Headhunters and industry experts have said Topshop’s new fashion director, Gillian Ridley Whittle, has lots of work to do at the retailer as she returns to a “fundamentally different” fashion market after four years working in Australia.
The appointment marks Ridley Whittle’s first UK role since returning from Australia last October. While there, she was director of womenswear, lingerie, footwear and accessories at Target Australia from April 2014 before joining department store chain Myer as group general manager of beauty, lingerie and kidswear in 2016.
The new Topshop fashion director started her senior career at Debenhams as head of buying from 2000 to 2004. She then spent a decade at Marks & Spencer, joining as head of womenswear before later covering senior roles across lingerie and beauty.
One headhunter said Ridley Whittle’s recent absence from the UK market may cause difficulties in the new role: “The retail market is fundamentally different now from what it was in 2014 when she left.”
However, he added that her experience in beauty and lingerie may indicate target growth areas for Topshop: “More recently at Myer, she was very much cosmetics and lingerie focused, so maybe that’s something that Topshop is looking at.
“It’s a brave [appointment]. Then again, there have been stranger hires that have worked out. It might not be a bad thing. Sometimes you need different views.”
Another headhunter said that Ridley Whittle’s experience on the global stage could be a sign of Topshop’s global aspirations: “The interesting thing is her international experience. That could show the business is firmly committed to expanding its presence outside of the UK.”
Ridley Whittle’s appointment follows the October departure of former Topshop fashion director Maddy Evans, who left to join M&S in a senior buying role.
One retail headhunter questioned how Ridley Whittle’s management style would fit with the current team: “She’s a big character, and will be poles apart from Paul [Price, Topshop CEO], so it will be interesting to see how the wider team responds to that. I wonder whether the [Topshop] handwriting will go. Gillian’s got an eye for product but what she did at Target was very value-driven and mass-market [not trend-led young fashion].”
One industry expert said that following a disappointing set of results, Topshop is in need of strong design and digital trading experience.
“Topshop needs a true design fashion director,” she explained. “It is losing market share quickly, so I would have thought it would target bringing in a fast fashion, digital savvy creative visionary with a proven track record in design and digital trading.”
One headhunter agreed Ridley Whittle has her work cut out: “She’s absolutely got a lot of work to do, but the residual brand is strong. She needs to focus on re-establishing Topshop as a force in the 16-to-24-year-old [market]. There will be lots of things she can’t influence, but she can sharpen up the product.”
On the appointment, Price said: “Over the past 20 years, Gillian has established herself as a leader in the international womenswear industry. Gillian’s appointment is an exciting milestone for the brand. The teams look forward to working with and supporting her in further elevating and strengthening Topshop’s product proposition.”