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Harold Tillman: Time for reflection

The BFC chairman says his fifth and final year at the helm has been ‘monumental’ - but 2012 also saw the end of his other business interests.

For Harold Tillman, 2012 has been a year of contrast. This month he steps down after five years at the helm of the British Fashion Council (BFC), the longest-serving chairman in its history, and leaves it arguably in the best condition ever.

The Jubilee and Olympics gave September’s London Fashion Week the backdrop it needed to finally cement its reputation as a world-class event. The year also saw the launch of London Collections: Men, which has already built itself into a genuine platform to promote menswear design, attracting the likes of Alexander McQueen and Tom Ford.

But 2012 has been less successful for Tillman’s outside business interests. In April, 160-year-old brand Aquascutum, which was owned by Tillman, fell into administration, putting 250 jobs at risk. Tillman had secured his womenswear chain Jaeger from the fallout by selling up to private equity firm Better Capital, but the retailer had itself been struggling after a significant drop in profits the year before. Then in June, Tillman’s Croydon department store Allders also entered administration and in September closed its doors after administrators failed to find a buyer.

More on that later, as when we meet in the Savoy’s River Restaurant Tillman is fully focused on the positives of the year, which he describes as “monumental”.

He sees 2012 as the culmination of the five years he has been chairman of the BFC. When I ask how much credit he personally takes for the council’s elevated position, he says “all of it” – and he is only half-joking.

His overarching motivation was drawn from what he saw during his career – how British fashion and music succeeded domestically but failed to achieve international recognition. For Tillman, the starting point was design.

“When I started [at the BFC] I felt I was going to do the job differently to my predecessor – I have huge respect for [former Marks & Spencer executive chairman] Stuart [Rose], but he is a retailer, he doesn’t actually know that much about fashion,” he says.

“I wanted to get our designers recognised.

If anything, that is what we have achieved in my time – we are now on the world stage.”

There were of course plenty of obstacles, not least being cut off from government funding as the recession started to bite. LFW was being squeezed into three days and the media was up in arms over excessively thin models used in the catwalk shows.

Although London did not put a limit on model sizes, it introduced recommendations around age and healthy eating and eventually the furore died down. The other matters took a little longer to manage and required Tillman to put his legendary networking skills to use.

“We wanted to get Burberry back [to show at LFW], but I thought I don’t have the clout, so it was suggested that I meet Anna Wintour – which made me even more nervous,” says Tillman. “Anna’s office asked if I could do a power breakfast, but I don’t do early mornings – I don’t do breakfasts at 8am, so the first negotiation was asking to meet her at 9am.

“As I walked into the Ritz I saw her in front of me and I decided I would hang back until she had sat down. I was quietly walking behind her when someone I haven’t seen for years leapt out and shouted my name at the top of his voice. She turned around and looked – luckily she was wearing dark glasses, because you can imagine the look I was getting.”

Fortunately for Tillman and LFW, it broke the ice and Wintour agreed to help convince Burberry to come back to London. Once that brand returned to the fold, others came back in their droves.

It wasn’t just within the fashion world that LFW established itself – the BFC’s report into the value the fashion industry generates for the country was massively important in giving the sector the recognition it deserves.

But it’s telling that Tillman says none of these were the high point of his time at the BFC – in fact, after much consideration, the thing he says he is most proud of is the recent drinks reception in the newly finished (and still closed to the public) London skyscraper The Shard.

“It’s all about having chutzpah,” he says.

“If you want it, you have to go and get it done.”

I ask him if there is anything he feels he didn’t have the time or opportunity to do, and although he admits it “hasn’t been easy in the last three to four years”, he hasn’t left any loose ends. What about advice for his successor as BFC chairman, Net-A-Porter founder Natalie Massenet?

“She has proven how talented she is, and from that I believe she can make a difference, particularly internationally,” he says. “I would love to see her joining a more cohesive fashion platform – I’m sure she can bring that.”

Tillman says Massenet will take the reins with the BFC in “better shape than when I took it over”, and emphasises the good team she has behind her – chief executive Caroline Rush, who Tillman created the role for after being impressed by her work, and chief operating officer Simon Ward.

Although the chairmanship is effectively a part-time ambassadorial role, Tillman has clearly put his life and soul into the job.

“We’re glad he had the time to dedicate to the BFC, because he’s made such a valuable contribution,” says the press officer accompanying us during the interview.

Tillman tells me that, at the party thrown for his departure, Arcadia boss Sir Philip Green gave a speech in which he claimed that if Tillman had spent the same amount of time on his businesses, they might have achieved the same level of success.

Tillman, however, rejects this point of view. “I was an investor, and as an investor you win some, you lose some. It wouldn’t have made any difference because I was not managing director or chief executive.”

He is cautious around his phrasing of just what went wrong at the various businesses, but distances himself from the day-to-day management.

“Belinda [Earl, chief executive of Jaeger] was completely autonomous ,” he explains. “She came from a £2bn business to our small one and wanted complete control. I attended all the board meetings, and we met occasionally, but I didn’t go to anybody else in the business.

I would always go through her.”

I ask if he blames Earl for Jaeger’s problems. “When you say blame, I would ask you this – if Marks & Spencer doesn’t improve, who will get the blame there? The chief executive [Marc Bolland]. That is the role. I’m not saying I blame Belinda, but the fact is that is the role she took, that is the position she wanted. End of story.”

For Tillman, however, it’s not quite the end of the story. He might be stepping down from the BFC, but he plans to keep his hand in the industry, both as someone who can offer advice to start-ups and as an investor.

“I have so many things that come to me, things I want to help on a personal basis, to grow small designer businesses to the next stage,” he says. “There are one or two things of a certain scale that I’m looking at in terms of business. I’m certainly not disappearing.”

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