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In hindsight, it’s amazing that no one saw it coming. After all, Angela Ahrendts, the soon-to-be-former chief executive of Burberry, the woman who has more than tripled the brand’s share price in her eight years at the helm, dropped enough hints.
In a video entitled Burberry’s social story, for example, the UK’s highest-paid CEO in 2012 holds up her iPhone and announces, “This is the entry into the brand.” The recent Burberry spring/summer 2014 collection was photographed, videoed and streamed on the iPhone 5s. And Ahrendts (along with chief creative officer and next CEO Christopher Bailey) transformed the quintessential British heritage brand into the perennial top scorer in think-tank L2’s “Digital Luxury Index”.
Yet, last October, when Ahrendts announced she was leaving Burberry to become senior vice-president, retail and online stores, at Apple, the luxury and technology worlds dropped their collective jaws.
The surprise is understandable: no such high-profile luxury executive has ever left fashion for tech. Though Paul Deneve, former CEO of Yves Saint Laurent, had also moved to Apple a few months before, he had been at YSL for only two years and had previously spent seven years at Apple Europe. Ahrendts, by contrast, embodied her brand: an iconic figure in her white Burberry trouser suits and trenchcoats, with her sweep of blonde hair and ready smile.
Her career move crystallised what everyone was beginning to suspect: as technology increasingly becomes a luxury good, and luxury brands explore extensions into non-traditional areas, the two sectors are becoming intertwined. The 53-year-old Ahrendts – while at Burberry one of only three female FTSE 100 CEOs – is simply the most visible symbol of the trend. Luckily, she has had some experience with being a pioneer.
Born in Indiana, Ahrendts married her high-school sweetheart and headed east, to Seventh Avenue, where she worked her way up through Warnaco and Donna Karan. She was then named senior VP of corporate merchandising and group president at Liz Claiborne, responsible for contemporary brands such as Juicy Couture and DKNY Jeans.
In 2005, when she was approached to be CEO of Burberry, the fashion world was suspicious – her expertise, after all, was in the mass market – but she was willing to move not only sectors but also continents, bringing her husband and three children to the UK.
At Burberry she quickly enlarged the empire, bringing its fragrance in-house and launching a cosmetics line. Despite a profit warning hiccup in September last year, the company reported first-half revenues of £1.03bn last month.
In her role with Apple, she will become the brand’s highest-ranking woman ever, charged with restoring its somewhat tarnished retail halo and, possibly, softening its secretive public image. Perhaps, instead of Apple’s culture changing her, she will change it. If that happens, she will have not just broken the mould, she will have redesigned it.