Burberry: From WWI Trench Coats to Global Luxury

1 minutes reading time
Published 17 May 2024
Reviewed by: Peter Westberg

From its early beginnings in a small Hampshire shop to its status as a beacon of British luxury, Burberry's evolution is an intriguing story of innovation and iconic style. Founded in 1856 by Thomas Burberry, the brand quickly distinguished itself with the invention of gabardine, setting the stage for a series of pioneering designs that would come to define its legacy. This story of a simple outfitter transforming into a global symbol of luxury fashion is not just about clothes but a journey through history, culture, and excellence. Join us as we explore Burberry, from crafting durable outdoor attire to modern luxury under the vision of Daniel Lee and Jonathan Akeroyd.

Key Insights

  • Historical innovation: Burberry's journey started with Thomas Burberry in 1856, who innovated with gabardine fabric, leading to the development of the iconic trench coat.

  • Symbolic identity: The Equestrian Knight logo, introduced in 1901, encapsulates Burberry's core values and British heritage, symbolizing protection and progress.

  • Leadership and vision: Recent leadership under CEO Jonathan Akeroyd and Creative Officer Daniel Lee has been crucial in driving Burberry's modern luxury vision.

  • Brand repositioning: Daniel Lee's leadership marks a significant rebranding effort, aiming to rejuvenate Burberry's image by blending its rich heritage with modern design and digital innovation.

Thomas Burberry: Where It All Started

Burberry, a quintessentially British brand, began its journey in 1856 when Thomas Burberry, then only 21, opened a small outfitter’s shop in Basingstoke, Hampshire. His innovations in fabric, most notably gabardine in 1879 – a breathable, water-resistant, and durable material – catalyzed the brand’s early success, setting it on a path to becoming a staple in outdoor attire.

By the 20th century, Burberry’s reputation for quality was so esteemed that it was commissioned by the British Army to design officers’ coats during WWI, which led to the creation of the iconic trench coat. Post-war, the trench also became popular among civilians. The 1920s saw the introduction of the Burberry Check, which became synonymous with the brand and was registered as a trademark. The brand was now favored among adventurers and explorers, like Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen and the aviators of the record-breaking flight from Croydon to Cape Town, who all wore Burberry’s gabardine.

Throughout the mid-20th century, Burberry expanded globally, fueled by booming demand in the American and Japanese markets, which embraced Burberry’s blend of prestige and practicality​​.

The latter part of the 20th century highlighted Burberry’s innovative spirit under various leaderships, with Rose Marie Bravo rejuvenating the brand in the late 1990s. She repositioned Burberry among modern luxury fashion houses, significantly enhancing its global image. The early 2000s under the creative direction of Christopher Bailey marked further modernization, aligning Burberry with contemporary trends while respecting its storied heritage. Burberry also embraced digital innovation, being one of the first luxury brands to stream its fashion shows online and expand aggressively into e-commerce​.

Burberry’s Equestrian Knight logo, created in 1901, is a distinctive symbol that encapsulates the brand’s core values and British heritage. The logo features a knight in armor, holding a lance, seated on a horse, underscoring themes of protection and forward movement. This is accentuated by the Latin word “Prorsum,” meaning “forward,” which appears on the knight’s banner, signaling Burberry’s commitment to innovation and progress.

The Equestrian Knight logo was introduced as part of Burberry’s broader efforts to trademark and protect its brand, reflecting the founder Thomas Burberry’s vision of crafting high-quality, durable clothing suitable for the outdoors. Over the years, the logo has become an emblem of luxury and authenticity, reinforcing the brand’s connection to its British roots and heritage of outdoor and military apparel.

Although the logo was redesigned in 2018, removing the knight from its prominent position in favor of a more modern, typographic logo, the Equestrian Knight remains an integral part of Burberry’s visual identity, used selectively to denote heritage lines and special collections.

Jonathan Akeroyd and Daniel Lee

Jonathan Akeroyd is the current CEO of Burberry, having taken on the role in April 2022. Akeroyd is a British national with a strong background in the luxury fashion industry. Before joining Burberry, he was the CEO of Milan-based Gianni Versace SpA, where he significantly accelerated growth and reorganized the company. Before that, he served as CEO of Kering-owned Alexander McQueen from 2004 to 2016, where he led a successful turnaround and laid the groundwork for global expansion.

