Last month, when Christopher Bailey took his bow on the patterned, handwoven carpet at the end of the Burberry show in a former Soho bookstore, it was clear that times were changing. There were far fewer guests at Makers House — the name Burberry gave to its temporary venue — than at past shows, which took place under a vast marquee in London’s Hyde Park.
Guests sat on chintz-upholstered benches and thumbed through copies of Virginia Woolf’s time-traveling, gender-bending novel “Orlando,” a handsome edition that Vintage Classics had produced specially for Burberry’s September show — its first seasonless, male-female outing. The show also was Burberry’s gamble on a new see-now-buy-now strategy that Bailey revealed in February, and which American rivals such as Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and Michael Kors were quick to embrace.
“The world is changing dramatically, and we’ve all changed our behaviors, because of the web and these beautiful devices we all carry around,” said Bailey, Burberry’s chief creative and chief executive officer, the following day, pulling a slim iPhone from the pocket of his dark jeans. “The customer is shopping in new ways, and engaging in new ways, and we have to change our process and traditions. It’s really tough, it’s challenging and it’s difficult. The industry is changing dramatically for all of us — business as usual is not possible for anyone.”
For Burberry — and others — that new way of doing business focuses on giving customers an instant fix, rather than stringing them along and asking them to buy clothes they saw six months ago. On the evening of Sept. 19, Burberry kept its word, offering 83 looks and more than 250 pieces as soon as Bailey took his bow.
“In fashion we talk about ‘a moment,’ and what feels right for the moment. And I’ve always battled with that, because the moment is when you’re showing it. So it’s just trying to say to the customers: ‘You’re really important to us. We’re serving you and we need to change our ways rather than expect you to.'”
Bailey is adamant that see-now-buy-now is the way forward, and argues that it’s also a natural next step for Burberry, which has long been a digital leader: It was among the first big names to live-stream shows, allow customers to buy items off the runway and sign deals with social media platforms.
“The conversation was very one-way,” Bailey said. “It used to be about a shop window, magazines, billboards. Today, the conversation is a dialogue. We can post something on Instagram, and within a nanosecond, we get feedback from people engaging with our brand, what they love, what they don’t like, how we could do something differently. You start to get a world map: In the Middle East something could be resonating, or in some part of Asia something is interesting. It’s data in its purest form.”
He believes it’s his responsibility as Burberry’s creative chief to respond to his customers and their needs: “Design is about emotion and creativity and ideas, but it’s also about function — what works and what doesn’t work. It’s also about being relevant and pushing things forward.”
Being relevant means no longer talking about seasons — and Burberry’s shows will now be known simply as September and February. “The world isn’t seasonal anymore, with air-conditioning, traveling and the weather changing because of climate change. If it is summer here, it is winter somewhere else. I just don’t know if our customers and the audiences that interact with fashion think in terms of seasons. They interact with something beautiful, relevant, something that has a point of view. They see something on the web, or in one of our stores or up on a billboard and they have an emotional reaction to it.”
In addition to demanding immediacy, Bailey believes today’s customer wants brands to reveal “who they are, what they stand for, their transparency, what is behind the collection, the story behind the piece. Whether it’s virtual online or physical, it has to be an experience, trying to make this big, fast world more personal.”
Burberry certainly drummed up the drama at the September show. As male and female models trod the handwoven carpet in a setting inspired by Nancy Lancaster, the interior designer credited with creating the English country look, a 21-piece orchestra, pianist Rosey Chan and vocalists were downstairs performing “Reliquary,” a score written specially for the show by the British composer Ilan Eshkeri.
In the same space, artisans — calligraphers, sculptors, embroiderers, printers and others — were at work at tables or in small studio spaces, underlining Burberry’s respect for craft, and the work that goes into its collections.
Bailey believes the show — and the spectacle around it — resonated with virtual and present guests alike, with hundreds of customers and guests gathering at Burberry’s Regent Street and Los Angeles flagships to watch the live-stream — and shop — and thousands more tuning in digitally.
