Christopher Bailey was 13 when he bought his first Burberry trench at the jumble sale he visited weekly in his native Yorkshire, England. “I loved the style even then,” Bailey says of the coat, a version of which has been worn by devotees from Queen Elizabeth to Humphrey Bogart to Madonna. Tapped in 2001 at 29 to be Burberry’s creative director, Bailey says, “When I started working here, it was the perfect match.”
No argument from fans or critics. Before Bailey came in, Burberry, known mainly for the sturdy outerwear it has made for 150 years (see box), “was not thought of as a fashion company,” says Hadley Freeman, deputy fashion editor at the U.K.’s Guardian. Bailey changed that, in part by creating looks that are a hit with influential celebrities. “I live in his clothes,” raves actress and It-girl Sienna Miller.
In May Miller was photographed in a custom gold dress (right) from Burberry’s higher-end Prorsum collection; this summer another gold dress launched a thousand copies. (Despite the knockoffs, Burberry’s bottom line is healthy: Sales have soared to $1.39 billion, up 46 percent since Bailey’s hiring.)
Though the iconic Burberry tartan has all but vanished from his runway, Bailey keeps the plaid alive, bleaching it, distorting it or letting it playfully pop up on bikinis or iPod cases. His innovations to the trench—quilting, gilding, shrinking, beading or trimming it in fur—also freshened the label. Says Miller: “Christopher reinvented a stuffy brand and made it the epitome of cool.”
But not so cool that it is inaccessible, he hopes. “I’d hate to think it was intimidating,” he says. “I have quite a democratic view on things. I can be having dinner one day with some megasuperstar and the next I’m in a friend’s house, soup on my lap, watching the TV.”
The son of a carpenter and a store display designer, Bailey grew up in working-class Halifax, “swinging from trees and playing with cows.” Upon his graduation from the Royal College of Art, Donna Karan brought him to New York. In 1996 Tom Ford hired him at Gucci. “His sketches were terrific,” says Ford. Plus, “someone told me hire only people you want to have dinner with.”
Then Burberry beckoned. “The culture of it was just familiar to me—Burberry is as British as Piccadilly Circus,” says Bailey, who lives walking distance from his Piccadilly offices. Today he’s dressed head-to-toe in Burberry. On his ring finger is a simple band from partner Geert Cloet, once Miu Miu’s brand director, who died last summer of a brain tumor at 36. Intensely private, Bailey “didn’t talk about it,” says Freeman. “He just kept working.” Now, says Bailey, his philosophy is “to live day by day, because you never know what tomorrow will bring.”
Tomorrow may still include blasting his music (ranging from Joni Mitchell to the Clash) while sketching Burberry’s next look. “I still feel like the new boy,” says Bailey. “I’m still at the bottom of the hill trying to get up.”