Tag Archives: Burberry

Steam punk: a square inch of contemporary culture by Carlen Lea Lesser

A couple of weeks ago, I was corresponding with Carlen Lea Lesser about Steampunk and its influence on a recent Burberry line of clothing called Prorsum Line.  

I asked Carlen if she would consider writing a few hundred words on Steampunk and the line.  I have a rough idea about what Steampunk is but I wanted Carlen’s "square inch" on the topic.  She was kind enough to oblige.  

Here then is Carlen on Steampunk.

I was completely stunned as I read Chief Culture Officer and saw a reference to Steampunk and how it was an important trend to watch and understand.  I don’t think I ever would have thought to find a fringe subculture/sub-culture discussed in a book like that, but maybe I should have.

Steampunk began as a sub-genre of Science Fiction and Fantasy fiction.  It is generally characterized as a blending of either Victorian-style and modern technology or Jazz-age style and modern technology.  It’s a world of "what if?"  What if we had steam powered cars?  What if we had computers that ran on clockworks?  What if dirigibles were a common form of transportation? Dirigibles (think of the Hindenburg) are a dead giveaway that what you are reading or watching is at least influenced by Steampunk.  The films Lemony Snickett, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, The Golden Compass, and even the Harry Potter films, are recent examples of mainstream Steampunk influenced films.  But don’t think this is an entirely new idea, the true father of this lived in the actual steam era: H.G. Wells.

At its heart, Steampunk today is a revival movement, but with a twist — it’s intentionally anachronistic. When the Victorians were in their Neo-classical revival phase it was hardly purist.  You can find a telling bell-jar or antimacassar on the scene to give it away.  Plus, they were a bit obsessed with clutter and could never really master that simplicity.  But it wasn’t done with a wink and a nod.   Steampunk is.  It imagines a world where the old and the new blended together.  Sometimes this is presented as just how the world evolved, and sometimes it’s presented as a post-apocalyptic rebuilding of technology and culture.  In the latter, the Steampunk blending of old and new is out of necessity and ingenuity.

Like a lot of fictional worlds, Steampunk has crossed over into real life.  Some people live this as a true lifestyle, some do it a hobby and at conventions, and some just fuse it into life as a sensibility.  This ranges from everything from inventing amazing Steampunk gadgets (working or not) to fully adopting a Steampunk fashion aesthetic.  Some people go all out with this, but many, like me, find ways to subtly work the style into a wardrobe without it, hopefully, looking like I’m wearing a costume all the time.  Maybe it’s just the cut of a jacket, granny boots, a pendant made from old watch parts, or my current favorite – an antiqued bee pendant with a working compass embedded into it.

The Steampunk aesthetic is clearly tapping into what I would call a growing sense of pragmatic optimism, and hints of it starting to appear more and more in mainstream culture.  Recently I even noticed it in Burberry’s new Prorsum line of clothing.  Burberry is not a brand I’ve ever had any interest in, which is why I was so stunned by the Fall 2011 line they recently debuted.  If you don’t know about Steampunk you might just see the military trend that seems to be working it’s way back into our wardrobes again.  When I look at it, I see a luxury brand’s interpretation of Steampunk.  Specifically it called to mind Warren Ellis’ amazing graphic novel series, Freak Angels.

Freak Angels is in the post-apocalyptic school of Steampunk, which is always amazingly optimistic.  But this line of Steampunk isn’t a dreamy utopian form of optimism. It’s a very pragmatic form of optimism.  Think of it as, "yes we blew up the world and that seriously sucks – but let’s get to the rebuilding and try not to screw it up quite so badly this time.  And if someone would invent a way to take a hot shower that would be bloody brilliant."

The Prorsum 2011 Fall line, evokes the slightly "ragamuffin fabulous" feel of post-apocalyptic Steampunk without making the wearer look like they are heading over to ComicCon.   One could say that the resemblance is superficial, but if you look a the collection as a whole and the way it’s presented, I think you’ll find that most of same cultural ingredients that lead to Steampunk are at work here too.