Further reading: Kering's Rise to Power: The Epic Battle for Gucci

At Burberry, Akeroyd succeeded Marco Gobbetti and has been tasked with continuing the brand’s legacy of luxury while driving new growth and innovation. His extensive experience in the luxury sector is seen as a key asset in guiding Burberry through its next phases of development, particularly in enhancing product offerings and customer experience. Akeroyd’s leadership is part of Burberry’s broader strategy to connect with a global audience while maintaining its unique British heritage.

The Chief Creative Officer, Daniel Lee, born on January 22, 1986, in Bradford, England, has carved out a significant path in the industry with his distinctive approach to luxury design. Educated at the prestigious Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, Lee’s path into fashion began with stints at iconic brands such as Maison Margiela, Balenciaga, and LVMH-owned Céline, where he developed a keen eye for minimalistic, high-quality fashion.

Further reading: Inside LVMH: The Arnault Family and the Empire's Next Generation

Lee’s most notable role came as the Creative Director of Bottega Veneta, where he was celebrated for rejuvenating the brand with his modern touch and for creating the viral “Pouch” clutch and “Puddle” boots. His work led to a surge in Bottega Veneta’s popularity and several accolades, including four awards at the 2019 British Fashion Awards for Brand of the Year, Designer of the Year, British Designer of the Year for Womenswear, and Accessories Designer of the Year.

In September 2022, Lee took over as the Chief Creative Officer at Burberry, bringing a promise of returning to the brand’s functional roots and British heritage. His debut collection was noted for aligning with Burberry’s tradition while also pushing the brand in new directions.

Sir Lewis Hamilton’s 2024 Met Gala Look

In his fifth appearance at the Met Gala, Sir Lewis Hamilton, known for his distinctive style, surely didn’t disappoint outfit-wise. He was dressed head-to-toe in an all-black Burberry look which, in the coat’s lining, honored the first black gardeners in the UK – specifically, John Ystumllyn.

Ystumllyn was, according to his biography, abducted from his home in Africa to become a servant for an upper-class family in Wales when he was about 8 years old. Eventually, however, he was able to embrace his horticulture, becoming the first black gardener. Hamilton said that “through adversity, he really triumphed, so that’s where the inspiration [for the outfit] really came from.” The outfit was put together with Hamilton’s stylist, Eric McNeal, and Burberry’s Daniel Lee, and the excerpt inside the coat featured a poem by Alex Wharton, “The Gardner.” It read:

“I hope the sun pours light upon our skin. And we melt into each other, into everything. Maybe the trees will speak, as they sometimes do. Whispers from the shade — Run, run away.”

Repositioning (or bringing back?) the Burberry Brand

Burberry’s recent brand repositioning under the creative direction of Daniel Lee marks a shift towards refreshing the brand’s image and appealing to a modern, global audience while retaining its distinctive British heritage. Since taking over, Lee has initiated a bold transformation that includes the introduction of a new logo and monogram that nods to Burberry’s rich history but with a contemporary twist. This rebranding effort also embraces a more casual and youthful aesthetic, a departure from the brand’s previous formal style, aiming to resonate with younger consumers​.

The rebranding strategy has also been reflected in Burberry’s marketing and product offerings. The brand has been increasingly integrating digital innovation into its strategy, enhancing its online presence and leveraging social media to engage with a broader audience. This digital push is aligned with the industry’s broader trends, where luxury brands are seeking to merge traditional appeal with modern technology to stay relevant in a rapidly evolving market​​.

Overall, Burberry’s repositioning strategy aims to elevate the brand’s luxury status while making it more accessible and relatable to a global audience, and increasing the British connection. The early phases of this strategy have shown positive responses from customers and stakeholders, indicating a successful start to a multi-year plan to reshape Burberry’s identity and growth trajectory.

Closing Thoughts

While facing many challenges over the last few years, Burberry’s journey from a modest outfitter to global luxury is an interesting study of tradition and innovation. Burberry has remained at the forefront of fashion by continually evolving, all while holding onto its quintessentially British roots. From the creation of gabardine to the iconic trench coat, the brand has consistently pushed the boundaries of what is expected, adapting to the changing demands of the global market without losing sight of its heritage.

Leadership transitions have been pivotal in Burberry’s history, with figures like Rose Marie Bravo and Christopher Bailey shaping its modern identity before passing the baton to Daniel Lee. Under Lee, Burberry has embraced a forward-thinking approach, reshaping its classic elements to appeal to a contemporary audience without forsaking its distinguished history.

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