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Burberry and the Aestheticisation of the Working Class

Luxury British fashion house Burberry has been a topic of online controversy following its recent controversial marketing campaign.

At this year’s London Fashion Week Burberry opened a pop-up at Norman’s Cafe in North London, with potato smiley faces and ketchup served to attendees. Their use of a greasy spoon cafe to advertise and showcase their SS24 collection has been denounced by some as a fetishisation of working class culture. This creative decision appears particularly tone-deaf when you consider the brand’s fraught relationship with its working class customers.

Founded in 1835 by Thomas Burberry, the brand’s first line consisted of functional overcoats designed for daily physical activity. Burberry’s popularity began to increase after the use of its trench coats by soldiers in the First World War, with Lord Kitchener famously wearing a Burberry coat during his visits to the Front.

In 1920, Burberry introduced its signature ‘Nova Check’ pattern which is now an instantly recognisable fixture of the brand. Although the ‘Nova Check’ was a signifier of wealth in the seventies and eighties with its prominence in the ‘Sloane Ranger’ style, by the nineties it became the uniform of hardcore football fans known as ‘Ultras’ or ‘Casuals’ and began to be associated with hooliganism. Liam Gallagher also sported Burberry in the ‘Wonderwall’ music video.

British tabloids demonised the adoption of the famous Burberry pattern by the working classes and began to depict the pattern as ‘chavvy’. In 2002, soap opera star Daniella Westbrook was famously photographed in a head-to-toe Burberry, including a Nova Check pushchair, which The Sun described as “chavtastic”.

Although you would assume the influx of luxury brands into the mainstream could help to break down class divides, following the classist depictions of working-class people by the British media, Burberry saw their exclusive image to be threatened and instead made steps to prevent the working class from accessing their brand. In reaction to the changing associations of Burberry, the brand began to heavily licence its ‘Nova Check’ pattern due to the great number of replicas on the market and Creative Director Christopher Bailey took decisive measures to phase out the pattern, which soon only featured in 5% of Burberry’s collection.

This deliberate distancing of the brand from the working classes renders the pop up at Norman’s Cafe a deeply hypocritical choice. After deeming working class fashion trends a degradation of their brand, their use of working class aesthetics to sell their new line is made all the more jarring.

Moreover, Norman’s itself is far from authentic. Although it labels itself as a “working men’s style caff”, it is a symptom of gentrification, complete with Aesop hand soap and a La Marzocco coffee machine whilst selling so-called “working class food” at an unreasonable price. Rather than supporting a genuine greasy spoon, Burberry collaborated with a cafe whose project is not dissimilar from their own: the commodification of working class culture, at a price that excludes the very people it imitates.

Given Burberry’s history of excluding working class people from their brand, their most recent campaign undoubtedly borders on appropriation. While a celebration of these aspects of Britishness is not inherently problematic, Burberry’s adoption of a distinctly working class aesthetic is ignorant given its controversial and classist past. It’s self-evident that the fashion world forgets quickly.

So, at a time when we are holding fast-fashion brands to account for their poor working conditions and unsustainable manufacturing practices, it is important we also challenge fashion houses like Burberry for their exploitative commodification of a culture they once saw as a threat.

Illustration by Lauren McAndrew

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