A Burberry factory in Basingstoke, UK, in 1918. / Wikimedia Commons
Mya Frazier,  June 1, 2016

Imperial Style

From riches to rags

A Burberry factory in Basingstoke, UK, in 1918. / Wikimedia Commons
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It is the quintessential first-world epiphany: a search for a British-made canvas rucksack for a safari trip is made in vain—and a banker’s life is changed forever.

That’s the opening gambit, at least, to one of the many PR pitches that’s hit my inbox over the last few months—yet another story of some “authentically British” handcrafted luggage brand or leather maker “keeping craftsmanship alive.” Pitches about quitting jobs as stockbrokers in order to create a “truly British” brand and sell “old-style country.”

Today’s British fashion exporters have embraced the aesthetics of Imperial England, and for all their talk of transformative style, a retro-colonialism defines this fashion moment instead. In the case of our safari adventurer, his narrative arc “from banking to bag making” is an alliterative ruse. Our man spent twenty years in “the City,” before his rucksack epiphany launched him on a ten-year journey “which still grips” him every day. Today, he runs one of the last remaining British manufacturers of bags and luggage, a brand whose stated values are “authenticity” and “Britishness.”

One of is quite the semantic dodge, but equivocation and brand mythmaking are often one and the same. What makes a fashion object an object of Britishness? It is the false promise of class mobility through consumption—the possession of a bag fit for a leading man; in this case, the luggage maker services Sir Roger Moore. A tweed jacket or rucksack, of course, cannot magically turn us into one of the one percent; its promise is but a fleeting salve to our rampant class anxieties. But when aspirational consumption is tied to loftier claims, we are fooled again: buying into the false belief society might be transformed, if only we could more fully embrace more noble and conscience-laden forms of commerce.

When a brand pitch starts with, “I believe we already have the lowest carbon footprint in the industry” and pivots not to actual evidence, but a name-dropping conclusion—“and we have had the honour of making pieces for Jennifer Aniston, Pippa Middleton, Gemma Arterton, [and] Michelle Dockery”—more than a bankrupt branding strategy is at work. This bespoke ethics, evasive and superficial, deflects any attempt at verification—and, therefore, any hope of lasting structural or systemic changes. Consider the subject line DURABILITY AND TRANSPARENCY IN THE FASHION INDUSTRY, a pitch with another first-world problem reimagined as story angle: “It’s all too common to save for a luxury item, get it insured, only to then fear wearing it in an effort to keep it in a pristine condition.” Transparency as a brand boast is quite the exaggeration for a company that’s offshoring the centuries-old industry of Swiss watchmaking to Chinese manufacturers. But have no fear—Brad Pitt, Pierce Brosnan, and Jude Law wear the timepieces.

Another pitch, subject line: FLOODING SURVIVAL STORY, asks if I want to write a story about “a great little British brand.” Misreading brand as band, I imagine Chris Martin muddying his multicolored Jordan 4s climbing a steep embankment to escape the rising waters of Carlisle. But floodwaters are not the point of this pitch; name-dropping is. Margaret Thatcher once chose these “authentic pieces of handcrafted British style.” No gripping flood drama ever unfolds. Instead I’m told that in 2014 Her Royal Highness Sophie, Countess of Wessex visited the factory.

Perhaps, this rigid, faux-aspirational class system is what Burberry’s former CEO was referring to when she boasted of exporting “the British attitude all over the world.” Indeed, Burberry’s trench coat is the ultimate embodiment of the English class system. Fashioned for military necessity, it was commissioned by England’s War Office to outfit soldiers for trench warfare in WWI. More than a century later, the trench coat graces the pages of luxury magazines and sells for as much as $6,500. Asian-made “Burberry” products, and the ubiquitous tartan check pattern, brought in royalty income of fifty-three million pounds last year—and that was from Japan alone. This mythic brand of Britishness, secured by nearly two and a half billion pounds a year in annual sales, effectively profits from the commercialization of a product that operates, albeit on the subconscious level for most, as a symbol of military imperialism. Burberry refers to itself as “a global luxury brand with a distinctive British identity,” and true to such an immodest claim, has long acted out its oppressions on the British working classes in the form of factory closures. In the unglamorous world of actual production, and despite valiant protests by laid off workers, Burberry has shifted much of its manufacturing to China.

Burberry—omnipresent and elitist, an emblem of the English class system—has never been threatened with the revocation of royal prestige, and has retained its Royal Warrants, factory closure after factory closure, from both Queen Elizabeth II and The Prince of Wales.

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