850s. By 1888 he had patented a waterproof fabric called gabardine and in 1914 he invented the trench coat on commission from the British War Office. Burberry’s products earned rugged credibility by clothing the backs of famous explorers like Ernest Shackleton on his trip to the Antarctic and George Mallory when he was trumped by the vicious curvature of Everest. The company became synonymous with British style by mid-century and by the 2000s the ubiquitous check pattern was a luxury trademark counterfeited and distributed ad infinitum. In fact, the camel, black and red plaid became sullied by its easy availability and left discerning customers disenthralled.
By 2006 a rejuvenation of Burberry was in order and hence American Angela Arhendts became CEO of the company and decided to rein in spending while honing the brand’s luxury status. The high-fashion “Burberry Prorsum” line (meaning “forward” in Latin) was given more creative freedom under the designer Christopher Bailey while the product base of coats, scarves and handbags began to be carefully controlled. Last spring, Bailey’s line of tightly-ruched chiffon dresses under huge shearling jackets was critically acclaimed and has sold wildly well. Between the high fashion showmanship and the careful distribution and pricing of core product, Burberry has bloomed. Now they are coming into the Chinese middle-class market to quench that 157-million-consumer-strong thirst for brand-name stuff.
What is more, this success story is quite singular. Most European heritage fashion companies have maintained a purely luxury status and have priced themselves out of the mass market entirely, such as Balenciaga or Givenchy. The closest comparison to Burberry is that of Ralph Lauren, the great story-weaver of American heritage fables — be it the wild west, the prim northeast or the romantic southwest. The difference is that Mr. Lauren’s world is a simulacra, a copy for which there was no original. Burberry, on the other hand, has stayed true to its iconic heritage, of trenches and outerwear, which precedes from the real thing — the useful products that Mr. Burberry pioneered.
I think Burberry’s fertile future lies in cementing those ties with the past and mining the functional for innovative design. Burberry thinks their future is entwined with online commerce. They were the first house to live stream a fashion show in 3-D with the option of immediate online pre-order. Their ads are offered in video mode. Their marketing might be catchy but it isn’t yet incendiary.
In the time following the influence of Marxist capitalism or since the simultaneous rise of Louis Vuitton, the symbolic value of cash quickly translated into the symbolic value of the brand logo, like the LV monogram or the Burberry plaid. Once money loses its inherent value, it treats information as a good to be sold and thus ideas circulate like money. Hence pleasure is not found in winning a final sum but in creating, in the invention of meanings.
This is the state of e-commerce: The Internet cannot be “won,” or deeply penetrated by a single retail force, but it must swirl in an infinity of exchange. Like early capitalism, the internet de-realizes money, making it even more symbolic in a world of purchased avatars and PayPal accounts. The material world is palpable through online retailing, but it isn’t quite tangible. It is in that moment of detachment from the physical where companies can build their enticements and fantasies. In a video, many Platonic phantasmas are possible and the senses can be fully confused and seduced.
Burberry hasn’t gotten that far. We watch the live fashion show and feel like we are in a room with some models walking, but do we barely feel the shiver of Mount Everest wind from inside our Burberry coat? Do we feel the warmth of gabardine repelling a wet London morning? If the new place to be commercially seduced is the Internet, then find us there, connect to us there. Fashion will always be reproducible. A garment cannot be an orchid, only an idea can be. Burberry has that idea, and they surely have the inertia, their strategy of seduction is what needs to keep unraveling forwards.