Christopher Bailey Takes a Final Walk Down the Burberry Runway

Christopher Bailey at the Burberry headquarters in London.

LONDON — In a mahogany-paneled corner of the palatial Burberry flagship store on Regent Street, Christopher Bailey, the outgoing president and chief creative officer of Britain’s largest luxury brand, sat smiling at a corner table, shrouded in shadows.

It was early February, 10 days before the unveiling of Mr. Bailey’s final collection for Burberry at London Fashion Week, and three months after he had announced his departure from the company, a once-dormant heritage brand that over 17 years he had transformed not only into a retailing phenomenon — a multibillion-dollar enterprise with 460 stores and 10,000 employees — but also a global symbol of Britishness.

With that startling announcement, Mr. Bailey, 46, the former wunderkind of British fashion and one who had a cultlike following in the fashion world, had thrown up a plot twist no one anticipated. It’s one that may have repercussions throughout the industry as peers lobby for his job, the media speculates feverishly on what he will do next, and whether Burberry — and to a certain extent, British fashion — can maintain its place in a post-“Brexit” world.

“I keep waiting for a surreal moment or existentialist crisis,” said Mr. Bailey, dressed in jeans and a denim shirt, stirring cappuccino in a china cup with his silver spoon. “Perhaps I haven’t really engaged with the finality of it all because I am still in pragmatic mode preshow. But I really do want this. I need some balancing in my life, having worked at a thousand miles an hour for so many years.”

He paused for a moment and smiled softly, even a little sadly. “Besides,” he added, “I did have time to percolate on what it would mean to leave Burberry, long before this all went into motion.”

Certainly, the final years of Mr. Bailey’s tenure at the top were tumultuous, casting a shadow over a long and starry ascent that had begun when the affable Yorkshireman, son of a carpenter and a window-dresser for the British department store Marks & Spencer, graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1994. After a stint in New York working for Donna Karan, he moved to Milan to work for Tom Ford at Gucci, the job he had when, in 2001, he met Rose Marie Bravo, then the American chief executive of Burberry.

Credit...Ian Gavan/Getty Images

Ms. Bravo was tasked with rebooting the company after decades of poorly conceived licensing deals diluted both the creative and commercial powers of the brand founded in 1856 and best known for supplying trench coats to British army officers during World War I.

“The moment I met Christopher, I knew he was the right person for Burberry — it almost felt like a divine intervention,” Ms. Bravo said of Mr. Bailey, then a relative unknown.

Within weeks of that initial meeting, she hired him to replace the designer Roberto Menichetti as Burberry’s creative director.

“Burberry had a very strong history and Christopher was so passionate about it, and that of Britain too. So I said to him: ‘How far can you push the boundaries of what Burberry stands for? What does this brand have the power to be and say about British fashion?’” Ms. Bravo said.

Mr. Bailey’s answer was threefold.

First, he imbued every collection with references and nostalgic flourishes drawn from British culture, class, experience and weather: the signature Burberry trench reinvented in every conceivable cut and color, in prints and lace and velvet; Wellington boots and Fair Isle knits; Bloomsbury-style floral prints and ’60s-style leather with rock ‘n’ roll flair.

Then he enlisted a constellation of British stars for his ad campaigns and front rows: among them Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Cara Delevingne and Sienna Miller and up-and-coming male singers like James Bay and Tom Odell.

And finally, he fully embraced technology long before most rivals did to reach new luxury audiences, becoming the first British brand to live-stream and live-tweet its shows, create YouTube video ads, and even create a Burberry channel on Apple Music featuring only British musical talent, which he did in 2015.

As Burberry’s creative chief, working first alongside its chief executive officers Ms. Bravo and then Angela Ahrendts, Mr. Bailey came to enjoy a run as the golden boy of British fashion.

“For more than a decade there was a common phrase in the industry: ‘doing a Burberry,’” said Alexandra Shulman, the former editor of British Vogue. “The idea of taking a languishing and not especially desirable brand, then turning it into a global success, became the ultimate 21st-century fashion fairy tale. Much of that was down to Christopher.”

Though Mr. Bailey initially moved the Burberry shows to Milan to demonstrate to the fashion world that it could — and should — compete with such global names as Gucci and Versace, in 2009 he brought them home. That was the same year the brand’s many offices were consolidated into a single London headquarters, Horseferry House, the better to convey a made-in-Britain message. (The building, a glossy minimalist temple kept immaculately tidy by its staff, was designed down to the last detail by Mr. Bailey himself — including the mineral-water bottles he created for the staff cafeteria.)

“Christopher gave an unquantifiable boost to the identity of British fashion, making London Fashion Week a must-stop for buyers and press after years of being overlooked,” said Anna Wintour, editor in chief of American Vogue. “His genius was also in creating a world around Burberry where you could be any age or stage and still want a piece of it.”

In 2013, Ms. Ahrendts took a job at Apple as head of retail, and less than a year later Mr. Bailey — already in charge of an enormous portfolio that ranged from overseeing 50 collections per year to store design and marketing — was given his greatest challenge to date: becoming her replacement, and the new chief executive.

Some said later that Mr. Bailey was privately reluctant to take the leap, only to be vigorously encouraged by the Burberry chairman, Sir John Peace, fearful that his star designer might be getting restless. Others have suggested that as a figure whose down-to-earth modesty and witty intellect could occasionally unfurl to reveal the hallmarks of a control freak, the prospect of becoming the first designer from a major public brand to ever adopt a dual role — with such power — had proved irresistible to Mr. Bailey.

