High and Low Fashion: Redeeming the Price-tag of Christopher Bailey’s Goodbye

Upon leaving Burberry, in an interview with VogueChristopher Bailey characterised his former brand with affectionate paradoxes: it is over 160 years old, but it has a young spirit; it is part of the establishment, but it is always changing.

With his final collection’s LGBTQ+ and youthful, streetwear-inspired pieces, Bailey too joined in on these contrasts, leaving Burberry with a clear signal towards its future.

The collection centred on what it means to be British and what it means to be Christopher Bailey. References to Burberry’s '80s and '90s heritage were combined with a celebration of the LGBTQ+ community, the rainbow flag transforming into a stream of coats, dresses, and the infamous ‘Nova’ check. The proceeds of these rainbow-saturated pieces valiantly became part of an initiative to support charities that help the community — The Albert Kennedy Trust, The Trevor Project, and the ILGA.

However, some pieces -  such as Burberry’s twist on the classic shopping bag - begin at $650. While this facet of the collection was designed to pay homage to Bailey’s working class upbringing in Halifax, Yorkshire, the selected prices appear to be far-removed. The world of high fashion is increasingly affiliating its luxury-bracketed pieces with the influences of everyday; Burberry are not the first to sell shopping bags for upwards of £500. For instance, under the creative direction of Demra Gvasalia, Balenciaga have instead taken inspiration from laundry and IKEA.

This interest in the motifs of everyday life seems to create a complex and potentially problematic relationship between the fashion industry and styles taken from the streets of Britain and the USA. Some of these styles, such as the hoodie, have a history which is marginalised and often painful, relating to youth-driven communities who have been pushed to the fringes of society. In its beginnings, the hoodie was marketed to labourers working in the freezing cold in New York during the 1930s. When Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-American, was fatally and unlawfully shot by a neighbourhood watch volunteer in February 2012, the hoodie became emblematic for the injustice that had taken place. Commercialisation and mainstream fashion has entailed that brands such as Burberry can now sell this item for £500.

The streets will always be a source of inspiration for the fashion industry, and the hoodie is now a commonly recognised, neutral item of clothing. However, more recently, brands such as Gucci, Diesel and Marc Jacobs have taken advantage of ‘bootleg’ aesthetics, creating highly-priced pieces in the style of well-known fakes. Again, the irony this creates is problematic: economic division becomes the basis for marketing the collection, whereby different brackets of privilege are emphasised and satirised by the highly-priced, cheaply-aestheticised clothes. At its most extreme, this is an appropriation of class which is designed to be funny.

However, Burberry have not engaged with this trend, and there may be an explanation as to why their graffiti-decorated puffa jacket can be separated from Balenciaga’s £1.5k laundry bag. The reason comes from Bailey himself; he wanted “to make a stand for something”. As his models strode down a catwalk lit up by an art installation entitled ‘Our Time’, his collection becomes part of an emerging, wider conversation between fashion and diversity. At the close of last month, Virgil Abloh, the 34 year-old Chicago native with no formal fashion training, was named as Louis Vuitton’s new menswear designer; its first black designer to be given such a role. Only nine years ago, he and Kanye West were refused entry to half of Paris Fashion Week’s shows. Similarly, British Vogue finally completed the overdue appointment of of Edward Enninful as editor-in-chief, after a shocking 100 years of white women in the role.

“This interest in the motifs of everyday life seems to create a complex and potentially problematic relationship between the fashion industry and styles taken from the streets of Britain and the USA.”

As Bailey leaves and Abloh begins, both designers appear to celebrate the early beginnings of a fashion industry which is finally starting to listen to the influences of the street, rather than exploit those voices in yet another marketing stunt. The price-tag of that listening remains a point of dispute, but it is important to remember that at the heart of streetwear is a vibrant youth culture which, through tools such as Instagram and Depop, is starting to create a huge market of potential for itself. These tools have enabled young people to become entrepreneurs in their own right. For the first time, both the economic gaze and the creative focus of luxury fashion houses has fallen upon them.