“It was a new message, and they loved the fact that there was theater around it, and that it felt cinematic. The same thing was happening in our store in Los Angeles as in Regent Street. They were a part of something — and that’s what has changed.”
Burberry live-streamed the show to seven cities: Paris, Milan, Zurich, London, New York, Los Angeles and Vancouver. It also hosted delayed live-streams, depending on the time zone, to an additional 24 cities.
Live content from the show received 4.4 million views across all its social channels, while more than 20,000 people visited Makers House in the week following the show.
The company has declined to release data on how the collection has been performing so far, except to say that some of the key looks had sold out online shortly after the show, with cavalry jackets costing $6,500 among the most popular items.
Higher-ticket merchandise also sold quickly on multibrand web sites such as selfridges.com and Mytheresa.com, where the collection was available to purchase a few minutes after the show. Selfridges.com stocked the brand’s small python and ostrich leather shoulder bags, priced at 1,500 pounds, or $1,947, in a wide range of colors, and the majority had sold out the same night as the designs were presented.
Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus, said he witnessed Burberry’s see-now-buy-now strategy in action at Heathrow Terminal 5 the day after the show. “I just passed the Burberry boutique in the airport and the clothes are there and people are shopping. What we saw on the runway is in-store — even the embellished, military pieces, not just a sweatshirt, the runway pieces are there,” he said.
“I certainly applaud Burberry for understanding that the customer is caught in the moment and when they see it, they want it, and they want to wear it.”
Others view the see-now-buy-now strategy in a different light. “It is an interesting development. In practical terms, I think this is more a communication coup than a material commercial initiative,” said Luca Solca, managing partner at Exane BNP Paribas.
In many ways, Burberry was already laying the groundwork for see-now-buy-now. Like many brands, it was selling its women’s ample pre-collections to buyers around the same time it was staging men’s shows. In addition, designers did away with weather-specific fabrics long ago, nodding to the seasons only in their choice of color palette.
Bailey admitted that his teams’ day-to-day “changed completely, and didn’t change at all in the sense that the process of creating a collection doesn’t change. You still have to start with a spirit, a mood, an idea and do all your research, spending hours at the V&A [Victoria and Albert Museum], watching films, listening to music. The process of the fittings and the design and creative process didn’t change, our calendar changed.”
Bailey said he and the team had the unexpected luxury of time after they finalized the collections in the late spring, and once they’d met with workrooms, suppliers, manufacturers, wholesale partners and the media. “We had quite a long time to unpack the story, the show and the collections. On the whole it was an incredibly positive and energizing process. It was a lot simpler, remarkably, than I anticipated and everything fit into place.”
Some things did change. Because the big reveal wasn’t to be until September, buyers writing orders had to sign nondisclosure agreements, as did magazine editors, while samples earmarked for photo shoots and deliveries were sealed and sent worldwide with the sort of secrecy worthy of the Pentagon Papers.
The show is also a cornerstone in an overarching strategy for Burberry, Britain’s most commercially successful fashion house, a FTSE 100 company with a market capitalization of 6.62 billion pounds, or $8.21 billion at current exchange. In a bid to reshape itself for the future — and a deflated luxury market — Burberry has unveiled an austerity plan aimed at streamlining its back-office operations, slashing its product offer, boosting retail productivity and catering more to the needs of the local clientele. It’s also looking to deliver cost savings of at least 100 million pounds, or $124 million, by 2019.
Next year, a new chief executive officer, Céline’s current ceo Marco Gobbetti, will start working with Bailey, who will become president, in addition to chief creative officer.
Although he is passionate about the new strategy, Bailey is quick to admit that everything remains fluid. “We don’t have all the answers and we’re working through this. I’ll sit with the teams and see what works, what doesn’t work. There are lots of things to learn, we’re going to take stock and look at it in a very pragmatic way and say this was a bit chaotic, but actually this was really successful and really resonated.”
Bailey will have to move quickly. Customers — rather than fashion houses — are taking increasing control of the conversation. Next season, he may be forced to deliver the goods earlier — and with even more efficiency or, who knows, he may even have to slow down, and return to the old-fashioned way of doing things.