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Kim Winser

Despite not having a lunch break in two years, Aquascutum’s chief executive has summonedup the energy to rouse a sleeping giant and rally to the cause of women in retail.

Getting an appointment with Aquascutum chief executive Kim Winser isn’t easy; she is willing and accommodating but very busy, so Drapers takes a 1pm slot at a time when everyone else might be pausing to eat and catch their breath, but not Winser.

“Lunch break? What’s that? She hasn’t had one for two years,” says her PA when Drapers apologises for taking over her midday break to carry out an interview and photo shoot. Life has been non-stop since she took over the reins at what she then described as a “sleeping giant” in 2006. But, that’s OK, she loves it.

“For me it’s my passion. I think I was born a retailer,” Winser muses when asked what is so special about the industry she joined as an 18-year-old Marks & Spencer management trainee in 1977 (this was against the advice of her teachers who were distraught at her decision not to attend university). In fact, Winser had been bitten by the retail bug even before she joined M&S. “I had a Saturday job in a shoe store when I was at school and I’ve never lost my passion for shoes – and homewares and fashion,” she laughs.

Even in these apparently enlightened times, Winser – a female chief executive in retail – is something of a rarity, and rectifying that is a cause to which she has just leant her name and some of her precious time. Along with other high-flying women such as Ultimo lingerie founder Michelle Mone and Fortnum & Mason managing director Beverley Aspinall, Winser has agreed to take part in the judging panel for the inaugural Specsavers Everywoman in Retail Awards, which aim to encourage and celebrate the achievements of women in the sector.

The awards were established by the Everywoman organisation, which provides training services and support for women in business. It identified the need for the initiative following research from consultancy firm Enterprise Insight which revealed that while 60% of workers in retail are women, only 5% of chief executives of retail businesses are women and just 8% of purchasing decisions in the retail industry are made by women.

“There is a very small number of women at the top of the retail industry and I feel it’s good to give incentive and encouragement,” explains Winser, who acknowledges that it is a difficult industry for women to get ahead in, particularly those with families. “It’s a tough business to be in because of the long hours. If there is the conflict of children it can be a very hard balance,” she says. “You really do have to have determination; there are lumps and bumps and you’ve got to be determined and keep to the list of things you’re trying to achieve.”

But it is worth the effort, according to Winser, who says she feels a sense of privilege at running a business to which people come to part with their hard-earned cash. “People work hard to earn their money and then spend it in retail. I love the challenges of retail and luxury fashion is one of the few things that travels the world.”

Carrying the Aquascutum brand across the globe was one of the challenges Winser set herself when she joined from British knitwear brand Pringle in 2006. As chief executive at Pringle she was credited with making the brand, formerly best known for its knitted golf jumpers, cool again and for introducing a retail operation. But she left before it turned a profit.

“Pringle was a very different business to Aquascutum. We needed to put in place all the fundamentals – there wasn’t even an IT system when I joined. But it was a fabulous name with a lovely history and we built it from the ground up. Aquascutum is a built business, it’s more about making it relevant for today and tomorrow,” she explains.

Aquascutum, which made its name with the invention of the trench coat and went on to dress stars of screen, politics and royalty, was tired at best when Winser arrived, and losing money to the tune of £10 million a year. She was drafted in after private equity group Kaleido bought a 25% stake in the business from owner Renown and injected cash into the business to revive it. “It’s become sleepy, it’s got no energy,” she was quoted as saying when she joined, and wasted no time in rousing it from its slumber. “It wasn’t asleep for more than a week,” she jokes.

Her plan involved the refurbishment of its Regent Street flagship, and the rest of its retail portfolio, and the introduction of a slick new marketing campaign. Within two months of Winser joining former James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan had been signed as the brand’s face. She chose him because he chimed with Aquascutum’s heritage of “dressing the powerful”. More recently he has been joined in Aquascutum’s ads by Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bn.

Most importantly of all, however, was the product. Aquascutum’s clothing line was divided into two ranges, catwalk and mainline. Catwalk, under the guidance of head designers Graeme Fidler (menswear) and Michael Herz (womenswear) had been doing well while mainline had not. Winser’s response was to ditch some mainline product and replace it with pieces inspired by the successful catwalk collection.

Aquascutum Limited, a 90-piece menswear collection designed by Savile Row tailor Nick Hart, was launched for autumn 06 and a Vintage collection, inspired by coats and trenches from the 1930s to 1950s, was also introduced.

The designs play up the brand’s Britishness coupled with contemporary styling and exquisite detailing. The spring 08 collection features intricate embroidery and prints that can only truly be appreciated when you’re up close and personal with the product. “Sometimes when you go to a catwalk it’s all pizzazz and you really enjoy it but when you look at the product afterwards, it’s not that special. We get the opposite response; it’s only when people see it that they can see it’s truly couture made,” says Winser.

Core product such as raincoats, coats and trenches are still British-made at the company’s factory in Corby, Northamptonshire, and it is on these products that the famous house check features on linings and trims. This commitment to UK manufacturing is evident in the garment labels which feature the “Crafted in England” logo. Britishness still carries a certain cachet in the international market, says Winser. “We are British and it is important to us. British brands are hot and so are British designers. Britishness is important but you’ve got to add modernity to that.

“The name holds with it some unique properties and heritage, so long as you can make it relevant,” she continues, before jumping up to retrieve the “brand book”, essentially a visitors’ book of famous customers who have passed through the doors of Aquascutum’s Regent Street store. Winser opens the well-thumbed tome at a random page and starts to read out the names. “Gina Lollobrigida, Cary Grant, Anthony Quinn, Gene Simmons, Bing Crosby, Gene Kelly, Audrey Hepburn. Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing wore Aquascutum when they climbed Everest, and their tent was made of Aquascutum fabric too,” she proudly adds.

This formula of heritage with a modern twist seems to be going down well with both retail customers and wholesale accounts, of which there are now 700 across the globe including some of fashion retail’s most famous names such as New York’s Bergdorf Goodman, Milan’s Corso Como and Moscow’s Podium, as well as Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Selfridges and Browns in London. Wholesale accounts for about 20% of the business’s £220m sales but the plan is to take this to about 50% within the next two years. The introduction of accessories to the wholesale business next year should help with this aim.

The newly revamped Regent Street store is also performing well, with the store’s March sales up 30% year on year. Its location, among many international retailers’ new flagships on a rejuvenated shopping street, will help, but that doesn’t necessarily ensure success.

“Did you notice we’re one of the only ones on the street who are not on Sale?” asks Winser. Later, when posing for her photos, she points out of the window at the big red Sale signs in the windows of Austin Reed and Talbot directly opposite, and says: “Look, see?” So why doesn’t Aquascutum need to go on Sale? “The product,” she says. “It’s superb.”

The next big step is to turn a profit. Winser has said the business will be back in the black by 2010 and says it is on track to achieve that. “We’re on target and if we keep having 30% sales rises we’ll get there a lot quicker,” she jokes. “We’re progressing very nicely. There is a huge amount of energy here, which is fabulous – but there’s plenty more to come.”

Awarded OBE for services to the fashion industry, and appointed chief executive of Aquascutum
2000: Appointed chief executive of Pringle
1977: Joined Marks & Spencer as a management trainee. Went on to hold several senior positions including executive for menswear buying and divisional director for womenswear. Also held senior positions with Brooks Brothers

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