State of the Art: Burberry’s Post-Brexit Guild-ed Age

burberry-fw16Is Burberry making a conservative political statement with its latest campaign?

Fall collections (spring collections? What are we calling them now? In any case: clothes shown in September) are always a bit more academic than their spring counterparts. Labels love to embrace the the back-to-school conceit: warm layers, crisp fall days of paging through course descriptions, and cozy autumn nights spent pouring over books in a university library in front of a roaring fire with the brilliant but troubled heir to England’s most storied dukedom.

Oh, just me?

Anyway, this year’s back-to-school fashion has pulled at interesting art-historical and art-philosophical threads, spawning interesting conversations about fashion as art, art in advertising, and artistic quotations — or appropriations — in apparel. This will be the first post in a three-part series unpacking these conversations, and what they mean for luxury strategy in a time of great industry upheaval. Take notes!

Burberry & The Makers

burberry-fall-2016-ad-campaign-the-impression-02

No, not a tribute band to the criminally underrated Reverend and the Makers, but the overarching theme of Burberry’s Fall 2016 strategy.

Following the Romantic, ruff-tastic September runway show, the label put on a pop-up exhibition in London called Maker’s House, where visitors could explore activities corresponding to crafts involved in the process of creating a Burberry garment or accessory, such as embroidery, engraving, and metalworking; or chat with a Burberry archivist about the brand’s history of craftsmanship (archivists: CALL ME). Guests could also interact with other artistic activities either tangentially connected with or theoretically adjacent to fashion, including drama, bookbinding, portrait painting, screenprinting, and calligraphy. I separate the categories here, but they were all presented side-by-side in a holistic way, treating all of the arts categories as relevant to the fashion-making process, but with a heavy emphasis on “making,” particularly of a physical product with one’s hands.

The subsequent ad campaign, a huge step up from last season’s tween-ish, Snappchatty-misstep, similarly reflects the process of creating heritage fashion, featuring either a sketch of the accessory or outfit, or an image of a craftsman opposite the finished product.

Burberry’s Maker’s House, while feeling a little too earnest for my taste and too ready to deploy my least favorite word, artisan, is both a safe yet unadventurous strategy for a post-Brexit Burberry, and an interesting plot point on the fashion-as-art chart.

Maker’s House exhibition explicitly situates fashion, specifically its technical side, squarely within the fine arts spectrum, almost like a guild-ish, specialty trade very specific to Britain. This is a great way to sell products to a discerning audience that values craftsmanship, but of all the rich and romantic cultural and historical connotations of Britishness, craftsmanship is not an especially glamorous tack to take. In fact, it’s the kind of traditionalism embodied by the Leave vote.

Now, I wouldn’t be so indelicate as to implicate anyone in the fashion community as being anything but the most ardent Remainers, but strategically, Maker’s House, despite its celebrity visitors and fun PR opportunity, is a very conservative concept. With this exhibition, Burberry has aligned its luxury fashion production with humble tradesmen, celebrating tradition, individualism, and manus over machina as their definition of Britishness post-Brexit. I would have expected a more cosmopolitan response from Christopher Bailey, something like a YBA collaboration, a campaign starring Zadie Smith and Zayn instead of Edie Campbell, AGAIN, or a zeitgeist-y celebration of Cool Brittania, with the Moss, Gallagher, Beckham, and Law kids as a response to what Britishness means now, and not, as one reader has put it, a return to the Shire. I think Maker’s House should have been more of a celebration of fashion as a visual, experiential, and performative art, and slotted fashion alongside the more analogous (and glamorous) British traditions of music, painting, literature, and drama, rather than a manual craft. But then again, this might be a London or England-centric point of view. However, I think it’s essential for Burberry to keep its cool edge, and not fall into a Mulberry slump, or worse, become a leather-goods-only bore or a suburban joke. Coach, I’m looking at you. Don’t you. Even. Think. About. It.

The weak pound might actually give Burberry some room to play and embrace a more cosmopolitan narrative of Britishness in upcoming seasons. Although their shares are down and the luxury market is having a difficult year, Burberry has been doing relatively well in the home market, thanks to tourists flocking in to shop. Not well enough to counteract the overall luxury slump, since 85% of their sales are made outside of Britain, but much better than expected.

A double down on their uniquely British identity post-Brexit was exactly the right tactic for Burberry to take in this first season after the political shake-up, but they chose the wrong strand of British creative arts to celebrate and with which to associate the brand – the technical crafts rather than the visual arts. With all the romantic, rich cultural and historical cache from which to draw surrounding what it means to be British today, Burberry played it too safe in placing their craftsmanship heritage above a more interesting and consumer-friendly facets of the brand, like their long investigation of British rock & roll, celebrity ambassador opportunities, and, simply, really interesting, fashion-forward pieces that could make a killing if they hit Instagram Gucci-style.

I’m hoping Burberry changes direction for their always-great holiday campaign, where they can really have fun and hit heavy with star power. All I am saying is that it BETTER star Millie Bobby Brown, Tracy Emin, and Harry Styles or I’m going to have to up my dosage of antidepressants.

 

 

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