At Debenhams’ press briefing on Wednesday morning, chief executive Michael Sharp said “product remains at the heart of what we do”.
Ask any other retailer what drives a successful fashion business and most will agree with Sharp. After the Drapers Next Generation Academy last week, I’d like to add character towards the top of the list. We had an incredible line-up of speakers, all of whom have had ups and downs in their fashion careers, but remain leaders because of their drive, passion, enthusiasm and, in the case of some, eccentricity.
I’m thinking here of Ted Baker’s Ray Kelvin, whose session closed the Academy and who had the 250-plus crowd of young delegates - those in their first, second or third jobs - completely engaged. For those who know Kelvin, it’s hard to imagine how an eccentric like him can have serious discussions with shareholders and the City. In fact, he says he doesn’t alter his behaviour at all.
Among the few publishable anecdotes he told was a story about who he had lunch with that day: a dissatisfied customer. The customer had “written a beautiful letter” of complaint addressed to Kelvin so, naturally, Kelvin took him out for lunch. They had a blast. That’s a whole new level of customer service. But this, and Kelvin’s attitude as a whole, was refreshingly uncorporate. He didn’t edit what he said. He wasn’t media-trained. And yet few can fault how he runs his business when you look at Ted Baker’s results. Whether you’re a Kelvin fan or not - and he isn’t everyone’s cup of tea - his spirit, confidence and ability to be himself in all circumstances have made him what he is today.
There was something equally engaging about Sir Stuart Rose, one of the best speakers of the day. He recounted his famous anecdote about when, during Sir Philip Green’s attempted takeover of Marks & Spencer in 2004, he was hauled out of his car outside the M&S offices by Green (luckily he “was quite a bit smaller than me”), who then passed Rose his mobile phone so Green’s wife Tina “could also tell me I was a shit”. The spectacle, the drama, the passion from both men continue to run through their careers today.
I can’t imagine the same scenario with Marc Bolland taking place. And speaking of present-day M&S, it was interesting that quite a few of the speakers on Thursday were former M&S staff, speaking on the same day the retailer posted its fourth-quarter results. Rose and Jigsaw chief executive Peter Ruis said M&S offered the best training of any retailer during the start of their careers, and both said M&S would encourage you to work across different categories so your retailing skills were perfectly honed and varied.
Coast chief executive Kate Bostock, another great speaker, remembers when she was headhunted by M&S while at George of Asda. She said it was a difficult decision to leave, but admitted that the top womenswear job at M&S was at the time “the job I had always wanted”.
But arguably the best bit about the Academy was when Reiss founder David Reiss joked about the “rottweilers” in the room. He said how in the space of a few minutes, several young delegates had approached him, and he had been impressed with their ideas, confidence and determination. Hopefully, it’s a sign that the next generation of fashion leaders will follow in the footsteps of the current greats - and then some.