From a young age, I always had a weakness for Burberry. The supple scarves, the nova check scrunchies, the child-sized handbags were all a daily presence in my life. All fake of course, because the Burberry check is the most copied print in fashion. Instantly recognizable, the beige, black, red and white tartan has been replicated, counterfeited and customized around the globe, much to the brand's disdain. Burberry moved from a stuffy symbol of high-end luxury to a lazy emblem for "Chav Couture" and football hooligan culture.
Founded by Thomas Burberry in 1856, in the early days, the brand epitomized British nobility. Worn by the first man to reach the South Pole and Army Officers in the trenches in World War I (where the name "trench coat" was born), it was famed for its practicality. For much of its history, Burberry's image was more Sloane Ranger than EastEnders.
In a remarkable feat of re-appropriation, Burberry came to symbolize pseudo-luxury counterfeit-couture and working-class heritage. In the same way that London's Jungle and Garage scene had reclaimed luxury Italian brands like Moschino and Prada in the 90s, or Brooklyn's Lo Lifes had hijacked preppy Ralph Lauren Polos in the late 80s, Burberry too became reappropriated through knockoffs and cheap imitations.
Burberry began to become associated with "chavs" - a word that reveals far more about those that use it than it does about Britain's urban working class. The print ended up plastered on everything from phone covers to beer mats. But it wasn't until EastEnders actress Daniella Westbrook radiantly appeared in head-to-toe Burbs coupled with matching nova-check toddler and buggy, that heads really were in hands at Burberry HQ.
Before long, the tartan print was shunned by its conceited customers and Burberry had become its own worst enemy. Cheap imitations popped up everywhere and, naturally, sales plummeted.
Snapped up by football hooligans, the iconic check also became something of a uniform on the terraces. One firm even christened themselves, "The Burberry Boys". Of course the decision to wear Burberry was part of a far wider casual subculture in which football fans swapped their immediately identifiable club colours for designer labels and lavish sportswear. As well as keeping police attention at bay, this made it easier to infiltrate rival clubs' pubs. The pubs quickly cottoned on, and landlords joined forces with the police and drew up lists of banned clothing. Alongside brands like Stone Island, Lacoste, Aquascutum and Henri Lloyd, Burberry was officially banned from certain pubs.
In response, Burberry ordered manufacturers to discontinue its definitive black-and-beige check. Of course, there are still a fair few of these hats knocking about. So many that artist Toby Leigh has dedicated the last decade to photographing counterfeit Burberry. From wheelchairs to birthday cakes, tattoos, shopping trolleys, gear sticks and an entire apartment block, Leigh's new book titled Berberry(Ditto Press) includes 100 images of bootleg beauties.
"About ten years ago, I started noticing the patterns in more and more ridiculous places," he explains. "Burberry got really worked up about the whole appropriation. It was no longer an exclusive west London thing. Suddenly everyone had it and you couldn't tell what was real and what was fake. It was a total leveler".
Having traveled far and wide in search of the tartan, Leigh's photos span Thailand, New York, San Francisco, Marrakech and London's outer boroughs. "It's pretty ubiquitous stuff," he chuckles. "When people from other countries manufacture the Burberry pattern, they associate it with British heritage, a bygone era when things were better."
Unfortunately, Leigh is now struggling to top up his collection. "It's really tailed off. You can't get anything online and shops that work in the rag trade have nothing because the Burberry secret police come down and threaten to take them to court. It's like gold dust now."
High-end couture is intent on clamping down on counterfeit clobber. But no brand is as steadfastly stringent as Burberry. In the attempt to reclaim its lux, opulent image, Burberry has taken "rebranding" to extremes. In an attempt to distance itself from the counterfeit, it has been eager to use models that are members of the British aristocracy, such as Kate Middleton and Stella Tennant. And, thanks to Mario Testino's black-and-white imagery, and Kate Moss and Keira Knightley's ad campaigns, Burberry has bounced back. If you walk into a Burberry store nowadays, there isn't a nova-check in sight.
Nevertheless, there has most certainly been a renaissance of the classic Burberry print. Like all fashions, we've come full circle. Thanks to UK site Wavey Garms, logoed, loud vintage designer clothes are back in fashion. From the Burberry nova-check to the original Dior logo to the Fendi monogram print, ostentatious "if you've got it, flaunt it" patterns are everywhere.
While Burberry may have had a chequered past, it's colorful history is testimony to the powerful, honest identity of British working-class style. In re-appropriating Burberry, the masses were able to displace the gatekeepers and out-taste the tastemakers.
Text Maya Oppenheim
Photography Toby Leigh