McCracken, Grant.  2010.  Square Inch Anthropology.  This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  December 17.  click here.


The image is from the Burberry.com website and shows a jacket from the Prorsum line.  

Burberry’s Angela Ahrendts and the next generation

She listens intently.  [She] has trained herself not to interrupt or seem rushed. Her eye contact never wavers, and while she insists she couldn’t function without her briefing folders, she never seems to need to look at them. [She] mixes folksy sincerity and laser focus […] effortlessly. Unlike corporate chiefs who favor an inaccessible, imperial style, Ahrendts seems comfortable with dissent; her executives joke easily with her, and aren’t afraid to press their points.

This is the stuff of managerial grace, isn’t it?  A boss who solicits staff opinion.  A boss who listens well.   

Listening is a good idea for lots of reasons.  It is the signature of corporations in which information moves easily and well.  it is the stuff of candor which is the stuff of transparency which is one of the vital signs of the corporation (Bennis, Goldman, and O’Toole).  

But listening well matters for Ahrendts especially because she is, as every CEO is, an exalted creature.  She travels and lives in a well upholstered, carefully modulated world. Limos, corporate jets, luxurious homes and hotels.  

This doesn’t matter much if you make electronic components, but it matters a lot when you are the CEO of a luxury brand.  Burberry has survived aristocratic lows, licensing lows, and it will flourish now only if it learns to run the rapids of contemporary culture.  

And the trouble is that there is some kid in Norway, or maybe it’s Cheng Du, working on music, software or a video that will help shift our culture.  This kid is extremely hard to see from the deep comfort of a corporate limo. 

Now, of course, Ahrendts is not without resources when it comes to staying in touch with culture.  Christopher Bailey serves as her brilliant Chief Creative Officer.  Her kids create and curate culture.  She lives in the American heartland so there is no island (i.e., Manhattan) captivity to worry about.  Burberry has experimented successfully with social media and cocreation. Plus, it sounds like Ahrendts can pick up the phone and call David Bowie any time she wants and that has to be quite a good thing.  

The trouble is it’s not just that kid in Norway.  The malls of America are a Petrie dish.  At the moment they are nursing a new set of values.  These values won’t matter directly to a luxury brand like Burberry, but they will matter indirectly and that’s the question in its fully difficulty. How will they matter? How will they concatenate into the world Burberry must master? America is having one of its periodic thinks on the ideas of fashion and luxury. This is hard to conger with from the inside the world of fashion and luxury (and a corporate limo).

And this is why it is so very critical that Ahrendts listens well.  Because she is surrounded everyday by a small army of young people who are a little less cushioned and a little more connected.  (It’s not perfect, but hey…as they say.)  But this body of information, opinion and pattern recognition is only available if you are the kind of boss who invites people to insist on what they know.  These kids are the aquifer out of which Ahrendts can and plainly does draw great things.

I believe it’s true that most corporations are a little less inclusive.  Most corporations ignore the great stock of knowledge that generations X and Y bring to work every morning. Occasionally, from the precipice of a decision, someone will say, "run this down the hall and see what the intern thinks."  Tthis is listening very badly indeed.  I keep hoping that new  generations will find a way to insist on their inclusion, that they will stage a palace coup if necessary.  Indeed, I hoped Chief Culture Officer might serve as a rallying cry. But so far I’m not seeing any evidence of a fifth column.  Just the noblesse oblige of a CEO listening well.  


Bennis, Warren, Daniel Goleman, and James O’Toole. 2008. Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor. Jossey-Bass.

Hass, Nancy. 2010. “Earning Her Stripes: Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts Balances Life and Work.” WSJ Magazine, September 9 http://magazine.wsj.com/features/the-big-interview/earning-her-strips/ (Accessed September 17, 2010).

