Burberry: A Brand History

The quirky story of England's most quintessential brand.

Burberry bag

While most people recognize the iconic Burberry trench coats and Burberry scarves, few know that its founder, Thomas Burberry, got his start as a humble draper’s apprentice. Curtains may seem like a strange background for the founder of what is now a high-fashion luxury brand. But, in hindsight, it made sense. Strong and resistant, draping was a great education for the 21-year-old entrepreneur who, in 1856, opened his namesake store of durable fabric and outerwear in Basingstoke, England. Burberry, more famously, also invented and patented gabardine in 1880. With this cutting-edge gabardine – ultra-strong, breathable and water-resistant – Burberry realized he had an opportunity to create the bedrock for an empire.

Knowing the material was great for the military, the PR-savvy Burberry lobbied prominent British generals to wear his gabardine. He also arranged for Arctic explorers (yes, seriously) to use Burberry outerwear and tenting during their high-profile first trips to the South Pole. It worked. Burberry’s business flourished, popularized by the military as well as British explorers and aviators. The wool tartan check was introduced in 1920 and used as lining for the trenches. By the middle of the 20th century, Burberry had become a household name that was synonymous with British patriotism and culture.

Burberry history

How to explore in style: Arctic explorer Roald Amundsen and team wearing Burberry as they ‘discover’ the South Pole in 1901.

But, by mid-century, the political climate had changed. And, the company had to drastically expand to meet the more questioning mores of the 1960’s. So, during the following decade, Burberry combined its traditional English style with a high-flying modern aesthetic. It was worn by celebrities, actors and trend-setters alike, and that’s when the brand really exploded.

Since the 60’s, the Burberry brand has been a unique combination of British tradition and modern flair. After a rocky period during the 90’s and early 2000’s, Burberry’s creative was taken over by English designer Christopher Bailey who is widely credited, along with American Angela Ahrendts (currently SVP of retail and on-line stores at Apple, Inc), for solidifying the brand’s couture reputation and turning it into the modern luxury company it is today. Until recently, Burberry was divided into three arms: Burberry Prorsum (the fashion forward, runway-inspired division), Burberry Brit (formal workwear) and Burberry London (the more relaxed segment). In 2015, the three arms were consolidated (though all three can be found on resale), and are still included in what is now simply known as Burberry.

Some fun facts about Burberry:

-The yarn itself for Burberry gabardine is waterproofed (as opposed to the entire fabric) which is the reason for its strength.

-The shoulder epaulets and rings on the Burberry trench were actually put on the coats at the request of the British army, and they are still there today.

-Burberry’s headquarters have been in the Haymarket in London since 1891.

-Between 2001 and 2005, Burberry was associated with ‘football hooligan’ culture and widely maligned until Christopher Bailey turned it around.

-The famous Burberry tartan scarf was the result of an accident: a shop window in Paris turned the trench around on a mannequin revealing the tartan check print. When a stream of customers asked for this version, Burberry started making products out of the lining of their coats. And, the scarf was born.

Shop: The Burberry Collection on Tradesy

Arctic image courtesy of Burberry.

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