It's all about the brand: Burberry's leading lady moves to Apple

Richard Edgar

Former Economics Editor

A sign on the door of the flagship Burberry store on Regent Street, in central London. Credit: Yui Mok/PA Wire

The most successful and glamorous partnership in British business is to end. Angela Ahrendts, who has led Burberry for the past eight years, is to join Apple, leaving Christopher Bailey to add chief executive to his title of chief creative officer.

Together they have transformed Burberry from a tired brand to one of the great, global fashion houses of the age. Gone is the over-used signature check adorning baseball caps worn by "chavs" everywhere and in its stead is a constantly refreshed, modern recognisable (if expensive) look.

Ahrendts' success was recognised last year with a bigger pay packet than any other chief executive among the FTSE 100 list of top British companies. In exchange for having multiplied the value of the company and profits, she took home almost £17 million - the first woman to top the pay league in Britain.

Ahrendts, then, isn't short of a penny or two. So what has tempted her back to her home turf of America? What can be the appeal of joining a technology company, even one as cool as Apple? The new job - to run Apple's retail operations - seems designed for her. She has spent her career in fashion but her first love, she told me in an interview some years ago, was merchandising; the art (and it struck me that she really considered it art) of displaying goods in an appealing way in shops to entice shoppers to buy. Even a casual glance at Burberry stores today will confirm her influence on the bright, glossy appealing shops that exude class.

Class is a deliberate part of the image - Burberry has included "posh" British models in its campaigns for years. A reaction, surely to the "chav" past. Christopher Bailey is very much behind the look which married so well with Ahrendts's strategic direction. Indeed, his partnership with Ahrendts is so close that it is hard to know how he will continue alone. Investors seem to agree - shares this morning in Burberry have dropped over 5% in early trade.

Together they spearheaded the company's success in new markets, especially China and - globally - online. I went to the first show Burberry streamed live on the web, allowing customers anywhere in the world immediately to order clothes they saw on the catwalk in London. It was a novelty at the time but hype around the website translated rapidly into sales.

The show itself took place in a huge, spotlessly-white marquee specially made for the event with gorgeous staging and lighting - all for an event that lasted but twenty minutes. Immediately afterwards, in the hubbub as fashion journalists and buyers thronged around Burberry's key people, I had to confess to Ahrendts, somewhat embarrassingly, that it was the very first fashion show I had been to and I was astonished at how much they had obviously spent on such an ephemeral event. She stopped dead, gave me a slightly withering look and said very slowly: "It's All. About. The. Brand."

It's a mantra that has served her and Burberry well. I wonder how she will interpret it to reinvigorate Apple's stores and online sales when she joins next year.