Mention Burberry and the image of a beige trench coat comes to mind. In fact, just saying trench coat evokes images of the quintessentially British brand.
This year, Burberry is once again highlighting its iconic pieces and, yes, its most famous trench coat is on the rack. Burberry, founded in 1856, established itself by focusing on the development of outdoor attire. But it was when Thomas Burberry introduced gabardine – a hard-wearing, water-resistant, breathable fabric in which the yarn is waterproofed before weaving – that his trench coat came to life.
Originally created to shield military officers from wind and rain, Burberry's trench coat has evolved over 130 years to become an iconic fashion statement. Named after the trenches where military personnel were stationed, the coat has a rich and resplendent history. Patented in 1912, the trench coat began as the Burberry Tielocken. Its innovative design featured a belted closure without buttons and was made from gabardine, the same fabric that accompanied explorers on their first expeditions to the Poles.
The heart of the coat is its tightly woven fabric. Invented in 1879, gabardine revolutionised rainwear. Fabrics were previously waxed or rubberised to resist water, making garments heavy, stiff and uncomfortable for long periods. But gabardine was made from yarn woven in a compact twill construction with over 100 interlaced threads per centimetre. The microscopic open spaces in the weave allowed for ventilation, while the compact structure prevented water from soaking the fabric. For added protection, the cloth was triple proofed, creating a lightweight, highly weatherproof and breathable fabric.
Woven at the Burberry mill in England, today gabardine is created using many of the original techniques along with new finishing processes to make it even more resistant to getting wet. The cotton is chosen by its fineness and the length of its fibres, which give the fabric enhanced strength and a clean surface texture. This is spun into yarn, created from two finer stands twisted together in a process known as doubling.
The colour of Burberry gabardine is strictly controlled and must be signed off by experts at the mill. After approval, the fabric undergoes a finishing process and is checked twice more to ensure the cloth is flawless.
In the early 20th century, the coat was altered to serve the needs of officers and soldiers. In terms of its design, as the coat was developed for the military, each detail on the garment was made to serve a purpose. The epaulettes were used to display the rank of the officers, while the gun flap, buttoned at the chest, gave the area additional protection when the soldiers were in action.
The storm shield, the covering on the upper back of the coat, was added to ensure that rain ran cleanly off the garment to keep the wearer dry. A belt was added so that the coat could be tightened at the waist for further protection against the weather, while the metal D-rings were a place to attach military tools. Finally, the back pleat of the coat was designed to expand when an officer was running or on horseback, to ease his movement.
Completely made in England, Burberry trench coats are produced in the northern town of Castleford by experts who combine traditional techniques with modern technology. It takes about three weeks to make each coat as over a hundred skilled processes must be completed to ensure the quality and unique appearance of every Burberry trench coat.
Another trademark is the stitching of the collar. Unique to Burberry trench coats, it takes up to a year to learn how to stitch it using a method that's part of the fashion company's design heritage. The craftsman manually places 11.5 tiny stitches per inch along the length of each collar to create a fluid curve, ensuring it sits perfectly on the neck.