Christopher Bailey takes over from Angela Ahrendts as Burberry chief

Yorkshire-born designer is seen as fashion genius but is unknown quantity when it comes to business leadership

He describes himself as a "scrawny English boy" who's obsessed with dry stone walling and the obscure indie band One Night Only – and he is now the boss of one of Britain's biggest and most historic companies.

Christopher Bailey, 42, the Halifax-born younger son of a carpenter and a window dresser for Marks & Spencer, was this week named successor to the Burberry chief executive Angela Ahrendts, who is leaving to take charge of Apple's retail operations.

It will be a big leap for Bailey – one of the biggest names in the world of designer fashion, but an unknown quantity as a business leader. He is widely regarded as a genius when it comes to fashion collections, opening swanky stores and putting on catwalk shows, but, from the middle of next year, Bailey will be in charge of everything from shareholder relations to security issues, tax arrangements and keeping costs under control at a £7bn company – and he has no boardroom experience. He is not even being relieved of his design duties – Bailey will continue to be the fashion brand's chief creative officer too.

Bailey loved design from when he was a child, and was making dresses for his sister before he had even heard of fashion. "I didn't even know that fashion really existed – that sounds really naive, but it just wasn't in my vocabulary," he said in an interview with the Guardian. "I loved design, and I still do – I love furniture design, I love architecture, I love fabrics, I love text, I love proportions. Fashion was almost the way that I got into design."

He moved to London to study fashion at the University of Westminster and the Royal College of Art, and from there he was poached by the American designer Donna Karan, who was so bowled over by his portfolio show that she took him to New York.

He went on to work for Tom Ford at Gucci before joining Burberry in 2001 and taking over as head of design in 2009.

Despite his rapid rise, Bailey has remained surprisingly grounded for one of the most important people in the sometimes self-obsessed fashion world.

Rose Marie Bravo, the former boss of Burberry who hired Bailey in 2001, remembers that when Forbes magazine put him in its list of influential designers he was convinced they must have made a mistake. "He said it seriously," she said. "He's completely oblivious [to his talent]."

Bailey's family aren't overimpressed with his success either. "If they even see my picture in the newspaper, they have a giggle for about three minutes … and [then] it's the wrapping for the fish and chips," he said in a New York Times interview. "We get so caught up in our little world. Yet it's those people who count. They're the people who are shopping. The fashion people are asking for things for free. But it's the people who are working very hard, earning possibly a lot of money, possibly not, who go out and buy the clothes."

Bailey, whose latest menswear collection was inspired by David Hockney and Alan Bennett, is already Burberry's "brand tsar" and responsible for the final design of every single Burberry product from its trademark trenchcoats to £14,000 alligator bowling bags and £95 babies' booties.

But his role has long been more than just design. It was Bailey who suggested Ahrendts as a replacement for Bravo in 2006, and helped convince her to ditch her New York job for London.

"We had lunch that day for three and a half hours, and on the back of a napkin put our dreams on paper," Ahrendts says. "I loved him. I have such respect for him. He's a very special person."

Bailey, who had worked with Ahrendts at Donna Karan in New York, says it's "sort of weird how much Angela and I connect. I knew that [meeting] was going to be a big moment in my life, and it was," he told the Wall Street Journal in 2010.

Bailey has been credited with transforming the company into a digital force by streaming its fashion shows live on the internet and posting pictures of the latest designs on Twitter before releasing them to traditional media.

He also has an eye for picking models before they are famous, and is credited with discovering Cara Delevingne, who he still feels "very protective over", and convincing Rosie Huntington-Whiteley to pose in nothing but a Burberry trench to promote the company's new perfume range. Eddie Redmayne, the actor and Burberry model, is a friend of a friend.

Other famous mates include Sienna Miller, Mario Testino, Chelsea Clinton and the US TV star Ryan Seacrest, who tweeted: "My bud Christopher Bailey is tweeting from @Burberry show."

Bailey takes authoritarian control of every element of Burberry's fashion shows, particularly the music. He has admitted to being in floods of tears during Tom Odell's rehearsal for Burberry's womenswear autumn show this year.

Another favourite is the Yorkshire indie band One Night Only, who have performed at Burberry's shows, and whose lead singer, George Craig, models for Burberry.

"He's got a knack for noticing British talent," Craig says of Bailey. "He's a pioneer in so many ways."

