We tend to think of fashion as ephemeral. Styles come and go, looks rise and fall, but what matters most is the ‘now’, what is hip in this particular moment in time. So it seems odd in many ways that Burberry has chosen to display its latest collection among sculptures by Henry Moore, an artist associated with tradition and permanence.
But for Burberry Chief Creative and Chief Executive Officer Christopher Bailey, Moore is the perfect representation of one aspect of the Britishness that is synonymous with the brand. “I think we are perceived as a very British company,” he says. “That’s probably the biggest thread that cuts through everything. That is often translated by the two contradictory worlds of something very familiar, classic, rooted, grounded, traditional, with something very creative, a strong point of view, artistic. I think that’s what Britishness means to a lot of people around the world.
“It’s how I feel, it’s what I love, just on a very personal level,” he continues. “I love tradition, I love ceremony, but I also like putting myself outside my comfort zone and exploring and testing and trying and researching and playing, and challenging the norms.”
Over the past decade, Burberry has become renowned for challenging convention in fashion. It was one of the first major luxury brands to truly embrace the potential of digital, experimenting from early on with content across social media channels and live-streaming its catwalk shows. And last year, it adopted a ‘see now, buy now’ approach, which allowed customers to buy clothes online straight from the runway.
This development came naturally, according to Bailey, as the brand’s audience evolved. “Traditionally shows have been for critics, the media and the buyers,” he says. “Whereas now the biggest audience by far is people who actually love fashion, so it just felt that we needed to re-look at what the show was about and who it was talking to. If it’s now not just the industry, if it’s people who are interested, why should we ask those people to fit in line with the industry – ‘well, you can’t get it for six months’ … it feels so abstract. So that’s why I changed that.”
Not all of Burberry’s innovations have been online, however. Last September, it launched the first version of Makers House, a week long, pop-up event held at the former home of Foyle’s book store in London’s Soho. This event saw the display of clothes from the collection alongside demonstrations from British craftspeople including sculptors, silversmiths and bookbinders.
Burberry has returned to the space for a second Makers House event this week. The brand’s runway show was held there on Monday evening, with Anna Calvi providing a live set. The new collection, which includes an extensive set of dramatic and beautifully crafted capes, is now displayed there, alongside Moore’s sculptures. Upstairs, there is an extensive explanation of the process behind the collection, as well as a rare opportunity to see early models and sketches for Moore’s work. In addition, there are fun digital experiences, including a VR film, which takes viewers into Moore’s studio.
Both Burberry and Moore benefit from the collaboration. The bronze magnificence of the sculptures offers gravitas and solidity to Burberry’s work, while their juxtaposition to the fashion collection gives a freshness and contemporaneity to the artworks in return.
Bailey’s interest in Moore stretches back to his childhood. “I grew up admiring his work,” he says. “I grew up in Yorkshire, very close to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. My formative years as a youth were spent wandering around this sculpture park – there and Salts Mill, which is where the permanent collection of David Hockney’s work is. Those two places formed the way I see art, creativity and how to express yourself.”
I think people are as interested in the story as in the finished thing. They start to feel it, rather than it being a remote, transactional relationship.
The displays at Makers House reveal how the shapes of Moore’s sculptures influenced the clothes in this collection, and also how other, less expected aspects of the artist’s practice found their way in. A jumper adorned with a distinctive rope pattern, for example, was inspired by Moore’s experiments with light shapes, which were captured in photographs also displayed at Makers House.
“Normally what would happen is we’d do a lot of research and development on a particular theme – in this instance Henry Moore – but it would all be in our studio,” says Bailey. “But what we wanted to do in Makers House is show people the design studio and the way we’ve been thinking and how it translates.
“I think people are as interested in the story as in the finished thing,” he continues. “We’ve found more and more people ask us questions about something that they might be trying on…. We noticed that the more [information about] the ‘influencers’ that we share with people, the more people engage with it. They start to feel it, rather than it being a remote, transactional relationship.”
Makers House was buzzing with people when I visited, and last year’s event saw over 20,000 visitors pass through the space. Bailey is conscious of how this atmosphere is different to a retail store. “In a traditional fashion store, it may be relatively quiet, and I go round the corner and I see a museum that is absolutely heaving with people. But then as soon as we do something like this, it’s heaving with people. It tells you that people want a deeper relationship with, not just fashion, but everything that they’re doing today. It has to be broader than ‘walk into a shop, try something on, put your credit card down and walk out’. It’s ‘give me more meaning’.
“Sometimes stores can be intimidating spaces,” he continues. “An art gallery is exactly the same, a car showroom can be the same. To get over the threshold you need to take a gulp. I think that by putting these different worlds together, it makes it more comfortable to come and explore.”
Bailey describes the response from the wider industry to projects such as Makers House as “mixed”. “There are real traditionalists, and then there are those who see it in just a completely different way,” he says. “I think that’s okay. I think whenever there’s change, it’s about having your own point of view. We’re doing it our way, and lots of people are doing it in their own way. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong. I think it’s what feels right for the house as well, for the brand.”
With the building housing Makers House due to be demolished, this will be the last time the event will take place in this space, and Bailey acknowledges that he is unsure at this stage how the next collection will be displayed. But it is certainly likely to be interesting.
“I always try to make sure I stay open to learning from what feels right, and not just doing a version of a version for next time,” he says. “We were lucky enough to have this space this time, we won’t have it next time, which will automatically say it will be something quite different, because this space lends itself to doing something on this scale. I don’t know yet what it will be…. So much of this stuff is instinct and feel rather than some grand strategy. It has to be quite organic or otherwise it becomes too formulated, and you feel it as soon as you walk into it.
“I think every industry is trying to find its identity in a world that’s changing dramatically,” he continues. “Art, film, music, industrial design, health, food – all these worlds are trying to find what feels relevant and appropriate for all the changes.”
Makers House is on at 1 Manette Street, W1, London until Monday February 27. Workshops and performances will be taking place during its run; for more info, visit show.burberry.com