This is the tale of a man and a mac. It is not a pornographic tale of a seedy lowlife; of course it’s not. It is a tale of heroics, of a downright heroic raincoat, in fact. It is the story of guys who went to the Poles, of Scott and Shackleton, of courageous war correspondents and intrepid private eyes and glamorous movie stars, all wearing the iconic trench coat produced, mythologised and marketed by Burberry.
Actually, Scott and Shackleton wore Burberry overalls, and other explorers used them along with four sticks as bathtubs. But let’s not get so literal. This is about myth, about legend, about marketing .
It’s January and it’s raining when I make my way to Burberry. Winter in L ondon and it’s always raining and dark and cold. There’s not much you can do to cheer yourself up except go shopping. I think, OK, I’ll get my pal a raincoat and maybe one for me, but where to go? I see a friend wearing a slick, fire engine red, belted coat, but it’s not for me and certainly not for him. I consider an old-fashioned yellow slicker – OK if you’re digging for clams at the beach, but not for city life.
There are days when I give up and don my Patagonia jacket, the one that makes me resemble the Michelin Man but is entirely resistant to the elements. I wear it with the hood up and my Jackie O sunglasses on and I look like a sister from another planet. In desperation, I call up my style consultant, my friend the woman who knows , and I ask, what kind of raincoat do you have? “I hate raincoats,” she says. She says they’re all horrible and ugly. I ask her what she does when it rains, and she says, “I use an umbrella. Then I lose it.” I love umbrellas, but I, too, lose them, whether I buy something wonderful, say a new Pucci brolly, or a cheap throwaway. (I do love the idea of vending machines in tube stations that sell you throwaway umbrellas for £2.)
Rainhats, no matter how chic, always remind me of those grey-ish plastic scarfs your auntie carried in her bag. I’d rather get soaked. Upon hearing this tale of woe in the wet from my favourite stylista, I return to my search for the ideal, the platonic mac. Which is how, of course, I find myself at that mac bastion, Burberry, looking at men’s raincoats. The coats are all very nice. They have it all, the button-in linings, the D rings, the belts and buckles – I mean you could definitely fight a war in one of these or report from the front line in it or at least get a bit part in the movie. Very dashing. Of course, now Burberry also has the “Art of the Trench” service, as in Tintoretto, I guess, or Vermeer, as in A R T. These custom-made coats are fabulous, made to measure, your initials on a red cashmere lining or anything you fancy. I’m trying to ignore the fact that Burberry is also selling a sort of crinkly, glittery pink thing that looks like a fuchsia pacamac.
I’m trying to call up the way Burberry once was because I miss its old appeal a little. I miss the splendid, rather grand shop where you knew that the salespeople understood the history, the meaning, the purpose of the trench coat. S ome of them looked old enough to have remembered Mr Thomas Burberry himself back when he invented gabardine. But it had an aura; to possess one of these belted buckled garments, it was implied by those sober sales guys, was to join a very special club. Now the salesmen are young and handsome, and many of them are attired in black; they are the chic Burberry, the high fashion Burberry rather than the firm of S hackleton; they look as if a puff from a cigarette or a frozen margarita machine would blow them over. The truth is, I want it. I want it bad and I want to buy it for my friend and I’m on the verge of shelling out, when he looks at the price tag.
For the really nice trench coats, with linings, you could pay £700, £800, £900. I think he’s going to faint. He’s an English guy of the old school who, not being a fashion victim like me, does not understand why things cost what they cost. (This is a guy who often buys a pair of shoes for under £100. Both shoes. ) This sets me to thinking: why does a raincoat cost so much? I call the Burberry people, but they never call back. I move on. I head over to Marks & S pencer, but the men’s raincoats are few and drab. I pop into Prada where everything is an object of desire, but my pal couldn’t get his arm into the main body of the coat. These are raincoats for gents of the Italian persuasion. I check out Harrods and S elfridges, and the rest, but the problem is, I want the Burberry. I want my friend to want it too. It has, well, a certain dash; it makes you feel like Bogie and Bergman in one. Which is why it costs what it costs; you’re paying for stardom. ✦