Industry rumours suggested that Bailey was promoted to the top job because of fears he would storm off if someone else was appointed above him. Burberry denies it.

Sir Harold Tillman, chairman of the British Fashion Council, said Burberry had long lined up Bailey as a future leader. "I don't think it's an 'oh dear, we need to find someone urgently' appointment," he said. "Bailey is Burberry's DNA – he lives and breathes the company."

But City analysts are unsure whether Bailey will be able to continue to turn out collections while running a FTSE 100 company. Virginie Blin, an analyst at Alphavalue in Paris, said she was "astounded by the idea that someone could be simultaneously the CEO and artistic director of Burberry. It's too much for one man."

The HSBC analyst Erwan Rambourg said: "While Christopher Bailey has proven to be a phenomenal designer, the jury will be out in terms of him running the company as CEO."

Tillman says Bailey has long taken an interest in the business side of fashion and is "as competent with numbers as he is with design".

Ahrendts, who describes Bailey as "one of this generation's greatest visionaries", said she was confident that, with the guidance of the City grandee Sir John Peace as chairman, he would lead Burberry to new heights.

Burberry's recently appointed finance director Carol Fairweather also defended Bailey's appointment. "Nobody knows [Burberry] better than him. It's a design-led business, with a creative leader at the helm. He also has an incredibly sharp commercial mind," she said.

Fairweather replaced Stacey Cartwright, who was seen as the most likely successor to Ahrendts before she left to become chief executive of the upmarket department store Harvey Nichols earlier this year.

Ahrendts was the best paid chief executive in Britain last year, collecting £16.9m. The company refused to state how much Bailey would be paid and because he is not a boardroom director, his current pay is not disclosed by the company.

But he might not need the money. He tries to live a fairly ordinary life with his husband, the actor Simon Woods, in Chelsea and in their farmhouse near his parents' home in Yorkshire. There he is trying to find the time to learn how to repair the property's stone walls.

"It's a complete joke in my family because I've always loved dry stone walling," he said at Vogue's festival last year. "I've waxed lyrical about it for years, and my father thinks it's such a joke because I'm so puny. I keep saying I'm going to learn how to dry stone wall, and all I've ever done is … watch [other] people dry stone wall."

Bailey says most of his neighbours in Yorkshire have "no idea that I'm the 'Burberry guy'.

"It's just another world – beautiful and peaceful," he says. "It helps you not to forget how lucky you are – I realise how bloody lucky I am, in so many different respects."

He married Woods, who had starred in Pride & Prejudice opposite Keira Knightley, in a small ceremony with just 38 guests at Chelsea register office last year.

"It does change things," he says of his marriage. "It gives them a gravitas and a warmth and bond. It's absolutely brilliant."

Christopher Bailey

Born 1971 in Halifax, West Yorkshire. His father was a carpenter and his mother created visual displays at Marks & Spencer.

Lives In London with his partner, actor Simon Woods (Octavian in the second series of Rome, and Charles Bingley in Pride & Prejudice). They also own a cottage in Yorkshire. A photo of an ash tree from the house sits on his desk in Burberry's headquarters near MI5's headquarters on the Embankment.

Career Bailey credits his school art teacher for suggesting he look into "something in fashion" and he has certainly followed that advice. After studying fashion at the University of Westminster Bailey went on to do a master's at the Royal College of Art where the US designer Donna Karan was so impressed by his work that she hired him. After two years in the US, Bailey moved to Gucci, working as senior designer under Tom Ford. He was then poached by Burberry's former chief executive Rose Marie Bravo to produce the label's catwalk collection with his first designs showing in 2001. In 2009 Burberry's new boss Angela Ahrendts promoted Bailey to chief creative officer of the label with responsibility for advertising, multimedia content and brand image as well as clothing design. He and Ahrendts worked closely on turning Burberry into a tech pioneer, seamlessly linking fashion and the digital world, before his American boss's departure saw Bailey named chief executive this week.

Loves A big music fan, spearheading Burberry's Acoustic project, which showcases young British bands.

What Bailey says about being made creative director at Burberry: "It was mind-blowing. I just remember thinking it was this incredibly beautiful diamond that had been kind of trodden into the dust a little bit."

What Ahrendts says about him: "I looked in his eyes, and I trusted him."

Sarah Butler


Rupert Neate

The GuardianTramp

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