Post Script

On the listening question, there’s a nice opportunity to compare Ahrendts’ style to that of another CEO in the garment industry.  Here’s how Paumgarten describes Mickey Drexler, the CEO of J. Crew.

His inquisitions have an auctioneer’s temp and a depositional intensity, but they also project an ease that derives from the pleasure he seems to take in them, and the pleasure, albeit of a wary and poised kind, that his employees seem to take in him.  Some combination of self-possession, insecurity, good humor, and good tailoring makes him approachable.  His command of a room is sneaky; it is unexpectedly fortified by curiosity and self-effacement.  


Paumgarten, Nick. 2010. “The Merchant.” The New Yorker, September 20, p. 79.

What Virgin can learn from Apple (and three other thoughts on a plane)

I was trying to charge my phone on my Virgin Atlantic flight home from London and one of the attendants descended on me to insist that I cease and desist.  I tried to explain that a cell phone was essential to meeting up with one’s car service. She didn’t care.

I thought to myself, "this is not what Apple would have done."  Apple had the very clever idea of turning a moment of customer unhappiness into an exercise in the Apple way.  So we enter the Apple store with our wounded iPhone braced for an unpleasant, accusatory, uncooperative engagement with the "support" staff, and lo and behold, the Apple people actually seem to want to help, to shoulder more than their share of the responsibility to put things right, and then to send us on our way with a song in our heart.  Steve Jobs has found a way to colonize and convert the misery inflected on us by product malfunction.  So simple, so smart, and actually not very difficult.

Virgin Atlantic has not got the news.  They have an unreasonable policy.  (The adapter I was not allowed to use to charge my iPhone was perfectly ok to run my ThinkPad.)  This policy has been seized upon by a staff member as an opportunity to play "big nurse."  (How frustrating for a corporation when a member of the corporation uses their power for personal purposes in this way.)  And when I pled my case, she just got worse.  And Virgin looked still more heartless and unreasonable.

You kill yourself to build a brand, and this happens.  Natalie could have found a way to give me an extra 5 minutes of charge.  "Our little secret" and "this is an exception I make only for you" would have augmented the brand wonderfully.  But no.  Natalie was triumphant. And damn the brand.

Everything else about the VA experience, I have to say, was really pretty well done.  I recommend it.  (Just be careful to avoid you know who.)  


BP has now worked it’s way through the Kubler Ross stages of grief and bows before it’s fate.  There is only one way out.  I wish I had thought of it, but I must give credit to Gregg Fraley who over drinks after the London Bootcamp noted that BP needed to make itself the absolute master of ecological calamities, the company to whom the rest of the world turns when something like this goes wrong, the go-to expert from this point forward.  Otherwise, they are utterly the villain of the piece and the brand is a write off.  (See Greg’s blog here.)


I found a piece in The Financial Times on luxury flourishing in certain markets.  That it should do so in China is perhaps not surprising.  In Shanghai a Rolls Royce Ghost costs a quarter of million dollars.  (A Phantom twice as much.)  All the better to send that status message.  But then we are accustomed to seeing classic competitive spending, status emulation, and conspicuous consumption of this kind, and indeed, we have ideas at the ready from Veblen, Simmel and Warner, to name a few.

But luxury is flourishing in other places (and in China, in other ways) and it would appear that these traditional consumer motives are being supplanted by new ones. And then the question is, gosh, really?  Is it possible that luxury purposes serves a new emotional purposes?  Is luxury becoming more private message than a public one?  And does this private message have something to do with defining and securing us in a world awash with change? It seemed to me that some of our collective thoughts on the new Burberry branding on behalf of its trench coat might point in this direction.  Just wonderin.  Do luxury brands have new power?  This is Virginia Postrel territory and defer to her thoughts on the matter (whatever they should prove to be!)


