Deconstructing a classic: Burberry coat boasts stylish history from trenches to city streets

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Author: Marylin Johnson
Date: Apr. 17, 2007
Publisher: Cox Enterprises d/b/a The Atlanta Journal Constitution
Document Type: Article
Length: 977 words

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Diane von Furstenberg has the wrap dress, Coco Chanel created the little black dress. And for more than 100 years, Thomas Burberry has ruled with the trench coat. Now, that waterproof gabardine creation the Englishman designed has become firmly entrenched as a fashion classic --- and an essential for rainy April days.

Burberry, a former draper's apprentice, developed a weatherproof, double-breasted coat in 1895 that was adopted by British officers. The British war office asked him to update the look in 1914 to accommodate soldiers fighting in the trenches in World War I, so he added shoulder epaulets to secure binoculars and a gas mask. D-rings were attached to hold a satchel for grenades, maps and flasks. Of course, current trenches don't serve as many roles as the original version but they get use all year long.

Burberry's design shows up on fashion runways each season, in various guises, from a $47 version at Old Navy to a $2,400 version at Tod's. An original Burberry trench can cost $650-$1,395 for a woman's version, and $795-$2,150 for a man's style.

But fashion fans remain loyal to the iconic Burbery trench, regardless of the price, helping Burberry become a $200 million company.

Those who buy a Burberry trench often wear it for decades. Claude Guillaume, who oversees the staff of the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Buckhead, bought one in the early '80s in France, and, it's still in good shape. "I like the elegance of the coat," he said, "and its durability." But the best reason? "It makes me look good because of the cut."

At the Burberry store in Lenox Square, discounts are rare, but there's no shortage of sales as customers flock to the classy coat. The coats are also sold on Burberry's Web site and at upscale retailers, including Saks Fifth Avenue.

"Burberry is one of Lenox Square's most high end, recognizable exclusive retailers to the Atlanta market," said Dwayne Herbert, marketing director for Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza. "It validates Lenox Square as the premier shopping destination in the Southeast."

And its appeal is global. The Burberry military trench kept Humphrey Bogart dry on a rainy tarmac in "Casablanca" and shielded Audrey Hepburn from the elements in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Current A-listers Uma Thurman, Keira Knightley and Courteney Cox also keep stylishly dry in trenches.

"The secret is that the trench coat was never designed as a fashion item," said Burberry's creative director Christopher Bailey, who's been with the firm since 2001. "It has therefore weathered time by evolving as a functional, stylish, iconic piece that works for both men and women."

For Atlantan Susan Neill, it's all about style. "They [the trench coats] fit over changing silhouettes," said the curator of Textiles and Social History at the Atlanta History Center. "Plus, the traditional neutral fabrics and colors work well with casual and more polished looks."

Burberry fabrics range from the original waterproof gabardine Thomas Burberry created in 1880 to today's cotton, taffeta and polyester/cotton blends. Although tan is the company's most popular color, customers can also choose black, olive, pale beige, taupe, stone, putty, white and silver.

The coat's construction adds to its exclusivity. Forty-nine pieces, including the collar, cuff straps, under collar and epaulets, go into the making of each trench. "One can construct a trench coat with just 28 pieces using a Simplicity pattern," said Vincent Martinez, a clothing instructor at Grady High School in Midtown. "Burberry's 49 pieces reflect their high standards and attention to detail."

A Burberry trench also features the distinctive "check" lining in red, black, white and camel stripes. It's a pattern the company trademarked in the 1920s. Buttons are made in a factory in Yorkshire, England.

Like anything in fashion, the Burberry trench goes through subtle changes each year. Lengths can range from short, jacket length, to knee-length to midcalf. Some styles are single-breasted with a slimmer cut. Lapels might be narrow one season, wider the next. Often fashion colors are added to the classic palette, including powder blue.

But the core look remains constant.

"The trench coat is one of our most important icons at Burberry and is something that constantly inspires me," said designer Bailey, who previously worked with fashion designers Tom Ford at Gucci and Donna Karan. "As the collections evolve each season, the trench coat naturally forms a part of the mood for the season."

About that Burberry

History: Thomas Burberry's double-breasted coats were originally designed in 1895 ---and updated in 1914 --- to protect British soldiers fighting in the trenches from the elements.

Construction: Forty-nine pieces, including the collar, cuff straps, under collar and epaulets, go into the making of each Burberry trench.

Signature style: Every trench features a trademarked "check" lining in red, black, white and camel. It's a pattern the company trademarked in the 1920s.

Who's in the trenches?: Humphrey Bogart in "Casablanca," Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." And it's become the uniform for gumshoes and celebrities.

What makes a trench coat

Exterior fabric: Original 1880 version had waterproof gabardine.

Shoulder epaulets: Secured soldiers' binoculars and a gas mask.

Detail: Loose shoulder yoke.

Lining: Burberry's trademarked check pattern.

Belt: Fabric with buckle trim.


WENNThe signature plaid lining of the Burberry trench peeks out as actress Keira Knightley heads for a film set wearing the classic in black.</ImageData><ImageData>ID: 0006379649Type: PhotoName: LVTrench6Date: 04/17/2007Page: E10Edition: MainPub:

BurberryActress Courteney Cox is spotted wearing a classic Burberry trench with the belt tied instead of buckled.</ImageData><ImageData>ID: 0006379647Type: PhotoName: LVTrench5Date: 04/17/2007Page: E1Edition: MainPub:

BurberryActress Uma Thurman tops an evening gown with a timeless Burberry trench.</ImageData><ImageData>ID: 0006325869Type: PhotoName: LVTrench2Date: 04/17/2007Page: E10Edition: MainPub:

BurberryA model shows Burberry's Prorsum trench ($2,475) with a skinny leather belt in place of the accompanying fabric belt with buckle trim.</ImageData><ImageData>ID: 0006330665Type: PhotoName: LVTrench4Date: 04/17/2007Page: E1Edition: MainPub:

BurberryThis Burberry trench retails for $1,195.</ImageData>

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A162182652