The iconic nova check is the first thing most of us think of when we think of Burberry. That pattern, particularly on caps, that was so copied and bootlegged during the nineties that it actually devalued the company itself as their association with high-end luxury was challenged. Interestingly though, that red, khaki, white, and black pattern was a later addition to a brand now so closely associated with one pattern. The history of Thomas Burberry and his vision is much richer than just one idea.
Thomas Burberry was just 21 in 1856 when he opened his first shop after working as a drapers apprentice. His focus was on outdoor sportswear and clothes for people working outside, the idea being that clothes should be designed to protect people from the unpredictable British weather; as famous fell walker and guidebook writer A. Wainwright said some 100 odd years later: “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing”. As well as those working the fields, Burberrys (as it was known at that point) also established a wealthy clientele who would use the clothes for hunting and fishing.
Burberry was not an entrepreneur nor was he an inventor but he was clearly passionate about his creations and, mores, the reasons for creating them in the first place. By 1870 he was employing 80 people giving himself more time to devote to researching and experimenting with fabrics. Ultimately his customers needed hardwearing, weatherproof clothing which they could wear in any weather and this is what would ultimately make his company the global success it has come to be.
Waterproofing had been developed some time before by Aquascutum but this, although a better alternative to the elements, was heavy, uncomfortable, and non-breathable. Burberry looked to the fields for inspiration, he wandered the farms and observed the farmers trying to figure out what would make their lives easier and more comfortable. This was where he would make his discovery and create his own fabric: gabardine.
Burberrys were already creating smocks for the farmers he observed but that vital weatherproofing wasn’t quite at the level Thomas Burberry wanted it to be, until he noticed something which would change it all. When handling sheep, the farmers smocks would become covered in lanolin from the wool which helps sheep to waterproof their bodies. Burberry observed the handling would result in a coat of waterproofing on the smocks and thus an idea was born.
By 1879 Thomas Burberry had developed his idea further by creating something not only waterproof but light and breathable. Gabardine was created from this nugget of an idea by waterproofing the yarn he used before weaving it with cotton. Once weaved the fabric would be waterproofed again resulting in hardwearing, weatherproof garments fit for the Burberry clientele. This may have been Burberry’s first stroke of marketing genius as he sent out samples to wealthy and important people who immediately placed orders with the Burberry factory. Now it was time for a new creation which is, in effect, still sold today.
The Tielocken is now considered the forebearer of Burberry’s famous trench coat. It was made of Burberry’s own garbadine and its success meant that by 1881 Burberry expanded the business even further. Just ten years after creating gabardine and the tielocken, Burberry opened their first shop in London and orders would really start to fly in. In 1908 Burberry was approached by Edward Maitland who was about to attempt a hot air balloon journey from Crystal Palace to Russia. Gabardine was the perfect choice for flying at such high altitudes so Burberry created gabardine suits for Maitland’s mission, a successful record-breaking mission at that. Pretty soon the practicality of Burberrys creation was evident and he was approached for more commissions from similar explorers.
In 1911 Roald Amundsen would become the first person to reach the South Pole, doing so in Burberry creations and he and his crew even slept in Burberry-made tents. The explorer Ernest Shackleton also headed to the Antarctic in Burberry, something which would become instrumental in keeping him alive. On his third expedition to the Antarctic, Shackleton’s ship would become stranded leading Shackleton and his team to abandon and survive for two years before managing to get home. The famous expedition would only serve to prove the quality and practicalness of Burberry pieces.
By 1914 the World War had broken out and, once again, important people came knocking at Burberry’s door and the trench coat as we know it was born. The straps around the trench coat could be used to carry equipment whilst the large pockets and flaps could hold and conceal documentation. The fact that they were only for higher-ranking officers, who paid handsomely for them and often continued to wear them after the war had ended, would only serve to add to the exclusivity that Burberry continues to build its name on.
In 1917 Thomas Burberry would retire but the company, garments, and techniques he used would continue to see the company grow without him to the point of coming up with that famous nova check by the 1920s. Ever forward-thinking, many years before Amazon, before Jeff Bezos was born, by 1934 Burberry offered same-day delivery to anyone in London. Three years later, in another show of early marketing genius, Burberry funded Betty Kirby-Green to complete a record-breaking flight in a plane called The Burberry: corporate sponsorship before sponsorship was a real thing. Then another war would come around.
By the second World War, Burberry’s reputation meant that they were once again requested to create a range of items for all branches of the armed forces. They would continue to make civilian clothing too, including coming up with the women’s Siren Suit: clothing designed to be worn in air raid shelters. All of this work and innovation meant that by 1965, 1 in every 5 coats exported from Britain had been made by Burberry.
Today Burberry is a global fashion icon with a current valuation of $8.53bn and they continue to innovate. Instantly recognisable and known for quality it seems as though Thomas Burberry’s vision has been imagined, yet I’m sure even that famous innovator would never have dreamed of the heights his little shop in Basingstoke would reach.