I am reading Lodger Shakespeare by Charles Nicholl.  I am only 20 pages in but already I detect a rising admiration and envy.  How wonderful to have a very clear topic and narrow focus.  This is what we all want: an intellectual undertaking large enough to warrant attention and small enough to limit the facts known and task assigned.  What most of us get instead is a body of knowledge and responsibility that is shapeless, fluid, and episodically inscrutable. Lucky Charles.  He is made a mesmerizing job of it.  


Nicholls, Charles.  2010.  Lodger Shakespeare.  Available from Amazon here.

Art of the Trench coat: unexpected lessons from the luxury brand

Thanks to Eminence Grise, I recently had a look at Burberry’s Art of the Trench.

It’s a lovely, brooding site, the kind of thing you browse with the restless, deeply jaded eye of a French cafe dweller, especially if you are like me an ancient roue.

I was too jaded to do a full reconnaissance.  (Plus, my view was sometimes blocked by American tourists.  Why must they torment my city with their graceless parkas and athletic shoes?  I mean, really.)

But I noticed this much..

In the beginning, the world of fashion was inhabited by models, impossibly tall, thin, elegant and beautiful, who were shot by professional photographers and then edited and air brushed by sharp eyed editors as a result of which transformation the models became still more tall, thin, elegant and beautiful.  Our job: to look on with drooling admiration, our face pressed against plate glass, a bitter autumnal wind tugging at our unforgivably unfashionable outfits, get-ups (and parkas).

The Art of the Trench marks two departures from this world.

The website features lots of photos of people in the Burberry trench.  Most of these photographs are taken by a professional photographer but they show "real people."

The notion here is that Burberry trench is no longer one perfect idea in Plato’s cave.  Actually, thanks to it’s must-have status in the world of the officer, the spy and the detective, it always had a second life as a friend of romance and adventure.  But typically Burberry ignored this tradition, and presented the trench the way the fashion world presented most everything…for our drooling admiration, our face pressed against etc. etc.

Burberry is wrestling with Plenitude and the fragmentation of taste in our culture.  There is no longer one single perfect Trench.  It is understands that if Burberry no longer controls the Trench, that it has to share authorship with the rest of us. Burberry has in other words discovered cocreation.  And not a moment too soon.  To live in the new world, brands are no longer missiles fired into the night air.  They are now what we make them on the ground, or they are nothing much at all.

But the website here goes a step further.  They accept photos from real people.  The photos are bad.  And the people are, well, really real.  Warts and all.  And for me at least this is a step too far.  I don’t actually want to see really real people.  It turns out, shame on me, that I still want my luxury brands (and the models who bring them to me) to have a certain exalted status.  I am happy to be forgiven the long climb up Mount Olympus, but I have now discovered that I don’t really want to make that trek all the way down into the really really world.

This is just a little too authentic for me.  (And for others, I’m guessing.  You tell me.)  But then I’m an ancient roue who insists that the world, my Paris, present itself as something stage worthy and perfectly crafted.  Otherwise what’s a Paris for?   Luxury brands deliver an exaltation.  This is one of the things they do for us.  No?

Post script:

This praise for Burberry is perhaps too tame.  Seconds after finishing this post, I read Cathy Horyn’s "Reflections on a Weird Year" in the New York Times.

I’m … completely fascinated by the potential for fashion companies to really use the Web and digital technology in much more interesting and purposeful ways than they so far have. I don’t mean Facebook and Twitter and 13-year-old bloggers (isn’t she 16 yet?), but rather rethinking a brand in terms of digital and making it as important a consideration as design and print advertising, which is still what most brand managers trust. Some companies plainly “get it” (look at hermes.com), but more brand chiefs need to inform themselves and make digital a top-down priority.


Anonymous.  2009.  Model Citizen.  Eminence Grise.  December 22.  here.

The Burberry Art of the Trench website here

Horyn, Cathy.  Reflections on a Weird Year.  New York Times.  December 23.  here.


Thanks to Grace Peng.

Note: this post was lost due to Network Solutions incompetence in December of last year.  I am reposted it, today, December 24, 2010.