That clean, finished look that you see on the Duchess (or Demi Lovato) when she sports the trench coat and scarf - so recognizable as Burberry of London – wasn’t always the posh, high-end fashion statement that it is today, and was actually so poorly reputed just a few years ago that it wasn’t even allowed inside football stadiums. Interestingly, the origins of Burberry are spawned from a drape maker and rooted in solutions to wartime wardrobe logistics and practical outfitting for some of the most famous explorers of our time.
The history of the luxury brand now worth $3.38 billion goes back to 1879, when 21-year-old drape apprentice Thomas Burberry opened his own drape store in London. He invented and patented a water resistant fabric called Gabardine, through a process of waterproofing a cotton twill before weaving it. This allowed the waterproof fabric to be more breathable and lightweight than those which are waterproofed after the weaving process. In 1888 Thomas patented Gabardine, and he opened the first Burberry shop in Haymarket, London in 1891.
But between the days of the drape shop and its runway appearances, Burberry placed itself in some really important moments in history. The British symbol of luxury and wealth has an important place in one of the most notorious wars in our modern history and has made more than one appearance in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
WWI – The trench coat is born: Before the tragedy we’ve come to know as World War I, British officers were wearing Burberry’s water-resistant coats, known at the time as the Tielocken. The war was fought largely in the trenches of Europe, which lead to infections, psychological anguish, and an incredible casualty rate. It also led to the moniker, ‘trench coat,’ which would become a general style of coat.
1911 – Burberry is the first to reach the South Pole: On December 14, 1911, donning a Burberry trench coat, Norwegian explorer and "the last Viking" Roald Amundsen steps foot on the South Pole – becoming the first to reach not just the South – but both poles.
1914 – Burberry teams with Sir Earnest Shackleton to conquer Antarctica: After Amundsen won the race to the South Pole, another explorer – also clad in Burberry - stepped up to find the next unexplored place to conquer. Sir Ernest Shackleton (not yet knighted at the time) set out to cross Antarctica from sea to sea, via the pole. In the incredible account of this Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, Shackleton’s ship became wedged between two ice packs and was slowly crushed. (If you haven’t read it - Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage)
1919 - Pilots wore Burberry aviator suits on the first nonstop transatlantic flight: That’s it.
1937 – Burberry sponsors the most fashionable female pilot: Betty Kirby-Green, along with her overrated co-pilot A.E. Clouston, broke the record for the fastest return flight from London to Cape Town in a plane named the Burberry, wearing Burberry flight suits, sponsored by: Burberry.
1942 – Burberry fails: After all these Burberry-led successes, there has to be a failure somewhere. George Mallory provided this part of Burberry history when he made an ill-fated attempt at Mount Everest wearing a Burberry jacket.
1955 - Burberry is welcomed into royalty: Queen Elizabeth grants Burberry a royal warrant.
Late 20th Century – A downgrade in reputation: During the last 3 decades of the 20th century, Burberry had begun mass production of apparel through licensing agreements with manufacturers across the globe. Although designed under the strict control of headquarters in London, the licensing agreements relented control of distribution and, subsequently, of the brand’s reputation. Fortunately, by the end of the century celebrities and other members of high society had already adopted Burberry as a luxury brand.
Early 21st Century - Burberry is banned from football: Between 2001 and 2005, Burberry became associated with football hooligan and other less than savvy cultures. This change in the brand’s reputation is attributed to lower priced products, increased counterfeit goods using the Burberry trademark check pattern, and adoption by celebrities prominently identified with British "chav" culture. Football hooliganism wearing of Burberry check pattern eventually led to the pattern being banned at some football venues. Shortly thereafter, Burberry scaled down on the licensing practices that lead to this downgrade in brand culture and took back their prestige.
Now: Burberry gets in trouble with environmentalists: In July of this year it was reported that over the last past five years Burberry had destroyed unsold product worth over £90 million in order to protect the value of the brand. The claim is that those good would otherwise be sold too cheaply. Greenpeace publically criticized Burberry and, in turn, Burberry announced that the energy generated from burning its products was captured, making their actions environmentally friendly. Following pressure from environmental and consumers, Burberry doubled down on its response - announcing the decision to immediately stop the practice, as well as to stop using real fur.