As part of Drapers’ 130th anniversary celebrations this year, we brought together some of fashion retail’s biggest names for a series of unique one-on-one interviews.
Here, Pure Collection product director Jo Hooper chats with Drapers Lifetime Achievement award winner Derek Lovelock.
More from: Drapers 130th anniversary interviews
Derek Lovelock and Jo Hooper share a love of product. Both are as passionate about good design as they were when they first started their long careers in retail, Lovelock at fashion chain C&A and Hooper as a trainee buyer at Littlewoods. Hooper went on to hold senior buying positions at some of the high street’s biggest names, including Debenhams and John Lewis. She is now product director at cashmere retailer Pure Cashmere and sits on the Victoria and Albert Museum’s commercial strategy committee.
Lovelock, who won the Drapers Lifetime Achievement award in 2013, has a wealth of experience at the top of the industry, including stints as the chief executive of Sears and executive chairman of Aurora Fashions (the holding company of Oasis, Coast, Warehouse and Karen Millen) and Mamas & Papas. He is currently non-executive chairman of etailer Joe Browns, and outgoing non-executive chairman of Jack Wills.
Drapers met the duo (along with the Lovelock family’s two dachshunds) at his countryside home to talk about career highs, fashion’s characters and the importance of good teams.
Jo Hooper: So, Derek, I’m not going to treat this like your obituary …
Derek Lovelock: That’s a relief!
JH: But why fashion retail? Was it planned or was it a happy accident – how do you regard it now?
DL: I was into music and I was into being a mod. For whatever reason, I just got into fashion. It was clear I wasn’t going to go to any university of any distinction, but Enfield College [in north London] had a business studies course. The whole lot was just luck. You had get experience in the industry for a year as part of the course and they had a list of businesses that people went to, such as Nestlé and Heinz. I wasn’t turned on by any of them. A friend suggested C&A and it sounded terrific. I got in there for a year in 1971, and I loved it. I went back to university and scraped by, and C&A took me back. I went through the two-year training process, so I was dressing windows at the Bond Street store – I did everything.
JH: And the rest is history …
DL: Well, I’ve never done anything else because I don’t think I’d be very good at anything else. I fell into something I enjoyed and I’ve loved it.
JH: I’m interested in what’s kept you in retail. It’s a question I sometimes ask myself, because it has changed so enormously.
DL: I’ve always loved product. Retail has always changed. If I run through my career – I started at C&A, went to Richard Shops, which became part of the Storehouse Group, in 1985, and then to Sears in 1992 – many of those businesses don’t exist any more.
JH: I’ve stayed in [the industry] because it has always struck me as being fun. The moment I walked into an office full of clothes, I thought, ‘Ooh.’ It’s the fabulous combination of creativity and business that makes it unique.
DL: It’s an industry made up of teamwork and characters. If you take the characteristics of good operations people and the creatives – both are fundamental to a retail business – but they tend to be polar opposites in every way.
JH: It used to be that you made great product and you put it in front of the customer, and said: ‘This is what you need.’ Now, she’s [the customer] in charge. It’s a completely different set of rules – if there even are any rules.
DL: If you had the fashion, people bought it. I remember someone saying to me that in any one season there were five key pieces. For it to be a good season, you had to get three of the five right and hope those three were the most highly priced. That doesn’t happen now, and I think that’s much healthier.
It’s an industry made up of teamwork and characters
JH: People can tell that you love product. You’ve been on the board of many companies – why do you think you’ve succeeded? What have been the ingredients?
DL: I had the best right-hand man anyone could ever wish for, who was Richard Glanville, my CFO. He started with me at Richard Shops. We weren’t always working together but in the latter stages, when we really did well, he was there. He has a number of great qualities, most of which are the ones I lack, which always works. I’ve never been worried about what I’m not good at: I know my attention span is relatively short. I have to have people around me to fill in the gaps.
JH: If your teams were talking about you, what do you think they would say?
DL: That I’m always interfering in product! I don’t know – all I can say is that we had fun working. It was tough at times, but you could make things happen. The great thing about our industry is that if you’ve got it wrong, you can make it right again. If my colleagues said anything, I’d like to think they’d say we were good teams.
