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When the students questioned the master

On Tuesday morning I enjoyed the delicious irony of watching a self-made billionaire who left school at 16 addressing students at a retailing college that he pretty much created himself.

Sir Philip Green was in top form at the Fashion Retail Academy (FRA) as he faced a few hundred students at the institution that is in its eighth highly successful year. Guided by principal Karen Dennison, the FRA has grown from 200 students to 700 a year - its various courses are usually oversubscribed and 65% of its graduates find jobs in the industry.

It was a privilege to get an insight into the concerns of the next generation of fashion retail bosses, who often showed little sense of being overawed by the most famous shopkeeper of the age. Green gave them a high-speed overview of his career, which was familiar stuff to those of us who have known him a decade or three. While he reminded his young audience several times that “product is king” in fashion retailing, he did not stress as much as I expected that it helps to know the numbers too. However, his anecdote about how he bought denim chain Jean Jeanie in 1985 for £65,000 and sold it the next year for £7m told its own story.

Today, he revealed, his company Arcadia runs 2,435 stores in the UK and employs 43,500 staff. It works with 32 franchisees in 40 countries that run another 590 units. It was interesting to learn that all those foreign partners are served with product that comes into the UK first before being redistributed. Asked what the biggest challenge was in running his business, Green admitted it was the logistics of handling each year 150 million garments that are made in 51 countries.

The Q&A session between the most powerful man in British fashion and his largely teenage, largely female, audience
was entertaining and revealing. The first question, inevitably, concerned his revived alliance with model Kate Moss. Green revealed she had consulted him in the summer about a project to do a line with another retailer. He told her it was rubbish and they decided to work together again.

He revealed “she is very engaged and is working much harder on it than last time”. We will see the result next Easter.

Green used the meeting for some market research and the FRA audience indicated enthusiastic approval of the return of Vogue’s latest recruit.

An insightful student wanted to know why Topshop had chosen to open concessions in Nordstrom in the US when the department store has such a conservative image. Green explained that, among other factors, he felt it was a company that would avoid the rabid discounting that afflicts US retailing. He also explained that lessons had been learned on presenting Topshop in the stores and a new look had just been installed in the existing units that would be rolled out to the 28 new concessions announced in August.

The famously technophobic tycoon quizzed his young charges about their use of gadgets and saw a large number admit they spent five hours or more a day on their tablets and iPhones. He thought this a colossal waste of time, although he was probably pleased that almost all the students use the internet to research their fashion purchases.

Surprisingly, a much lower percentage admitted they bought online, so most of those 2,435 Arcadia stores are still necessary. Interestingly, Green said he thought the split of bricks-and-mortar to online would settle at 70/30 over the next three to five years.

My favourite question, and the only one that temporarily threw the great man, came from a young woman who asked how likely it was that Arcadia’s plus-size chain Evans would be featured at London Fashion Week. His hesitation strongly implied that this was not high on his ‘to do’ list, but he offered a diplomatic “it’s a challenge, but why not?”

Personally I loved the student’s thinking.

I left the FRA with the very comfortable feeling that fashion retailing in this country has a very promising future. Those young people, and the many more at other leading colleges, are being given superb chances by bosses like Green and the rest of a brilliant industry that is smart enough to invest in the next generation.

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