Earlier this year, I flew to London to attend a couple of shows for London Fashion Week. It was clear at the onset what the hot ticket shows were—and one of them was Burberry. Social media was abuzz with news of Bradley Cooper attending the show to support girlfriend Suki Waterhouse, who walked the runway as well as starred in the label’s AW14 collection alongside Cara Delevingne and other young, fabulous, and famous Brits. While exploring King’s Road, I learned from Twitter that English actors Douglas Booth and Jamie Campbell Bower, who himself was in a Burberry campaign, were also in town for the show. When did Burberry get so cool?
I suppose it was sometime in 2005 when the label’s evolution began—about the same time Angela Ahrendts joined the company as CEO. At the time, Burberry Prorsum, one of the label’s three brands (which include Burberry London and Burberry Brit) was already sending fashion forward clothes down the runway, under the helm of then creative director and now-CEO Christopher Bailey. And although fashion editors and insiders took notice, to the public, the name Burberry still reeked of tradition, a tradition that not many people can afford or would want to get into even if they had the money.
Blame it on the Burberry check, an iconic print that unfortunately alludes to oldness. It is seen lining the trench coats of wealthy executives, on the precious luggage of business travelers, and on the handbags of those who still think that screaming labels are still du jour. In an article about Ahrendts, fashion writer and author Justine Picardie told the Guardian: “Burberry had become so associated with a downmarket image. That iconic plaid had become—I’m not going to use the word chav—but that incredible legacy had become associated with the cheapest form of disposable rip-off fashion. Ahrendts and Christopher Bailey have taken it back to its pure heritage.”
It was Ahrendts’ idea to cast British stars in Burberry campaigns, from Kate Moss and Agyness Deyn to Emma Watson and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. The resulting images were fresh and for the first time in a long time, the word “prorsum,” the Latin word for “forward,” actually fit the brand. In 2009, Ahrendts brought Burberry back to London, after being transferred to Milan, enticing the London press to attend the shows.
Fast-forward to 2014—Burberry Prorsum is one of the most anticipated shows at Fashion Week for the fashion elite, celebrities, and onlookers alike. The garments are lush and covetable, the music is hip, and the models are at once familiar and aspirational. Ahrendts believes in “emotional electricity,” harnessing human energy to accomplish a goal, and in the label’s shows and all its functions, this current flows and touches all things.
Known for introducing the label to social media, Ahrendts introduced a culture of connectivity, in both technical and social terms. “You have to be totally connected with everyone who touches your brand,” she told Salesforce.com. “You have to create a social enterprise today. You have to. If you don’t do that, I don’t know what your business model is in five years.”
The label has 10+ million Facebook fans (it is the most popular luxury brand on the site), close to three million followers on Twitter, and about 1.5 million on Instagram. On its Instagram profile, it is described as a “158 year-old global brand with a distinctly British attitude.” That about sums it up in a single clause. Through these social media platforms, fans are allowed to experience the brand more intimately. This access is everything in this age of extreme connectivity and extreme detachedness. It posts behind-the-scenes photos from shoots, real-time red carpet updates, designer illustrations, live streams of catwalk shows, and everything London.
Sometimes it talks about the weather, like it just met you in a bar and wanted to be your friend. It is this casual and personal approach that has somewhat led to the personification of the brand. Burberry has transformed itself from old to hip and young again and has gotten the attention of the cool, fashionable crowd. Quite literally, it has taken luxury to the streets, lifting the veil on the once exclusive for the once excluded to experience.
In spite of its social media success, Burberry has not forgotten about its roots though. Its “Art of the Trench” websites celebrates its heritage by encouraging people to upload pictures of themselves wearing the iconic Burberry trench coat. This is where Burberry gets smart. They ask you to post a photo but you will need to be signed in to Facebook and allow the application to access your information. This enables them to get to know its market as well.
Ahrendts told Vogue.uk, “In many ways, digital must be this generation’s greatest gift. There has never been more creative freedom and potential, or more opportunity to connect and learn.”
Biting the Apple
Last May, Ahrendts left Burberry in the capable hands of Bailey to join Apple. She filled the long-vacant position of senior vice president of retail and online stores, reporting to CEO Tim Cook—which is a bit serendipitous.
“If I look to any company as a model, it’s Apple. They’re a brilliant design company working to create a lifestyle, and that’s the way I see us,” she told Wall Street Journal in 2010.
It’s a twist of fate really, a story of attraction and a romantic one at that—and if there’s anything that Apple needs right now, it’s romance.
For a luxury brand, Apple has become commonplace. That almost everybody I know has iPhone is not a bad thing per se, but the device has gotten so utilitarian, that it ceases to be a luxury product and now a very expensive appliance. The gold iPhone is certainly something to drool over, a tad more glamorous than the black or white, but once acquired, would you really treat it any different?
When Apple was new to me and Apple stores were, like many boutiques of luxury brands, almost always empty, I would wander into them and just marvel at all the things I couldn’t have. Today, I just go in and out of it like anyone would a neighborhood tech supplies store, sometimes for a new lightning cable or a cool new phone case. It’s always so full of people touching everything. Good for the brand, bad for the customer. The experience just isn’t that magical anymore. If there is anything Ahrendts is good at, it’s reviving a fallen brand to its initial might.
When a trend becomes too ubiquitous, it loses its allure. Consumers get over it before they even get their hands on it. Think of the Burberry check and how it went from status symbol to mass market. Ahrendts took the spotlight off of Burberry’s weakness and focused on its strength, which is design. Here’s where Ahrendts becomes the perfect fit. Steve Jobs himself has said, “If you want to live your life in a creative way, as an artist, you have to not look back too much. You have to be willing to take whatever you’ve done and whoever you were and throw them away.”
What Ahrendts has done for Burberry is just what Apple needs. As brilliant as its products are, the platform from which they are presented, the Apple Store, could use an overhaul.
In a cover story for Fast Company, Ahrendts said, “I don’t want to be sold when I walk into a store. The job is to be a brilliant brand ambassador. Don’t sell! No! Because that’s a turn-off. Build an amazing brand experience, and then it will just naturally happen.”
Apple, being a brand that believes that products should sell themselves, would not only benefit from the shared values but also from where they differ. Her background in fashion could put the iPhone or even the waning iPad back in style. She gets that design—how a product looks, feels, and works—is the soul of a brand. That this is not something that’s communicated simply by pushing a product at anyone who happens to wander into a store.
Will Ahrendts give customers the experience they deserve or the experience they need right now? “Forget luxury,” she said. “As a great company you have to keep evolving.” If this is a foreshadowing of the future of Apple, we can expect to exciting things to come—and definitely brighter ideas than just painting an old product gold. We deserve better than that.