Doing It Digital
How Angela Ahrendts used technology to reimagine the retail experience.
Walk into Burberry’s flagship store in London and you’ll see mirrors transform into monitors as bespoke digital signage guides you past trench-coated mannequins. You’ll watch footage of jackets and bags on a two-story projection screen transform into a deluge of water, as music shifts into the comforting staccato of rain cascading onto the glass oculus above—even though the weather outside is clear and sun streams through the mullioned front windows.
Founded in 1856, this luxury fashion house could have easily remained respectably old-fashioned, resting on its well-deserved laurels and distinctive tartan pattern and trench. But instead, it went forward. It went digital. Under Ahrendts’ direction as CEO from 2006 through 2013, the Burberry brand was reinvented and its share price tripled. Certainly, when a digital goliath like Apple announced that she would be joining their executive team (the only female) as Senior Vice President of Retail, it was with utter and complete confidence. Ahrendts knows technology. No question.
Burberry will doubtless be sad to see Ahrendts go. Thanks to her leadership, the company can honestly call itself “the world’s leading digital luxury brand,” touting emotionally resonant campaigns like Burberry Kisses and The Art of the Trench. In 2013, they brilliantly filmed a fashion show using Apple’s iPhone 5s before the new device was even released to the public. Ahrendts also commissioned Burberry Chat, an internal social platform where all 11,200 employees can speak directly to each other in real-time. But nowhere is the digital/physical connection stronger than in the company’s Regent Street store. As Ahrendts explained in an interview for The Business of Fashion:“Doing things digitally is how the entire world communicates. That’s our language today. Digital is not an afterthought. Our design teams design for a landing page and the landing page dictates what the store windows will look like, not the other way round. In creative media, they’re shooting for digital, then we are turning it back to physical.”
While most retailers will model their website on their in-store experience, Burberry took the opposite approach, creating areas of the flagship based on sections of their online architecture. Burberry Bespoke, an online app, is brought in-store by dedicating a room to customers designing their own unique trench coat or calling-in one of the store’s traditional tailors to make alterations in a private suite. In an onstage interview at Fast Company’s 2013 Innovation By Design conference, Ahrendts shared her process and reverence for design:“If you really are going to be a great brand, I don’t think that’s just in the products you produce. I think that’s in the environment where everyone lives. Because your associates are your brand ambassadors, and if they don’t feel the brand, how are they going to create the products that are really going to emulate the brand? When I had started about eight years ago we were in five different offices around London and the merchants were here and the designers were here and very early on I said ‘Christopher, no. Everybody has to be together.” So we found this amazing building and of course it was 2008 and convincing the board that we had to move headquarters because it was the greatest thing for the brand was a great challenge but they fully agreed.”
The company also designed its flagship with concerts in mind, holding monthly events that are then streamed live online. Visitors to Burberry’s website had been already captivated by Burberry Acoustic, a collection of music videos featuring dewy-eyed millennials playing songs amidst pastoral British landscapes. Online, people spend an average of 18 minutes watching these intimate films. The in-store version of this experience extends beyond an interface, to the products themselves.
This is why Burberry embeds RFID chips into select garments and accessories. Pick up a Python clutch bag and walk near one of the mirror-monitors and a video launches of the same bag held by a green-skirted model as she spins and steps in slow motion. A purse adorned with a gold fox head triggers footage of the wrinkled artisan who made it. Other items launch short films ranging from designer’s concept sketches to the customer’s name being virtually engraved onto tags stitched into the lining of garments.
Each of these instances are products of Ahrendts’ determined efforts to close the gap between the physical and digital worlds—a gap that many other fashion retailers have yet to identify. These are all pieces of a cohesive vision. As they converge, they have transformed a flagship store into a brilliant, tech-infused space, with interwoven experiences that live both online and off. Ahrendts is a master storyteller in a digital age.
Got you hooked? Here’s more:
Angela Ahrendts on Empathy and Creativity (2013)
From Fast Company’s Innovation By Design Conference
The Dulcet Tones of Millennial Musicians
Featured on Burberry Acoustic
More About Angela Ahrendts and Apple
Everyone agrees that her appointment at Apple is a good thing