Women executives: Fashion retail’s new power players

As the fashion flock moved from New York to London to Milan and now on to Paris, one trend has stood out: the new look of the retail front row.

Where once men made up the majority of power players at the world’s big department stores, recent poaches and promotions have thrust five British or British-based women into the spotlight: Stacey Cartwright, the new chief executive of Harvey Nichols; Marigay McKee, president of Saks Fifth Avenue; Alannah Weston, deputy chairman of Selfridges Group; Averyl Oates, fashion commercial director of Galeries Lafayette; and Helen David, fashion director at Harrods.

They are changing, literally, the face of global shopping.

One move that really caused a stir was the appointment of Ms McKee in September, replacing Ron Frasch. Richard Baker, chief executive of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Canadian group that bought Saks for $2.4bn in 2013, will be hoping that Ms McKee, the former chief merchant of Harrods, can bring some of the retail fairy dust she sprinkled over the glamorous London store.

At Harrods, she used her ability to identify with her customer to transform it into a temple to luxury.

Saks, which has 41 full-line stores, needs an injection of upmarket glamour and a business boost: by the quarter ending August 2013 it showed a net loss of $19.6m compared with a net loss of $12.3m a year earlier.

Still, a serious facelift to make the high-end Saks locations “more five-star, more Peninsula” is on the cards, and Ms McKee told the Financial Times shortly after her appointment that “there is $1bn of capex earmarked over the next five to six years to take Saks to the next level of luxury, beginning with $250m for renovating the Fifth Avenue flagship”.

Ms McKee is focusing on what she calls “the four Ps: product, people, place and positioning. We’re looking at everything: vendor mix, service, the way our stores look and the customer experience above all.”

Ms McKee says she would like to see a holistic spa and VIP personal shopping apartment at the Fifth Avenue store, along with entire floors for cosmetics and shoes, and even an art exhibition space.

Industry watchers will also be expecting an image upgrade at Harvey Nichols, whose reputation is lagging behind competitors Selfridges and Harrods.

Its new chief Ms Cartwright, the former chief financial officer and executive vice-president at Burberry, was credited with helping former Burberry chief Angela Ahrendts transform the British brand from a business tarnished by the ubiquity of its checked garments (at one point banned by certain pubs and clubs) into a credible luxury player.

Turnover at Burberry increased from £676m when Ms Cartwright joined in 2004 to £2bn when she left in 2013.

Of her new role, which began on February 17, Ms Cartwright says “there are opportunities for Harvey Nichols through continuous development of their bricks and mortar presence in the UK, and internationally, always ensuring the Knightsbridge flagship is the heartbeat of the brand”.

She adds: “Ecommerce and multichannel retail is also key to Harvey Nichols’ development . . . and the Harvey Nichols own label is also a great opportunity for development into new categories.”

Certainly, Ms Weston, the former creative director of Selfridges, would understand the challenge. As owner Galen Weston’s daughter, she faced initial scepticism, but has been instrumental in forging a modern identity for Selfridges by creating innovative events that fused contemporary culture and consumerism, such as the recent Festival of Imagination, for which architect Rem Koolhaas designed an “Imaginarium” space hosting discussions and interactive animations.

Ms Weston has yet to reveal what she intends to do in her new position, which becomes effective later in the spring.

As for Ms Oates, she was Harvey Nichols’ global fashion and merchandising director from 2004 until 2011, and in 2012 joined start-up Luxup.com, a private equity-backed online luxury service, in which she also invested. It ceased trading last March, and Ms Oates became the fashion commercial director of Parisian department store Galeries Lafayette in August, a newly created role.

“Bizarrely, I was far more employable after Luxup folded than as a buying director, which was very one-dimensional. I feel like it gave me a practical MBA,” says Ms Oates.

Her mission at Galeries Lafayette, says Ms Oates, is to make the store “much more cutting edge and much more fashion”.

“Talk to any department store and you’ll see they’re focusing on key brands,” she notes.

Her role puts her in parallel with Ms David, who was promoted to Harrods’ fashion director of womenswear, fine jewellery, accessories and childrenswear after Ms McKee’s departure.

Part of Ms David’s plan for the store can be seen in Harrods’ biggest project of the year, which she masterminded in her former role as general merchandise manager of womenswear and jewellery: the 42,000ft Shoe Heaven area, designed by celebrated architect David Collins before he died, and opening in August.

Ms David is committed to upping the ante, though she also notes: “I negotiate which brand goes where, how many square feet they have, who the adjacency is [who a brand is next to], how big is the space that you are giving their number one competitor . . . The amount of times a brand has threatened to pull out if you don’t do something. I spend most of my time playing politics.”

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