The retired London-based merchandise director of Saks Fifth Avenue tells Melinda Oliver about her career and passion for British fashion.
How did you find yourself in fashion?
I was born in Dublin and worked for my parents in a coat and suit manufacturing business. In 1970 I moved to London and went to see a man called Nigel French, who ran a fashion consultancy.
He offered me a job, threw me in at the deep end and taught me everything I know today. I was later approached by Gimble Saks,which had a stable of stores – Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue (New York).
When its offices closed in London, Saks and I moved to Associated Merchandising Corporation. I have never been a buyer, but I have sourced the best of British manufacturers, designers and products.
How different is the business now?
Back then it was about meeting people one on one and phone calls. These days it’s all done by email – if you want to find out about someone you look on the internet. But I believe you need to get out there and look around to find out what is happening.
You need to go to the college shows, you need to go to exhibitions, you need to follow people. I always remember seeing Philip Treacy at the Royal College of Art graduation and thought: “Wow, he’s sensational.”
To this day he’s a great friend and a supplier for Saks Fifth Avenue. We didn’t discover him, but we were one of the people that noticed him at that time. We were there at the start and we were there at the start for footwear legend Jimmy Choo, too.
How do you spot a British brand that will be a success in the US?
American retailing is very different from UK retailing. Retailers in the US are always looking to find something totally different, new and exciting – the icing on the cake, the unusual. They want something that they can’t already get in the US.
What advice can you offer designers wanting to make it in the US?
If designers want to sell to the US they need to look at the market, and they need to shop retail. They need to go to Barneys, Bloomingdale’s, Bergdorf Goodman, Saks and so on to see where their clothes should stand. They also should look at their competitors and they need to market themselves well. America is very brand-conscious now.
What has been the proudest moment in your career?
That would have to be our British promotion, British Invasion Part II, at Saks Fifth Avenue in 1998. We did it with the help of the British government.
It was a major event during the Cool Britannia era. Over two weeks we put on fashion shows and designer appearances.
The list of designer guests included Hussein Chalayan, Jimmy Choo, Anya Hindmarch, Julien Macdonald, Alexander McQueen and many others. It made a statement about everything that is British.
You have just retired, so what is on the agenda for 2008?
I’ll be doing seminars for the British Fashion Council for first-time exhibitors showing at London Fashion Week. Fashion Fringe creative director Colin McDowell has asked me to mentor the finalists of the Fashion Fringe competition and I will also be lecturing some of the fashion colleges on selling and exporting to the US retail market.
Who is your fashion icon and why?
Rose Marie Bravo is my fashion icon. She was the president of Saks Fifth Avenue before becoming the chief executive of Burberry. I admire her ability to make things happen, her ability to market a brand and her ability to gather a team of people that she can work with – as you are only as good as your team. She knew what to do.
Gail Sackloff recently retired as merchandise director of Saks Fifth Avenue after 30 years.