LONDON, United Kingdom — When the white smoke finally appeared from the Burberry chimneys on who would replace Christopher Bailey as chief creative officer, even the deliberations of the Vatican conclave could not have provoked such a collective gasp of astonishment. Riccardo Tisci, previously creative director at Givenchy, was not one of the most touted names like Kim Jones and Phoebe Philo, although as the weeks passed and speculation grew more frenzied to fill the vacuum, there was barely a designer who hadn’t been discussed for the role.
Tisci, who left Givenchy in February 2017, would seem to be an explosive choice for Burberry, a brand that has been transformed from a languishing heritage name, mired in unloved duty-free outlets and a worn-out check, into one of fashion’s big success stories.
While Burberry — first under American businesswoman Rose Marie Bravo who installed Bailey as designer and then under the double-act of Angela Ahrendts as chief executive and Bailey as creative director — focused on its distinctive British heritage, Tisci’s track record shows his heart to be in a dark, gothic sensibility laced with a subversive southern Mediterranean soul. At Givenchy, he took a house that epitomised bon-ton Parisian style and churned it up by bringing overtly sexual dressing, piercings, transgender models and a hard-edged urban romanticism to the fore. His gang of famous fans include Courtney Love, Beyoncé and The Kardashians.
In contrast, Burberry has invested hugely in forging an identity that is quite the opposite. Taking the gabardine fabric invented by Thomas Burberry in 1856, Bailey referenced a particular kind of Britishness to build the Burberry brand. The royal family and middle-market minstrels like James Bay were friends of the house, and the stores were revamped to be comfortable and sociable. The long-term marketing collaboration with Mario Testino produced a polished but irreverent take on British style, building the careers of unashamedly well born models like Cara Delevingne, Stella Tennant, Adwoa Aboah and Jean Campbell as well as embracing London stalwarts such as Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell. While Bailey paid tribute to the LGBTQ community a few weeks ago at his final catwalk show, it has more usually been local heroes like Henry Moore, The Charleston Art Group, David Hockney and the temperamental British weather that have provided inspiration for his collections.
What happens at Burberry is of great relevance beyond the house.
While Burberry is regarded as a status buy and defines itself as a “global luxury brand,” it has also been determinedly inclusive. Initiatives like The Art of The Trench, one of their first successful digital campaigns showing everyday people wearing Burberry trench coats, opened the brand up to a wider audience. The shift to “see now, buy now” was intended to make the shows more relevant to the public, although it was a limited commercial success.
In general, Burberry’s USP, along with its Britishness, is that it is an aspirational brand, but unintimidating and accessible. You don’t have to be part of some rarified fashion cognoscenti to wear it. It’s not about some crazy waiting list-driven mentality. Isn’t that the whole point? Isn’t Burberry the ultimate small-town boy made good, with a recognisable appeal and identity throughout the world?
But we are living in a fashion era when brands seem to be regarded as empty vessels that can be filled with an entirely new set of contents at any whim. The buzzword “disruption”— surely soon itself to become an outmoded concept — allows all manner of change to take place, often with little connection to what came before.
The appointment of Tisci is part of a broader elevation strategy announced by new chief Marco Gobbetti. The pair worked together at Givenchy before Gobbetti left for Céline (ironically another brand that looks to be ditching its hard-earned identity by replacing Phoebe Philo with Hedi Slimane) and he can no doubt manage Tisci’s creative originality, which is matched by a strong determination not to be cramped by any corporate or managerial pressure.
We are living in a fashion era when brands seem to be regarded as empty vessels that can be filled with an entirely new set of contents at any whim.
He will be aware that in the current climate, Tisci, an early supporter of broader diversity in fashion, will be seen as someone with his finger on the pulse and will have convinced his board of the worth of that positioning. Gobbetti will also have noted Tisci’s brilliance at streetwear-infused fashion and his work with leather, not to mention the booming high-end trainers market and the gender fluid sportswear, both trends of which Tisci is a founding father. The recent appointment of Virgil Abloh as men’s artistic director at Louis Vuitton is part of a similar trend.
It will not only be Gobbetti and the board but the eyes of a great many who will be watching, because what happens at Burberry is of great relevance beyond the house. While Burberry, like many luxury brands, has been suffering a sales slowdown, they are still one of industry’s biggest players and, in that capacity, have become an essential pillar of London Fashion Week and, to no small extent, the general perception of British fashion.
There is no other brand that has anything like the pulling power and financial clout that has helped London Fashion Week become a real force in the show calendar. The presence of a huge global fashion community at Burberry’s shows has benefitted the many talented, smaller designers who show during this period but who alone cannot draw such a crowd. Other high profile British brands like Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen have never been prepared to stake their all on London Fashion Week, preferring to commit to one-off pop-up events, but Burberry has pitched its tent (literally) on the home turf and brought a real status to the proceedings.
Tisci is a graduate of Central Saint Martins and a huge fan of the cultural mix that is London. When we last met for a coffee on Avenue Georges V in Paris in early 2017, he spoke of a plan to bring the Givenchy Spring/Summer 2018 ready-to-wear to the city that September. A few months later he had left the French house. Now, he is joining an institution that is much a part of our national heritage as bangers and mash. How it is going to taste with a hefty dollop of salsa diavolo is going to be intriguing to see. For Burberry to flourish as it needs to, Tisci will need to play to the broad-based appeal that gives the brand its unique slot in the fashion universe.
Alexandra Shulman is an author and the former editor of British Vogue.