Money may be no object for Harrods, but its group fashion and beauty director believes that charm and humility are still the key ingredients for being a good buyer.
Marigay McKee says a good buyer should possess oodles of charm. Business acumen and an eye for product go without saying, but charm is an undeveloped skill. “The most polite and charming [buyers] get the best deals,” she says.
The Harrods group fashion and beauty director is certainly charming. It’s no wonder British Fashion Council chairman Harold Tillman ensured McKee accompanied him to meetings with British designers to persuade them to come back to London Fashion Week last September. The tactic worked, with Burberry Prorsum, Matthew Williamson and Pringle all returning to LFW.
“Harold did take me by the arm to a couple of meetings to persuade as many designers as possible to come back,” McKee laughs. “And he was right to. [Last season’s] LFW has been described by all as the most successful ever.”
She is coy about whether the big names will return next season. “It would be indiscreet of me to say, but I’d love Burberry and Matthew to stay in London,” she says.
McKee’s commitment to nurturing young talent is clear, and nowhere more evident than in Harrods’ new online platform, Harrods Launches, which sells collections from emerging designers. Last month, the luxury department store unveiled the initiative, which has enabled two young designers – Iris Van Herpen, who put on a stunning show at LFW as part of Blow Presents, and Manjit Deu, a London College of Fashion MA graduate – to sell their collections.
“London is one of the most talented capitals but our young designers struggle to find their first foothold,” McKee says. “One designer told me he’d written to five different people and I was the only one who agreed to see him. I said: ‘OK, show me what you’ve got’, and I loved it. Manjit Deu inspired Harrods Launches.”
Four months after the initial meeting, Deu returned to McKee’s office with a look book and swept her off her feet. “I felt there was something special about him, that our customers would resonate with him, so we placed our first order for next February,” she says.
Harrods Launches is a canny move. As an online platform, it allows the department store to take a risk with a new label without taking away valuable shopfloor space from established brands and their sell-throughs.
After all, start-ups are not responsible for Harrods’ record trading year, when sales soared 9% to £751.7m to January 31. The big power brands like Chanel, Prada, Gucci and Louis Vuitton, continue to be among its bestsellers, satisfying the tastes of Harrods’ wealthy tourist shoppers, which make up about 35% of its customer base.
But McKee concedes that of the remaining 65%, almost 30% are international residents, ie shoppers with a second home in London. “I prefer to call them international visitors,” says McKee. “It’s probably closer to 50/50 but Harrods is a west London store, attracting locals from Pimlico to Chelsea.”
McKee’s buying strategy is to deliver the wow factor by “offering a point of difference, elements of exclusivity in a great aesthetic environment with unrivalled customer service”, she explains. “Pricing is important, but within the parameters of the brand. If our best-selling jean is the £299 embellished jean, it doesn’t mean it’s everybody’s choice, so we would still offer £99 and £700 styles.”
McKee has extended Harrods’ price architecture considerably in the past five years, when the most expensive dress was £4,000. Today, it is £40,000, with one-off pieces including a £75,000 Versace dress. But US bridge brands such as Vince, Theory and Helmut Lang are also doing well, as are the French houses including Balmain, Lanvin and Givenchy. It’s not pricing that’s driving the buying strategy at Harrods but a sector-wide trend towards craft, says McKee, driven by a demanding consumer looking for the artisanal quality of a shoe, for example, rather than the heel of the season.
“The established Harrods customer is drawn to catwalk and designer brands, and there’s a very clearly defined trend towards hand-finish and structure, with designers recreating a couture-esque feeling in their clothes,” says McKee.
“So, when they walk into Harrods, our customers already know a Balmain dress will start at £4,000 up to £22,000. They know we sell coats for £55,000.”
Giving the customers what they want is key, says McKee. When Harrods decided to refurbish its menswear department – a project that cost £9m and was completed a few months ago – “everybody said you’re crazy,” she says.
“It was just after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, but it’s been a great success. 50% of shoppers in the menswear department are women, but we’re seeing more male and local shoppers [since the refit]. We have Tom Ford menswear exclusive to Harrods, we do made-to-measure with Thom Browne. Harrods is all about firsts. In these times we have to be quietly cautious, but you also have to be quietly confident.”
Future projects include the redevelopment of Harrods’ sportswear floor to coincide with next year’s football World Cup and the London Olympics in 2012, and a new footwear department during the next 12 months.
Joseph Wan, chief executive of rival store Harvey Nichols, says McKee’s strategy is spot on and, to some extent, in line with his own. While he has introduced more “accessible” brands, he has also developed the other end of the spectrum, bringing in brands like handbag label Lana Marks, which he says “sell for tens of thousands of pounds”.
McKee is committed to challenging her 22-strong team to find the next “Window of opportunity” – and each member is given the task of bringing one WOP to the monthly meetings. “Some of those WOPs turn into great commercial opportunities,” says McKee. “But we have to remember that, while we’re a famous store, we’re also only one store, so we have to do business with humility.”
Who is your fashion mentor? I grew up reading Vogue magazine when everyone else was reading Jackie, so Vogue had a big influence on me. My all-time fashion mentors are Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Onassis and Grace Kelly. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is my favourite film and I always wanted to be Holly Golightly.
Which is your favourite shop? I love [New York department store] Bergdorf Goodman because it has a point of difference, Corso Como in Milan still manages to feel fresh, and I love the new Merci store in Paris. As for a branded store,
I love Hermès – for its good taste, provenance and a chicness that money can’t buy.
What’s the best-selling product you’ve ever worked on? The 60ml jar of Crème de la Mer is our best-selling product in beauty; we sold volumes and volumes of the Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress and the Christian Louboutin black court is our best-selling shoe. At designer level, we sell out completely of Roland Mouret dresses every season. Tom Ford is our number one selling fragrance, Ralph Lauren is our number one brand in menswear, Chanel is our number one brand in womenswear, and in sport the Moncler puffer jacket is doing really well. Moncler is an iconic brand that is doing great things and will become more global in the future.
What has been your proudest achievement? My children. At work, it’s the white cosmetic floor in Harrods that was completed seven years ago – it still looks as fresh and beautiful as it did then.
2007 Group fashion and beauty director
2005 Appointed to Harrods’ main board
2005 Director, womenswear and beauty
2002 Director of beauty
2001 General manager, beauty
1999 Joins Harrods as senior buyer, beauty
1994 Fashion buyer, Fenwicks
1992 Training manager, Clinique, Spain
1990 PR and marketing executive, Estée Lauder, Spain