LONDON — Designer Christopher Bailey, who was replaced as Burberry chief executive earlier this year, will leave the British brand in 2018, ending a 17-year stint in which he helped transform a company once known mainly for trench coats into a global luxury icon.
Bailey added the title of CEO to his position as chief creative officer in 2014, taking on unique dual role in recognition of how much his ideas had contributed to Burberry’s success. But he struggled to reinvigorate sagging sales in the company’s key Asian markets and was replaced in July by Marco Gobbetti of the French luxury fashion house Celine.
It was as a designer, however, that Bailey made his name.
He took the company that made trench coats in World War I and wove its classic plaids into contemporary designs. Banking on Britishness, he made it the center of Burberry’s brand.
Long before other luxury houses even had the notion, he championed the digital marketplace, embracing the new medium with innovations such as allowing shoppers to immediately buy online what they saw on fashion show catwalks.
“It has been a truly inspiring place to work and the decision to leave was not an easy one,” Bailey said in a statement Tuesday. “I do truly believe, however, that Burberry’s best days are still ahead of her and that the company will go from strength to strength with the strategy we have developed and the exceptional talent we have in place.”
Bailey will remain president and chief creative officer until March 31, when he will leave the board of directors, Burberry said. He will remain at the company until Dec. 31, 2018, to ensure a smooth transition.
Long-time Burberry watcher Anusha Couttigane of Kantar Retail said the fact that Bailey is needed for the transition period shows how valuable he has been to the brand, but the split gives Burberry a chance to bring in “fresh blood.”
“Gobbetti will also have ideas about how he wants to run the business and the direction he wants to take it in, without being held back by the existing culture,” she said. “Burberry is constantly reinventing itself, so bringing fresh thinking to its creative strategy will have real impact.”
Bailey took over during a time of strength for the company in May 2014, when former CEO Angela Ahrendts moved to Apple. But the world economy soon turned against Burberry, with an economic slowdown in Asia and a Chinese government crackdown on luxury gifts eroding the brand’s sales.
Shareholders soon began to ask questions about Bailey’s pay package, which could have totaled as much as 7.6 million pounds including salary, allowances, a bonus and share awards. Others wondered whether the gifted designer had the right skill set to be CEO.
The company called in Gobbetti, who has a long track record of managing luxury retailers.
Gobbetti credited Bailey with being “instrumental” in Burberry’s transformation, adding that he leaves behind a legacy of talent that gives him “enormous confidence” in the future.
“We have a clear vision for the next chapter to accelerate the growth and success of the Burberry brand, and I am excited about the opportunity ahead for our teams, our partners and our shareholders,” Gobbetti said.
Bailey says despite his departure he remains fully committed to Burberry’s success.
“Burberry encapsulates so much of what is great about Britain,” Bailey said in a statement. “As an organization, it is creative, innovative and outward looking. It celebrates diversity and challenges received wisdoms. It is over 160 years old, but it has a young spirit.”
Burberry said as a result of his departure, Bailey has agreed to give up a total of 830,550 shares, valued at 16 million pounds ($21 million), that were awarded as part of his compensation packages between 2014 and 2017.