The idea of a “visionary” approach is gaining traction in retail. Drapers looks into how fashion businesses are integrating this approach into their strategies.
The retail landscape continues to evolve at breakneck speed, leaving traditional business models threatened with extinction in the face of fearsome competition. To combat this, brands from Burberry to Primark are seeking to inject “visionary” thinking into their businesses: teams and leaders who can re-imagine fashion retail.
Although “innovation” has often only involved tinkering at the edges of legacy processes and systems, visionary thinkers are upending traditional assumptions and starting from the beginning.
Riccardo Tisci, who became chief creative officer at Burberry in March last year, has arguably taken a visionary approach to the heritage business – overhauling the brand’s traditional aesthetic to introduce a streetwear focus, ending “see now, buy now” and introducing seasonal “drops” of fresh product throughout the season.
The luxury brand reported an “excellent” response to Tisci’s new approach, as revenue grew 4% year on year to £498m for the 13 weeks to 29 June.
Orlando Martins, founder and CEO of executive search consultancy Oresa, observes that retailers such as Boohoo Group are taking a visionary approach to expansion with its acquisitions of MissPap and Karen Millen so far this year, as is the Oasis and Warehouse Group, which bought menswear ecommerce site The Idle Man last month.
“These are examples of companies thinking in a visionary way about how they address the market and the opportunities they have within that,” he says. “They are thinking about how can they address their challenges differently.”
Pentland Brands, owner of Speedo, Berghaus and Canterbury, among others, is also adopting a visionary approach. It has two teams – the innovation team and the ideas incubation team – dedicated to driving innovation and exploring new avenues for the business.
“The innovation team works more closely with existing brands and looks for opportunities to make the current portfolio more innovative,” explains Emily Haynes, head of ideas incubation. “The incubation lab looks for ‘white space’ areas where our brands might not naturally to be able to stretch to, but Pentland has the capabilities as a business. For example, the incubation lab worked on a new footwear brand – 52 Degrees LDN – that seeks to strike the balance between comfort and style for the older consumer. It’s a proposition that wouldn’t work for our existing brands, but we had the ability to do it.”
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Haynes and chief operating officer Chirag Patel told Drapers Fashion Forum earlier this month about its latest initiative: Disruption Lab, which brings together “people from any part of the business”, who work in teams to resolve popular consumer frustrations by creating new brand propositions.
Chirag said: “This is about encouraging people to be more innovative in their ideas by changing the environment, focusing on one thing for three weeks at a time, and getting people to ask questions and think in a different way. Those skills are what we should be looking for as we look to the future.”
As Haynes adds: “If you don’t adopt that innovative mindset, you are in danger of being disrupted yourself.”
Visionary qualities are being looked for in roles across the fashion spectrum. Some headhunters even report that retailers are starting to look for chief visionary officers to work as part of the senior management team, re-imagine their businesses and act as the originator for future-focused creative thinking.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, Primark appointed a head of innovation and future trends in April. Jermaine Lapwood was previously head of womenswear design for four years.
Primark CEO Paul Marchant tells Drapers: “He has one of those minds that thinks differently than the rest of us. He works with product design, creative and marketing teams. One thing he is working on is how do we get feedback and ideas from all 76,000 of our colleagues.
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“I can guarantee there are thousands of brilliant ideas in the stores and offices around the world. We just need to find a way to extract them and turn them into something tangible. You can’t create the appropriate level of newness by just having a few people coming up with the ideas.”
Businesses are going to have to think fundamentally differently to succeed
Orlando Martins, Oresa
The value of the visionary is coming into focus for retailers as a result of the hyper-competitive, ever-evolving retail landscape. The need to modernise and stay relevant has never been so pressing. Former titans of the high street such as Marks & Spencer, John Lewis, Debenhams and House of Fraser are battling to modernise, but are held back by existing business structures and practices.
“Retail is an industry under significant pressure,” says Alice Walden-Jones, researcher at Barracuda Search. “To be successful companies need to be constantly evaluating and evolving to stay one step ahead of their competitors. This takes vision.
“There is an increasing need for those at the top to leave their comfort zone and break the normal retail rules.” However, she adds: “For companies who are struggling, it is difficult to be ‘visionary’ and bold during a time of uncertainty and extreme pressure. When a business is seeing strong results, it has the space to be creative and take risks. The leaders are trusted, and making mistakes may be more tolerated.”
When some businesses are driven by fear – and are acting accordingly – it can sometimes work well to do the opposite
Nicola Wensley, partner at Page Executive
Nicola Wensley, partner at Page Executive, agrees: “When some businesses are driven by fear – and are acting accordingly – it can sometimes work well to do the opposite. Well-planned and executed bold moves can pay off with big results.”
She continues: “Having a visionary approach is the magic to inspire a team and see beyond the day to day. But, it is important to have the right balance of vision and action – know where to go and also how to get there.”
Miriam Lahage, former CEO of Figleaves, notes that visionary thinking can be uncomfortable for a business, but this is needed to drive growth: “Many of us have been surprised by the speed with which changes happen in customer interaction, device use and consumer preferences.
A visionary approach, to quote David Bowie, is to turn to face the strange
Miriam Lahage, former CEO of Figleaves
“Living in a monthly, quarterly, and annual view of our businesses holds us back from seeing the big picture that our customers are changing. A visionary approach, to quote David Bowie, is to ’turn to face the strange’. Uncomfortable, yes. Unsettling, of course. But necessary to thrive in the future.”
To succeed, these visionary thinkers must have the support of the wider business.
“It’s about enabling visionaries to come into leadership roles – whether that is director or CEO level – if it’s appropriate for the strategic direction for the business,” says Oresa’s Martins. “Senior leaders of that type need to be given the tools they need to succeed. They would need confidence of the board, a supporting team that has a complementary skillset and the [financial and resource] firepower to make it happen.”
Meanwhile, it remains important for businesses to attract and retain new talent throughout the business. To do this, they need to be perceived as a business open to experimentation and innovation.
“Many of the candidates we meet tell us the companies they work for are outdated, not forward thinking and stuck in their old ways,” says Megan Bridger, managing consultant at Four Seasons Recruitment.
The idea of a single visionary role is appealing for some. However, Martins stresses the danger of treating visionary hires as a “silver bullet”.
“Vision for me isn’t a role,” he says. “I don’t think there will need to be a vision director in a fashion business – that should be the CEO or a creative director.”
Wensley agrees: “At a senior level, it is more important than ever that all the board have a visionary approach.”
The ultimate goal, of course, is for the visionary approach to become part of the culture of the business, as Walden-Jones concludes: “Being visionary cannot just come from the top, it needs to filter down to all levels of an organisation and be ingrained in everyone’s day-to-day thinking.”
The Drapers Verdict
Be it driven by the ideas of the CEO or brand director, or via a dedicated innovative role, the visionary approach is one that has clear benefits.
While there can be risk attached to the approach, a smart visionary approach does not necessarily mean enabling wacky ideas and plans. The modern approach to being visionary should be grounded in what benefits the business and the customer.
Retailers must embrace this approach in order to thrive in the modern, future-looking fashion industry.