Either way, his arrival in the boardroom as joint chief executive officer and chief creative officer coincided with an industrywide slump in global luxury sales, prompted by a crackdown on gift-giving and slowdown in economic growth in China, geopolitical instability and volatile foreign exchange rates. Given its mid-tier price points, multiple diffusion lines and varied retail channels, Burberry was left exposed: sales soon flagged across key markets, particularly in China. Both profits and share price trended down, prompting Mr. Bailey to execute a number of difficult cost-cutting maneuvers, including shuttering stores, streamlining diffusion lines, approving layoffs and shelving plans for a new factory in Yorkshire after the “Brexit” vote.

Despite such buzzy initiatives as moving production to a “see now, buy now” approach, allowing customers to buy product straight from the runway, and combining his men and women’s shows into a single presentation, scrutiny among Burberry investors and the media over Mr. Bailey’s lack of formal business education — and hefty pay package — intensified over time. Acclaim for his collections, meanwhile, became more muted, from critics and shoppers alike. (In 2015, Mr. Bailey waived his bonus, taking a 75 percent pay cut — to 1.9 million pounds, or $2.6 million, from £7.5 million, or roughly $10.5 million.)

“Trying to be both a C.E.O. and creative director backfired for Christopher Bailey,” said Luca Solca, head of luxury goods at Exane BNP Paribas. “Quite simply, he took on too much.” Josie Cox, the business editor at The Independent, a London newspaper, was equally blunt in a recent article about Mr. Bailey’s departure: “He became C.E.O. and couldn’t quite hack it.”

After three rocky years during which Mr. Bailey juggled both his creative and management responsibilities, Marco Gobbetti of Céline was tapped to become Burberry’s new chief executive, with Mr. Bailey relinquishing the role to take up a newly created position as Burberry president last July. For a time the two men presented a united front, full of admiration for what the other would do for the now-flatlining fashion house. Then, on the last day of October, news broke that Mr. Bailey had something of a change of heart. His last collection for Burberry would take place during London Fashion Week, on Feb. 17.

“I played no part in it and am sad to see him go,” Mr. Gobbetti said at the time of Mr. Bailey’s decision. He called him “extraordinary” and added that he had been instrumental in Burberry’s transformation. “I have thoroughly enjoyed working with him over the past year. The legacy Christopher leaves and the exceptional talent we have at Burberry give me enormous confidence in our future,” Mr. Gobbetti said.

Yet Mr. Bailey’s departure comes at a crucial, perhaps dangerous, time for Burberry. Mr. Gobbetti has unveiled a dramatic “elevation strategy” intended to reposition the company as a super-luxe brand like Louis Vuitton or Dior (which have traditionally had higher prices and profit margins). There will be new product lines, heavy investment in revamping boutiques, and no more Burberry in department stores that lean down-market, all of which will hit the brand’s financial performance, and share price, in the short term. But who will design such exciting new products?

No one knows.

A Burberry spokesman said this week that while a search was underway, there would be no comment on any individuals until the successful candidate had been identified.

Speculation on who would get the job has included British names like Phoebe Philo (who left Céline in December), John Galliano (currently at Maison Margiela) and Stuart Vevers (at the design helm of Coach), and, most recently, Kim Jones, the former Louis Vuitton men’s wear designer applauded for revitalizing the Vuitton men’s wear line for a younger generation, mixing the house’s travel heritage with a more street-friendly style. Mr. Jones (perhaps pointedly) capped his final Vuitton show by sending out Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss — both famous Burberry girls — clad in trench coats. The 38-year-old has yet to confirm where he will go next.

Mr. Bailey, for his part, seemed resolved, even relieved, about moving on.

“Working at Burberry has been one of the great privileges of my life, and I hope that the next person we bring in feels as inspired and ambitious about this brand as I have,” was all Mr. Bailey would say on the matter last week. “Burberry has been like my family; it runs through my veins.”

“But I just had to make a decision,” he continued. “Burberry was clearly at the start of a new chapter. Would I, could I, commit to another five or 10 years there, and keep doing what I know in a world that is so familiar? Or do I explore another way of life, and at the same time spend some more time with my husband, Simon, and my two beautiful little girls?” (Mr. Bailey married the British actor Simon Woods in 2012. The two have two daughters, Iris, 3½, and Nell, 2.)

He chose the latter. In the short term, that means the completion of his last collection — a meditation on the passage of time, complete with archival pieces and new prints, including a reworking of the signature Burberry check with the rainbow hues of the L.G.B.T. flag — and finishing the obligations in his contract with Burberry, which runs out at the end of the year. For the long term, he doesn’t know what comes next. Friends have been quick to point out that he is a man of prodigious talent, zero financial limitations and great industry good will.

Could he follow in the footsteps of someone like Tom Ford, who stepped away from fashion for a while to direct films?

“With his interests spanning so much, from arts to fashion to music and technology, Christopher could honestly go on and do anything,” Ms. Wintour said.

“Whatever he touches will turn to gold,” Ms. Campbell added. “It isn’t just because he is a visionary. It is because unlike many people in this business, he is so decent. He treats everyone from a C.E.O. or celebrity to an intern with a basic level of kindness and respect. He only deserves the best.”

Mr. Bailey said he was firmly in “listening mode.” He was looking, he added, at opportunities inside and outside the fashion world, but also relishing the prospect of spending time at his home in Gloucestershire.

“I really don’t have any fixed plans yet,” Mr. Bailey said with a wide grin. “It might be something big and public. It could be something small and entrepreneurial. But whatever it is, I am definitely after another adventure.”

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