LONDON — The air in the big black tent in the middle of Kennington Park, South London, was thick with expectations. They oozed around the benches, covered in plaid blankets, that snaked through the space; bathed the guests in a nervous glow as they clutched the hot water bottles left on each seat. Even the hot toddies being handed out in metal mugs seemed to bubble in anticipation. The Big Burberry Reset under the brand’s new designer Daniel Lee was about to begin.
What’s the big deal? you shrug. Brands get new designers every other year these days. Why does this one matter so much?
Because Burberry was never just a brand. It was a multibillion pound public company and an unofficial cultural ambassador; the rare fashion label that had colonized a chunk of the global consumer imagination, where it stood not just for a certain kind of style but a certain kind of Britishness: one that could be seeded across borders even as the empire itself shrank.
Made modern by Christopher Bailey, who turned Burberry into a fashion phenomenon of the first decade of the 21st century before stepping down in 2018, it became a source of national pride and identity, one rooted in explorers, heroism and royal warrants; in the trenches and trench coats. (As it happened, Mr. Bailey was in the audience this time around — he had been advising Mr. Lee a little and, he said, “I just want it to be brilliant.”)
Burberry, fall 2023.Credit…Simbarashe Cha for The New York Times
Under the previous creative director, Riccardo Tisci, Burberry’s identity got fuzzy and its influence waned, in a way that seemed part of a broader British malaise. Especially in the wake of Brexit and Borisgate, the disastrously brief reign of Liz Truss and the current fears of inflation.
OK, you say. And?
And that meant this show wasn’t just about reinvigorating the brand; it was about helping reinvigorate the country. It may sound nuts, but it’s really not overstating the matter. Fashion is an access point to identity big and small and, increasingly a form of worldwide communication. Get it wrong, and you hear about it from all corners. Get it right and the result can put a brand and what it stands for on the map.
And Mr. Lee got it right. Ish.
If it wasn’t the clarion call of clarity that people were hoping for (it wasn’t), it was a calculated, and commercial, bid for relevance. Mr. Lee didn’t shy away from the stakes. He embraced them.
He took a foundation of clichéd Britishisms — plaid, knights errant, hunting decoys and roses — filtered them all through a grunge-y 1990s lens, added a bit of dry humor and Gen Z clickbait and juiced it to the luxury level. Seattle meets Shoreditch meets Windsor Great Park via Vivienne Westwood.
Gabardine trench coats were turned inside out to expose the lining, an oversize label complete with the new Burberry electric blue Prorsum knight logo blaring on the back. Plaid blanket skirts were layered over plaid tights (some static cling was involved) or plaid pants under plaid sweaters in marigold and grape, raspberry and that electric blue. It was a plaid-a-palooza.
A wool military overcoat came with a knit duckbill hat, its bright orange legs dangling down past the ears, which winked at the duck decoy prints on Mr. Lee’s little shift dresses and hiking pants.
They were funny, in an ironic sort of way. Roses swirled around on anoraks and padded velvets. Everything was kind of wrapped up, chunky and protective. Outerwear trumped evening wear, though a pair of asymmetric long dresses made of pointillist feathers hinted at an elegance in waiting. Maybe next time.
Of the 55 looks for men and woman, only a handful did not come with an accessory clutched in one hand: a giant squishy bag or a clutch in the shape of a rose or a faux-fur muff (the fur was all either fake or shearling) or even a hot water bottle. Most of the bags also dangled squishy oversize fake-fox tails — like a lure, like a promise of ka-ching to come. There were wellies and chunky Hush Puppies-like shoes and pumps with the foot floating like a raft on a shearling sole (continuing a trend for fuzzy feet that began in New York). There was lots of TikTok catnip. What there wasn’t was a lot of emotion or big new ideas.
But there were big fake-fur trapper hats!
A long-sleeve T-shirt came with the words “Winds of Change” splashed over a swan’s head — a nod to the heavy metal anthem of 1990 from the Scorpions that became the soundtrack to the fall of the Berlin Wall (and was once rumored to have been a bit of C.I.A. propaganda). Also to the fact that, Mr. Lee said backstage with a bit of wry understatement, it was a time of “change for me, change for the brand.”
He knows what he is doing.
That’s why the Burberry chief executive, Jonathan Akeroyd, took a risk on Mr. Lee, a talented designer who hit the spotlight not quite five years ago as creative director of Bottega Veneta but who left that job in 2021 under a cloud, dogged by talk of bad behavior. Mr. Lee, after all, hadn’t just won four British Fashion Awards in 2019 for his work at Bottega, he had grown up in Yorkshire, England, not far from the Burberry mills, and been forged in the cauldron of Central Saint Martins in London.
It’s why Mr. Lee’s first ad campaign for Burberry — introduced just before the clothes — featured such national treasures as the actor Vanessa Redgrave, posed in front of the Trafalgar Square lions, and the soccer player Raheem Sterling (of Chelsea and the English national team) smelling a white rose (the Tudor rose, a mix of red and white petals, is the English national flower). Ms. Redgrave was at the show, as were Liberty Ross and Shygirl, both of whom also are in the ad campaign. Ditto Jason Statham, Jodie Comer, Bianca Jagger.
“I want to just, hopefully, show some positivity about Britain to the world,” Mr. Lee said after his final bow. The weight wasn’t entirely off his shoulders, but he looked a little lighter.