It was a sad moment walking past the closing Karen Millen store on the corner of Regent Street and Princes Street in central London last week.
An undressed mannequin lay abandoned on the floor in the window, behind brash red and yellow signs that read “full clearance Sale” and “last six days”.
Karen Millen was a brand I aspired to when I was a young professional starting out in my career. It was premium, sexy and empowering – reflecting its glamorous founder. I fear a very different proposition will emerge through its reincarnation as an online-only brand owned by fast fashion behemoth Boohoo Group.
Karen Millen’s entire atelier team has been axed – in fact, only 100 people will be left in the new London office it will share with stablemate Coast, which is also being taken online only. Some staff have relocated to Boohoo’s Manchester headquarters, and many others have left.
A new design team and sourcing structure will inevitably bring a new direction for the brands, not to mention the push to grow Karen Millen from 400 styles to “thousands”.
Yet, while it is sad to think the Karen Millen of old has had its day, this change may have been necessary for its survival.
Former CEO Beth Butterwick had begun to make some progress in her turnaround plan – reducing its operating losses by 85% to £1.4m in the year to February 2018, its most recent results. But like its Aurora stablemates, Karen Millen was hit hard by the collapse of parent company Kaupthing during the Icelandic banking crash. It has also struggled to keep up with the competition in a market flooded with contemporary and premium womenswear brands servicing the same customer more nimbly, and with better product.
The Boohoo Group acquisition means Karen Millen and Coast can be quicker to market, and have a much lower cost base. Other improvements will include additional payment methods and improved delivery, which will help the brands to keep up with the demands of today’s consumer.
However, the swift closing down of the stores and concessions by the administrators has been hard to watch. It only serves to devalue the two brands and their product in the eyes of the consumer, which is the last thing they need.
It feels like the end of an era for two much-loved British brands, and a poorly timed kick in the teeth for the already struggling high street.