"Everybody always asks me, 'What's the secret to reviving a brand?'" Bailey says. "There is no secret—it's staying true to who you are as a company."

The designer's approach is rooted in his modest background. After growing up in West Yorkshire—a county that takes pride in raising plain-speaking, unpretentious citizens—the son of a carpenter and a woman who oversaw merchandise displays at a clothing store, Bailey moved to London to study at the Royal College of Art before landing at Donna Karan in 1994 and, two years later, at Gucci with Tom Ford. Although sorry to see his protégé leave, Ford was supportive of Bailey's move to Burberry. Bailey threw himself into the job, becoming known for his 15-hour workdays, his ability to control all aspects of the brand, and his affability. But Cloet's death affected his normally upbeat point-of-view, and his collections reflected that. Even his choice of music for his shows—from James Blunt's "Goodbye My Lover" to an instrumental version of the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby"—inspired melancholy.

Nowadays, Bailey says that it's as "fun to dip in and out" of the world of fashion as it is to return to Yorkshire and spend time with his "proper mates" and family, including his niece, who regularly sends him the kind of text messages only an 11-year-old can.

During lunch Bailey takes out his cell phone and begins reading: "Chris, I love you soooo much. You are the world's most loved, fantastic, amazing, and cool uncle in the entire world."

Eric Jennings, fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue, describes Bailey's version of Burberry Prorsum, the company's runway collection, as "incognito luxury." Incognito denotes not only the lived-in but luxurious clothes Bailey designs but also Bailey himself, who is as far from being a diva designer as it's possible to be. Backstage theatrics, "Page Six"–worthy dalliances, and temper tantrums are not part of his repertoire. As Mario Testino, who photographs the Burberry ad campaigns, says, "Christopher never longs for the limelight." Nevertheless, it finds him, and for all the right reasons. Go behind the scenes after a Burberry show, among the editors, fashion stylists, blue-chip retailers, and hangers-on all trying to get a moment of his time, and you'll see him moving easily from person to person, greeting each well-wisher with an endearing smile.

In many ways Bailey is extraordinary for his ordinariness. In an industry that puts a premium not only on talent but also on personality (Galliano is eccentric, Thom Browne precise, Tom Ford virile), Bailey stands out as the anti-designer. As he says, "Professional success is wonderful as long as it's balanced with personal success."