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Close up: Paula Reed, fashion director, Harvey Nichols

In her first full interview since moving from magazines to high-profile retail, Paula Reed explains how she’s overcoming the “learning cliff” at Harvey Nichols.

I get ridiculous imposter syndrome,” says Paula Reed, fashion director of Harvey Nichols, her light-hearted giggle punctuating the retelling of her first six months in her new role. Formerly style director at trailblazing magazine Grazia, Reed’s career has seen her negotiate several senior editorial jobs at the likes of The Sunday Times, Harper’s Bazaar and InStyle. But her new role is her biggest challenge yet, and a calculated risk.

“I had no ambition to go into retail,” Reed explains, “but working somewhere like Grazia, where we were so closely connected to retail, it was the magazine most interloping onto that territory.” With the edges between editorial and retail “blurring all the time”, Harvey Nichols chief executive Joseph Wan clearly felt Reed was ideally placed to take the retailer into new realms of retail.

“[Paula’s] broad experience in fashion complements what Harvey Nichols represents, from the most exclusive luxury brands to the more accessible levels of fashion,” says Wan. But the retailer hasn’t just hired Reed to reinvigorate its editorial, a move that seems so fashionable at the moment - as part of the Harvey Nichols senior management team she’s taken on significantly more responsibility than some of her fellow journalists who have made similar journeys.

“What was a huge confidence boost was that someone so embedded in his business could see there was potential for me to actually deliver something that was useful to them. So I thought ‘if you are prepared to go out on a limb like that then I’m prepared to take that risk’, because that’s really inspiring,” Reed explains. Six months on, she feels a lot more comfortable about what she can bring to the business, from asking “stupid questions” that have given rise to interesting conversations, to sitting on the shoulders of this “tarnished diamond” as both the “devil and the angel”, challenging the status quo of the retail world supported by her experienced buying teams.

“In the same way fashion editors can disappear up their own fundament and think, ‘oooh, it’s the summer so it’s all about a peplum’, it’s as easy for retailers to get the same kind of blinkered specialism. One thing I really wanted to get away from was retail jargon and clichés,” she says.

This thinking is central to how Reed is repositioning Harvey Nichols. She admits that since the investment from Hong Kong-based owners Dickson Concepts 20 years ago, the rest of the market has overtaken, through making a “virtue of their bigness”. However, “bigness isn’t the most powerful thing you can have in your armoury”, she adds, as she sets out her plan to maximise the Harvey Nichols brand globally and improve on the 19.1% rise in pre-tax profits to £13m in its last set of financial results.

To start with Harvey Nichols is neither a ‘department store’, nor a ‘speciality store’, both retailing terms Reed baulks at; instead she prefers the ‘townhouse boutique’ to describe the retailer’s position somewhere between department stores like Selfridges and Harrods, and smaller independent-style businesses such as Matches and Browns. The term has slowly gained traction within Harvey Nichols as it reflects both where the company needs to go and also where it’s been, or “reversing into the future”, as Reed puts it.

For now this is taking the form of a re-examination of the London flagship by late 2014 to bring it up to the standard of the shinier, newer stores in its 15-strong global network that spans Dublin, Riyadh, Hong Kong and beyond (next stop: Baku, Azerbaijan), and a huge project surrounding Harvey Nichols’ multichannel offer set to launch this autumn. Reed is coy about the details but does disclose the concept “brings editorial and retailing world together in an innovative way”, plus click-and-collect and click-and-try services.

She has spoken to her team about the threat posed by not just other retailers but also magazines, as the two previously disparate sides of the industry converge on the consumer. She talks about how “every sale is a seduction” and how editorial skill in weaving a personal story around merchandise is key to adding value to the sale of luxury products. New individual voices from all levels of the business will be mined for information for use across various platforms, bringing Harvey Nichols’ experts directly to the shoppers via content
and social media. It promises to be a unique proposition, but only time will tell if it’s game-changing for the retailer.

On being headhunted for the role, Reed says at first she hadn’t quite finished her editorial career but after mulling the decision over one weekend, the idea of taking on a top-level strategic position in which she would also oversee the buying teams appealed more and more.

“It was a grower. When I really thought about where Harvey Nichols was at that point and the potential for where it could be, it was just something completely irresistible,” Reed explains. “I’m not a strategic career planner - I’ve made all my decisions instinctively. Usually they’ve paid off.”

Having been part of the Grazia team for over seven years and instrumental in a launch that was widely considered risky for then publisher EMAP in 2005, leaving was a wrench for Reed. But her former editor-in-chief Jane Bruton believes the timing was right.

“Paula was ready for an entirely new challenge. I wasn’t surprised at her move into retail - I think it’s a great fit,” says Bruton, her respect for Reed’s experience clearly evident. Bruton believes Reed will bring the retailer “fresh ideas, the ability to think laterally, boundless energy and charm with a steely Irish core. When Paula sets her mind to something, she won’t rest until she’s pulled it off.”

“The energy at Grazia became really addictive and that’s the kind of energy retail really needs right now,” Reed enthuses - and bringing that effervescent verve to a 180-year-old company that operates in the competitive global luxury market will be central to its continuing success. But despite a raft of commonalities between magazines and shopping, Reed’s first six months in retail have been challenging.

“It’s a learning cliff,” she says, with only a hint of irony. She talks of how alien terminology such as ‘range review’, ‘density’ and ‘derisking’ came into her world and talks openly about how up until now she felt she had spent most of her career in the “kiddy pool”. Or indeed “the shallow end” - a flashback to her time at The Sunday Times under Andrew Neil’s editorship, where the culture desks were at the opposite side of the office to news.

The way Harvey Nichols operates is very much in the style of its chief executive - Reed reveals how fastidious Wan is about detail and numbers and how the company really does its homework before going all out to make it happen. With that in mind, the strategy for Harvey Nichols that Reed and Wan have put together will move the business’s multichannel project on into an “evolving masterplan” which will include an overhaul of the existing older stores, turning brands into partners to offer a genuinely different shopping experience for autumn 14, gaining a greater understanding of the nuances each site possesses and expanding the network into new, exciting markets.

It seems apt Reed references that famous Diana Vreeland quote: “Give ‘em what they never knew they wanted,” during the interview. Reed’s calculated risks might just be the secret to Harvey Nichols’ future success.

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