JH: Obviously there are lots of women in the industry and you’ve worked with many strong women. However, as in many other industries, one of the challenges is that there aren’t that many women at a very senior level.
DL: I’ve had more female managing directors than male.
JH: You have, but it’s interesting that that is not the case across the industry.
Photographer: Benjamin McMahon
DL: I do like women and I love working with women. Out of choice, I’d always work with women. I like the way they think and work.
JH: I think a good team has both men and women in it, for lots of reasons. It feels well balanced and it goes back to that mixture of personality traits and expertise. Do you think your approach has changed over the years?
DL: I must be less tolerant these days – every so often I think I’m being a grumpy old git now! People would say I’m very laid-back but I’m also very ambitious. I’m happiest in a brand – the best times I’ve ever had were at Oasis. Then ambition says, ‘What’s next?’ so we had Coast, and then Karen Millen and Whistles. My challenge has always been marrying being ambitious with staying near the product, where I’m happiest.
JH: You can tell from speaking to you that your passion for the product is at the heart of everything. How did you manage your time within the industry – do you think there is such a thing as work-life balance? Deborah [Derek’s wife] is obviously a very important part of your life, as well as your kids, and you’re a granddad now.
DL: Rock and roll! Quite seriously, with a wife who loves shopping, the fashion business is happy days. It’s the best research anybody ever had. I’ve always paid to take Deborah with me on long trips, if it has made sense – like an inspirational trip – and that’s how I’ve managed the travelling side.
JH: I’ve got three boys and they seem to think my job is my hobby, my hobby is my job and I just get to shop for a living. In many ways, they’re not wrong. You wouldn’t do it if you didn’t love it. You talk very passionately about Oasis and the team there – would you regard that as a career high?
DL: Yes, that was a good run. I also remember to this day the stroke of luck we had with Coast. It was bought to be the older Oasis. We had this one dress that was really working and I said: ‘If it’s working, let’s do more of it.’ We just hit that sweet spot when suddenly, if you were going to an occasion, instead of having to go in a classic dress, you could go in something fashionable and sexy.
JH: And if you had to say what a low was?
DL: The whole Baugur thing was difficult [the Icelandic investment company was then a shareholder in Mosaic fashion, owner of Oasis and Coast, and later Karen Millen and Whistles. It collapsed in 2009]. We had a huge business with huge responsibilities and then the financial crisis happened. We had to do a pre-pack administration, and that was exceedingly tough.
JH: How do you cope with those tough times? As you say, the passion, the excitement and the pace of change carry you through, even when things are challenging, but when something like that happens …
DL: I think that’s probably my best time. I tend not to panic. That’s probably because I am not that emotional. I’m at my best when something goes wrong, because I never look back. You can’t do anything about it, so let’s focus on what we’re going to do going forward.
JH: What’s the best piece of advice that’s stuck with you through the years?
My advice to anybody has always been the same and that’s to know what you’re not good at. Nobody is brilliant at everything
DL: The most inspirational person I ever worked with was [Sir] Terence Conran. When he took over Richards in 1983, he said: ‘I’m going to change everything about this business, and the design is going to have an impact on everything, from the chair you sit on in the office to the stores. But for it to be successful, a customer has to come in and think everything she sees and touches has been designed by one person with one pair of eyes.’ He really got ‘brand’ – he was unbelievable.
JH: If that was the advice that served you, what would you offer to someone just starting in the industry?
DL: If it’s fashion, they have to know that they’re passionate about it. My advice to anybody has always been the same and that’s to know what you’re not good at. Nobody is brilliant at everything.
JH: I remember a piece of advice I was given, and that was to do what only you can do – that quality you bring that nobody else has. There’s been a lot of talk about spending moving to experiences rather than clothes, and that we’re at ‘peak stuff’. Do you think that’s true?
DL: Our high street is absolutely full of stuff. I hope what comes out of it is a much better retail scene, although there will be a heck of a lot of pain before we get there. Look at somewhere like Westfield London, which I love because it’s fascinating – it’s the ultimate experience. I’m interested in what’s going to be around the shops as much as I am in the shops themselves. Fashion has always changed – that’s something I thrive on.
- All the “In conversation” interviews are in our limited edition 130th anniversary book
Derek Lovelock and Jo Hooper swap their best industry advice