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Suzanne Harlow

Debenhams’ group trading director has been juggling multiple product launches and strategic changes at the department store chain - and that’s just how she likes it

Suzanne Harlow has had a whirlwind few weeks. When Drapers meets with the Debenhams group trading director, Harlow has just relaunched former Mosaic Fashions womenswear chain Principles, which went into administration last year, as a Debenhams own brand, Principles by Ben de Lisi, and is also ensuring that London Fashion Week designer Henry Holland’s H! by Henry Holland young fashion range hits the department store chain’s rails.

“Not many stores can do that,” says Harlow proudly, revealing a characteristic determination. “A strength for us is that our age profile from 16 to 60 is relatively flat - it peaks at about 35 to 45 - but the fact that we can launch Principles, which targets a 40 to 45-year-old woman and then launch Henry which is for 17 to 25-year-olds, is really exciting. You can spin the plates at both ends.”

Harlow undoubtedly relishes the challenge of heading up product and brand strategy at the 157-store chain, managing the buying, merchandising and design elements across all categories. In her 16 years at the business, Harlow has gained experience across kidswear, accessories, beauty and lingerie before becoming group trading director last year. A daunting role perhaps?

“If I’d just been doing womenswear before it would have been a whole lot more to take on but over time [new categories have] been tacked on top so it has felt fairly gradual. It suits my style,” she says.

Harlow, who describes herself as “very honest, very frank, very organised and open” is a true product person. “At the end of the day people come into the store and they buy stuff,” she says. “They have to go in and like what they see, so product is the most important thing.

Harlow has taken on the role at a key stage in Debenhams’ history. Over the past nine months, Debenhams has converted 530,000 sq ft of store space to own-bought labels, driving margins and stripping back concessions.

As well as the Henry Holland and Ben de Lisi launches, Harlow has overseen the growth of other ranges in Debenhams’ Designers At offer, including the revamp of Butterfly by Matthew Williamson, and the growth of own labels such as young fashion brand Red Herring and the introduction of Blue Zoo in kidswear.

Writing her own destiny

She says: “The big drivers have been about being in charge of our own destiny. In our total womenswear business, we’ve not necessarily been in charge of our own destiny because we’ve had such a big chunk of our business in concessions. Having converted a lot of space into own bought, we’ve launched four new womenswear brands. What we’ve done in the past six or seven months has been amazing. We’d normally launch one womenswear brand a year.”

Harlow says next on her list is the repositioning of some of the menswear brands and in September the launch of a new men’s own brand.

The Designers At range has been a strong performer and Harlow says there is more to come in terms of collaborations, as well as in how Debenhams communicates the offer to customers. “We need to give personality to those brands so people know who Jasper Conran is, who John Rocha is,” she says.

Harlow is “not a lover of the celebrity endorsement” and “didn’t love” Debenhams’ ill-fated foray with actress Jane Seymour, who appeared in TV commercials in 2007.

She explains: “Designers [At] is about the designer working closely with us to design the product range and having a view on what the product is and being influential in terms of that product. It is not about a face on a clothing range.”

Harlow says of a photo shoot with It girl Pixie Geldof for the Henry Holland range: “[Pixie] completely is that brand. She didn’t design the range, but she can say ‘I am the customer for this range’. That’s where [celebrities] add value.”

But it hasn’t all been plain-sailing at Designers At. Harlow concedes that the Matthew Williamson autumn 09 collaboration was a “clanger”. “When we relaunched Matthew Williamson in autumn 09 it was very dress, very soft separates-oriented. We completely missed outerwear and had a low mix on knitwear. We focused too much on what I would call Matthew’s true handwriting around prints and embellishment, but that is rectifiable for autumn 10.”

Still, Harlow forecasts that Designers At will become a bigger presence in Debenhams’ women’s offer. It currently makes up about 35% of sales and within the next 12 months will be at 40%.

She says prices have been maintained via value-added extras and negotiating with the supply chain. She adds: “If you’re a supplier to Debenhams, kidswear space has gone up by nearly 15%, women’s clothing space has gone up by 15%, so if you are one of our casualwear manufacturers then potentially you have had a good increase in your business.”

Managing concession partners has also been a heated negotiation point. Harlow says with typical frankness: “If the results were there we wouldn’t have had to convert space away from concessions. For example, Phase Eight has been fantastic and it has been rolled out.”

Passionate about product and under the tutelage of chief executive Rob Templeman and his deputy Michael Sharp, Harlow is surely being groomed as a future leader of the business.

“I make no secret of the fact that I’m ambitious and I would love Rob’s job at some point,” Harlow smiles, before adding: “Rob is going to enjoy reading that. I’ll never live it down.”

Q&A

How will you counter price increases this year?

We’ll focus on value added because customers have responded to that. What you can’t do is gild the lily. If she wants a basic T-shirt, she wants a basic T-shirt - you can’t just add stuff onto it and charge more. Whereas there are categories, such as knitwear, outerwear, tailoring and dresses, where you can add value that is appropriate.

What’s the customer psyche going to be like this year?

People are feeling more positive; it’s not been as terrible as everyone thought. However, in a few months we will be building up to election thoughts and people will potentially hold back [on spending]. You have the potential VAT rise, and unemployment in the younger age group is a worry.

How can a retailer plan for an uncertain outlook?

Cautiously and sensibly. We are keeping stock levels tight. We are seeing huge growth potential online, whether in product or product extensions or different routes to different markets. It opens up areas we don’t have space for [in store] such as petites and outsize.

What brands or retailers do you admire?

I think what is interesting is that consistency of delivery is not always there. Selfridges delivers theatre and does not attempt to reinvent itself but it evolves its proposition and Debenhams can do that too. We have enough things to play with and if we can talk to customers differently then that’s quite powerful. For many we are the Selfridges of their town.

CV

2008 Group trading director

2005 Trading director for accessories, lingerie, health and beauty and womenswear

2002 Divisional director for accessories, lingerie and cosmetics

2000 Buying and merchandising director for accessories and lingerie

1994 Senior buyer for womenswear, Debenhams

1989 Graduate trainee, Bhs

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