One year into her tenure and the Pringle chief executive has relaunched the label with a strong sense of its heritage, and is shaking up its distribution strategy to bring it back to profit
Charged with turning around the fortunes of a loss-making heri-tage fashion house, US-born Mary-Adair Macaire arrived at Pringle of Scotland’s HQ armed with what she calls “a wonderful agenda and a fantastic carte blanche”.
She joined as chief executive on September 1, 2008, replacing Douglas Fang, the Hong Kong clothing magnate who bought the brand in 2000 and is now vice-chairman.
But when the Lehman Brothers bank collapse ignited the global financial crisis just two weeks later, it was a more cautious Macaire who emerged to field the fears of her team.
Having struggled with its brand identity following multiple changes in strategy, Pringle lost £9.46m in 2008 on sales of £17.74m – an 8.8% drop. Macaire seems unfazed by these figures, emphasising that the company is debt-free and now in “investment mode”, although she freely admits that some costs needed to be cut “big time”.
“We did have some staff losses but they were very small in comparison to a lot of companies,” she says.
But shortly before Macaire’s arrival, the closure of Pringle’s Scottish factory in July last year left staff reeling. “I hated that. I wish I had been here,” she says. “That was a loss to the company but one that had to be made to focus the investment [available] where it was needed.”
The company still largely sources from Scotland, in a move Macaire sees as essential to maintain brand integrity and grow Pringle from the roots up. The key to future success, she says, lies in expanding its own retail both in the domestic market and overseas and adjusting the collections – and the brand as a whole – to ally its Scottish knitwear roots more closely with its more recent directional design focus, which was spearheaded by the brand’s first creative director, Clare Waight Keller, who joined in 2005. Pringle currently has a catwalk collection, a core mainline and the younger 1815 range.
On the expansion trail “Sales in our own boutiques are up and orders from our wholesale stockists are on average down by 20%, so if I open more retail stores my business will be in better shape,” says Macaire, adding that the brand will also shed “some wholesale accounts who are not the right fit for our strategy”.
Pringle has six global standalone stores, including three in the UK. For her expansion strategy, Macaire cites New York and Paris as key locations. “The US is still such an important market and we need a few doors in the US of our own,” she says. “You should be in the fashion capitals if you’re a fashion house.”
Macaire will begin by strengthening the UK retail and wholesale presence. She says: “You have to be known for what you do in your own backyard before anyone [else] looking at your product as a representative of [the] Western luxury [market] is going to buy it.”
A transactional website launch is high on the agenda, with Macaire recalling tales of Australian shoppers describing Pringle cardigans over the phone to the customer service department to order a replacement.
In her first year in office, Macaire has focused on internal changes and promises that the real fruits of her labour will be seen in year two of her tenure – ie, next year. She counts the appointment of Benoit Duverger as Pringle’s director of global communications and Andrew Wright as director of global sales as among her most important changes, with Duverger tackling Macaire’s pet project – changing the brand to promote both high fashion and knitwear together with a more cohesive message – and Wright bringing distribution in line with Pringle’s new brand values.
She certainly made that message clear by sending a statement cable knit cardigan down the catwalk at London Fashion Week last month and marking the brand’s return from Milan to celebrate LFW’s 25th anniversary.
Long term, she sees communicating the new brand message as the strongest tool (she spent 22 years at Chanel, most recently as global marketing director) for the turnaround. Pringle has veered from being a golf brand to a heritage knitwear brand and back to a niche designer label.
While Macaire accepts that the brand needed to reinvent itself after its golf associations, she feels the sudden and dramatic change of direction alienated loyal consumers. “In establishing itself again as a fashion house, Pringle completely divorced itself from what it had been doing with casualwear,” she says. “But it also divorced itself from everything good it had done in the past.”
Macaire now hopes to reinvent Pringle again without losing its more recent devotees. Luxury fashion consultant David Jones believes it can be done. “It is taking an innovative approach but needs to be careful not to lose its identity. If it makes subtle changes, it could work, as it has for Burberry,” he says.
However, Macaire dismisses the prospect of losing die-hard Pringle fans. “We already lost the classic knitwear customer,” she says, adding that the reintroduction of knitwear classics, plus the new knitwear focus of the ready-to-wear collection, will help bring them back without alienating the fashion set.
As for when Pringle itself will turn a corner, Macaire is more guarded. “I’m hoping there’ll be much better news for autumn 10,” she says.
This positivity is intrinsic to Macaire, who remains emphatically calm about Pringle’s future. She says: “I’m very optimistic about this market coming back, and I know it will.”
Which retailer do you most admire and why?
Apple – what an innovative company. Its stores are so user-friendly. You go in, you find the product (it’s always in stock) and if you need the sales team, they are knowledgeable and nice. And then there’s just the sheer energy and buzz of their stores. Let’s face it, if you see a store full of people, you wonder why and whether you should be in there too. It’s contagious.
How did you get into fashion?
I studied to be a maritime lawyer. I thought I could travel the world and try to solve the problems of its oceans, but I found it to be very different from what I dreamed. I needed something that worked both sides of my brain. Something that was creative as well as analytical, that was a serious business but also needed someone to think outside the box, and that’s what fashion is all about. You need both of those skills to enjoy it and to have an impact.
What would be your dream job outside fashion?
I’ve found my niche in luxury. I could be selling cars, but it’d always have to be a great, luxury product. Other than that, writing would be wonderful. To put thoughts on a page and to invent something out of nothing is a really interesting challenge.
What do you consider your greatest career achievement?
I’m looking to earn that now [at Pringle].
Who is your fashion icon?
Tilda Swinton [the actress who will front Pringle’s spring 10 campaign]. She’s an individual; she dresses for herself and doesn’t look like she’s been styled
like everyone else in Hollywood seems to now.
2009 Hires Benoit Duverger as
director of global communications and Andrew Wright as director of global sales
2008 Joins Pringle as chief executive and moves to London
2005 Global marketing director, Chanel
1986 Various positions after starting as sales associate, Chanel