Profile of Angela Ahrendts: The ‘queen of chav couture’

You couldn’t wish for a better tableau of English eccentricity than the gala opening of the AngloMania exhibition currently running at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, says Robin Givhan in The Washington Post. While “two stoical Beefeaters” stood guard, guests paraded through Union Jack-strewn marble halls, mixing yards of organza with tweeds, tartans and post-punk Mohawk hairdos. The exhibition, sponsored by that “quintessentially British brand”, Burberry, achieved its aim of celebrating British designers. But Americans could be forgiven a degree of smugness. It took a girl from the Bronx – Rose Marie Bravo – to wean Burberry off its dreary beige gabardine and put it on the glamour map. And the retailer is now banking on a Midwestern gal, Angela Ahrendts, to take the brand forward.

Ahrendts’ mission looks a tough one, says Eoin Callan in the FT. Undeterred by the scores of British brands that have floundered in the US, she is positioning Burberry to conquer US mass markets, starting with her own home patch, Indiana, Ohio and Kansas. The strategy is controversial. Burberry has worked hard to shake off its ‘chav’ image in Britain. Consequently, there are obvious dangers to the brand’s upmarket appeal in catering for “less aspirational folk” in the US. But Ahrendts seems to have the gift of persuasion. The City, usually sceptical about UK firms foraying abroad, has given her the thumbs up. The inheritance from Bravo certainly helped. Critics carped at Bravo’s inability to tackle back-office logistics (an Ahrendts’ speciality), but you can’t fault her talent for bringing in the profits, which have risen five-fold since she took over in 1997, says The Sunday Times. Her parting gift to Ahrendts was a 19% jump in first-quarter sales: “a tough act to follow”.

If Ahrendts’ “gold-plated” pay deal – worth some £15m over three years – is anything to go on, the Burberry board expects her to deliver, says the Daily Express. Ahrendts, 46, grew up in New Palestine, Indiana. She dreamed of being a designer, but realised she was better at spotting talent in others. After a degree in marketing and merchandising at Ball State university in 1981, she headed for the bright lights. “I graduated on Friday and on Saturday I was on a plane to New York.” Beginning her career at Donna Karan, she then joined Liz Claiborne, eventually doubling sales. The trick she pulled off was to champion “modern brands”, notably Juicy Couture. This turned out to be a mixed blessing, notes The Sunday Times. Juicy’s velour track-suits attracted a celebrity following, “but as the brand’s popularity grew, so did the waist size of its wearers”, slashing its credibility. With sales on the slide, “the queen of chav couture” got out in the nick of time, says the Evening Standard.

The initial challenge facing Ahrendts is to persuade the City to re-rate Burberry: still at a double-digit discount to rivals. That will depend on combining mass-market appeal with exclusivity. Some analysts doubt this is possible. But Armani shows it can be done, says Mark Ritson in Marketing. Yet Ahrendts, “silent on Burberry’s exclusive Prorsum range,
while effusive about mid-priced bags”, is downplaying haute couture, which tends to be loss-making but maintains a brand’s luxury status. With her references to “brand positioning”, she’s talking too much like a businesswoman. If she’s to succeed, she needs to embrace “the lexicon of a poet”. It will be interesting to see how that goes down in Indiana.

The descent of the Burberry brand – from the landed classes to footballers’ wives

“Show me the clothes of a country and I can write its history,” maintained the French Nobel laureate Anatole France. A similar claim could be made for Burberry, whose “red, white, black and camel check” is “entwined with the red, white and blue of Britishness”, says The Guardian. Founded by apprentice draper Thomas Burberry in Basingstoke in 1856, the firm’s first big breakthrough was the invention of gabardine, a “breathable” waterproof fabric, adopted by the landed classes and subsequently by the Government, which commissioned Burberry to design trench-coats for British officers during World War I. The famous check lining was introduced in the Twenties. The coat’s iconic status fuelled Burberry’s momentum. Worn by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther movies, the Nova check first surfaced on luggage and accessories in the Sixties.

The brand’s descent to chavism in the Nineties followed its adoption by hip-hop artists, footballers and their wives. When soap star Danniella Westbrook appeared clad top-to-toe in the check, its image as “the ultimate symbol of nouveau riche naff” was sealed. From there, it was but a short step before bouncers began banning anyone wearing Burberry from nightclubs. Perhaps the lowest point of all was when the check found its way onto facemasks used during the Sars outbreak in Asia. Burberry was hit hard: although it scrapped its baseball cap and pruned back the check, it still citied the chav factor as a negative force on sales as late as 2005.