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Drapers Next Generation: Close-up with John Lewis' Peter Ruis

John Lewis’ buying and brand director believes working in different areas of the industry from small to big companies is a valuable learning curve.

Is there such a thing as the perfect fashion industry CV? Probably not, but if there was, it would most likely look like Peter Ruis’. The John Lewis buying and brand director has such a breadth of experience across different sectors of the industry that his CV ticks pretty much every box.

The largest, UK own-label clothing retailer? Check. A smaller, retail and wholesale branded business? Check. A US company? Check. A multi-brand and own-label department store? You’re getting the picture… check.

“I think it’s always good for someone to work for a big company and a small company if they can. If you can cope with it - and for some people’s mentality a big company is too corporate - it’s a really good training ground. Big companies give you discipline and cross-functional working, which can be hard when you’re young - talking to very linear people who are really square when you’re 21, 22 and you can’t work out where these people have come from,” says Ruis, who joined Marks & Spencer on a graduate training scheme in 1989, before moving to Ted Baker eight years later as head of product.

“Small companies are much more focused on the brand. In the days when I was at M&S, the brand meant nothing. When you go to somewhere like Ted, brand is everything,” Ruis explains. “You could have doubled [the turnover] with distribution overnight, but that would have killed the brand.”

The other advantage of working for a smaller company is that you learn quickly, says Ruis, because no job is too big or too small. “At M&S, everyone did something for you. At Ted, you were locking the doors at the end of the day, you were packing the boxes in the warehouse,” Ruis remembers. “When I joined, there were 25 people, we’d just gone public and my role didn’t exist. At the time, Ted was purely a casualwear company and Ray [Kelvin, its founder] wanted someone to come in and create a formal division. And he probably wanted someone from a more corporate background because at the time, the wholesale business was in independents, but it was moving towards Selfridges, Moss Bros and House of Fraser and eventually John Lewis.

I was designing the range, sourcing the range, selling the range in the showroom to 100 independents. Because it’s such a small company you end up doing all sorts of things and you learn a hell of a lot. I probably learnt more than I’d learnt anywhere.”

‘You can teach assertiveness and management skills. To a degree you can teach confidence, but you can’t teach creativity and intuitiveness’

Not that Ruis takes his M&S days for granted. Part of the reason he spent eight years there is because he moved from department to department regularly enough to stay interested. “My first job was buying shell suits,” he laughs, adding that M&S offered a great training ground. Ruis also believes that those “less pressurised” days were actually a good thing for a young buyer.

“One of the debates we have today in terms of whether we have enough talent coming through is whether the industry has provided as good a learning ground as in the days when it was slightly less pressurised. These days, you’re pretty much doing a job from the first week in.

Yeah, you learn different skills, I just think…” he pauses. “Some of that stuff around really understanding the industry, of taking the time to immerse yourself. You’re always going to get the pressure skills.

Nowadays so much of sourcing is vertical, so your chance to really understand fabric is far more limited. It’s harder to get that base knowledge.”

After Ted Baker, Ruis headed to Amsterdam to work for Levi Straus Europe, Middle East, Africa as brand director. “That was an adventure,” he smiles. “Again, if you can have an international adventure, and it’s the right time in your life, it’s a good risk to take.

I was doing 25 markets, learning the differences between countries and sourcing techniques, and the lifestyle experience.

When I was at M&S I could have worked at Brooks Brothers in New York and I wish I had. It’s tough though because Europe is a lot slower, the taste levels are so extreme, your intuitive sense is much more limited. You don’t know what everyone is watching on TV in Scandinavia, for example.”

Ruis is adamant that the industry needs to take more responsibility for ensuring that sort of detailed learning. “We’ve got to somehow, all of us, back ourselves to do more training. We’ve got to try as much as possible to give these people, in the first nine months to a year, the chance to learn, to travel. Everyone’s counting head counts, but you need to take people out of the day to day,” he insists, urging brands and retailers to “market” themselves more. “I don’t think [retail] is a sought-after job. People think going to the City is where all the money is, but it’s not much fun.

We talk a lot about how retail employs more people than anyone else, it’s a great job. It’s creative, you travel, so we need to market it first to get the really good people looking at it. Then, you have to find a way of not just trusting the computer to sort through and not just going through the Duke of Edinburgh awards and the three As and all the clichés. You can teach assertiveness and management skills. To a degree you can teach confidence, but you can’t teach creativity and intuitiveness.”

In fact, Ruis is in favour of bringing back some of the old-school interview practices he faced in his early days.

“I always love the old-fashioned, creative test of throwing product at people and giving them half an hour to create a range.

I did that at my first-ever interview at M&S. I was given…,” he pauses to remember. “I think, formal shirts. So, I’m 21 years old, never worn a formal shirt in my life and they were all in white packets, they all look a bit dull, but if you can touch and feel them and you can understand them, and you can talk with some passion and it comes across. And yes, we do some tests and deliberately throw some horrible product in there, some stuff that we’ve rejected.

It doesn’t really matter if they don’t create a range that you’d put in your shop as long as they feel and touch and have some passion for it.”

And it’s now at John Lewis where Ruis feels all his experience has come together. “Because everyone has a share [John Lewis] can never be too corporate. Because it can never be too top-down, it has a very vibrant culture. And we’re very quick to market. Now we source some [of our product] in the UK, we can get to market in 10 days.

We’ve had a unique ability to juxtapose the two [big and small company mentalities],” says Ruis, using John Lewis’ now-iconic Christmas television ads as an example. “I show it to Andy [Street, John Lewis’ managing director] one day before we launch. We don’t have any committees. This is where I try to keep the small business mentality. Whether you’re wrong or right, it’s pure - you don’t want the committee because that would dilute it.

That’s almost the legacy of John Lewis. Andy respects that and it’s driven results. And when you get it wrong, you hold your hands up and say, we got it wrong.”

So, Ruis doesn’t regret leaving behind his initial ambition of becoming a journalist? He laughs. “I don’t, no. The beauty of our industry is that it’s pretty well paid. If you’re good in this industry, you get to £50,000 very quickly. I don’t mean good as in you’re spectacular, but if you’re motivated, you can get there very quickly. From that point onwards, it’s about flair and ambition.”

CV

2010 - Promoted to buying and brand director, John Lewis
2005 - Head of menswear, John Lewis
2002 - Brand director for Europe, Middle East and Africa, Levi Strauss
1997 - Head of product, Ted Baker
1989 - Graduate trainee scheme, Marks & Spencer

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