Who Can Make Burberry Worthy of a Jay Z/Beyoncé Namedrop Again?
Christopher Bailey is out, and newish C.E.O. Marco Gobbetti is ready to get experimental. But who’s experimental enough for him?
Bey wears a Burberry bikini in her and Jay Z's "Bonnie and Clyde."
Put on that Michel Gaubert soundtrack: it's time for another round of fashion musical chairs!
Yesterday, Burberry chief creative officer Christopher Bailey—who also served as chief executive officer from 2014 until former Céline C.E.O. Marco Gobbetti joined in January of this year—announced he would depart the British luxury behemoth after a 17-year tenure. In the span of Lil Pump's lifetime, Bailey has transformed the brand from a sleepy purveyor of check-lined rain macs for toffs and chavs alike (are you impressed with my fake British accent?) to a digital innovator who was among the first to stream fashion shows and live-tweet and -Instagram collections, and was eager to experiment with brick-and-mortar and e-commerce, including see-now-buy-now. (Bailey's C.E.O. predecessor, Angela Ahrendts, was poached by Apple, if that's any indication of their e-savvy.) The brand flourished into a force in ready-to-wear, accessories, and beauty that appealed to discerning preppies and rappers alike; "the only time she wear Burberry to swim," Jay Z rapped on 2003's "Bonnie and Clyde," implying the couple was so rich that the most untouchable luxury brand in the world was merely fit for them to swim in.
But the past few years have seen Burberry's clout slip, with a sleepy financial performance in the most recent fiscal year, and its plaid now less a symbol of #couplegoals than #missedsalesgoals. The brand made a refreshing splash by recruiting Russian streetwear god Gosha Rubchinsky to collaborate on their menswear in June and to photograph skateboarders in the house's clothing. The styling of the brand's September show also seemed to reflect, whether informally or not, Rubchinsky's influence.
The most potent rumor circulating is that Phoebe Philo will serve as Bailey's replacement; she and Gobbetti led a major turnaround at Céline, and Philo, who was raised in England, commutes between London and Paris to oversee the French luxury house and rumors that she may depart the brand have been swirling around the house like those meaningful leaves in Disney's "Pocahontas."
But could it be so simple? Part of Gobbetti's success seems less tied to chemistry with one designer than it is to his taste for undiscovered talent. Prior to his tenure at Céline, he led a turnaround at Givenchy by installing then-unknown Riccardo Tisci. When Philo joined Céline in 2008, she was in the midst of a leave of absence from the fashion world, having served as creative director of Chloé until 2006. Gobbetti likes the unexpected idea; during a shareholders meeting in July, he said the company "must evolve and try new things. We have to experiment, to create. We have to ask ourselves tough questions, and be bold in all areas of the business in order to create a new energy and positivity."
So who could bring that new energy and positivity? There's Tisci, of course, who's still a free agent and therefor fair game (plus, installing Tisci would mean less fashion dominoes, since LVMH would not need to find a replacement for Philo at Céline). Tisci's snarling baroque aesthetic seems like a strange match for Burberry, but he has streetwear smarts—he was one of the original luxury sneakerheads—and Kardashian cache. But what of the brand's growing friendship with Rubchinsky? The cult designer is untested at a mass level—but so was Demna Gvasalia when he took the reigns at Balenciaga.
Gobetti could also reach for an unknown, as he did with Tisci. Who lurks just beneath the marquee at Simone Rocha, Chrostopher Kane, Marques Almeida, or even Fenty? Maybe they should go with the Helmut model and try them all! See-now, hire-for-now! Anyone of them could bring some youthful dazzle and mass appeal. And that's another thing: Burberry is so huge that whoever is in charge will have to have rockstar-level resonance.
Which makes me think: honestly, you know, like, Rihanna. Rihanna! The singer and icon and patron saint of everything that is good and important and nice in this world has led a renaissance at Puma with her Fenty collection. "Rihanna's relationship with us makes the brand actual and hot again with young consumers," Puma C.E.O. Bjorn Gulden said in October. Could Rihanna make Burberry actual and hot again? Looks like she's already on it (tweet take via me).