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The Drapers Interview: Jigsaw's chief executive Peter Ruis

In his first interview since becoming boss of the retailer, Peter Ruis reveals his plan to revive its quirky personality.

Everyone’s got a Jigsaw story. Everyone, including the retailer’s newly appointed chief executive, Peter Ruis. “For me, it was that every girl I chased at college worked there or wore the clothes. They were impossibly cool,” he remembers.

“It was understated sexiness at a time when fashion wasn’t sexy. It had an attitude. Everyone’s got a Jigsaw story, whatever their age.”

But in the last decade or so of its 40-year history, Jigsaw lost that edge, with brands such as Whistles and Hobbs leading the charge in the premium womenswear market. “I think the business got a little bit tired and lost a point of view, lost its uniqueness,” Ruis admits. “But that’s the challenge. I think starting a brand from scratch is really hard in fashion. If you’ve got that amazing history, then there’s a way of harnessing that power again. You can’t invent that.”

Ruis joined the retailer in September and is determined to bring that attitude back to Jigsaw, and his flawless track record at John Lewis suggests he is more than capable. Since he joined the department store in 2005 as head of menswear, Ruis has been credited with transforming John Lewis from a retailer that sold clothes to one that sells fashion, the bellwether for the UK high street, a feat that earned him the Fashion Retailing Personality of the Year accolade at the Drapers Awards 2013 last week.

“Most people said to me when I joined John Lewis in 2005 ‘you’re mad, it’s a bit tired, it’s lost its way’, but it’s really fun regenerating something. When John [Robinson, the founder of Jigsaw] asked me to come, the more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t think of a reason not to. Plus, I was really scared of cruising along. [John Lewis] was such a lovely job that I could wake up in my 50s and turn into one those bastions of retail that had steered a fair ship in an OK direction,” says 45-year-old Ruis. “Really good brands are very visceral and I couldn’t think of a better brand than Jigsaw in terms of doing something different.”

Unsurprisingly then, focusing on brand perception is a top priority for Ruis. After all, the business itself is in good shape, after a rocky 2011 when parent company Robinson Webster Holdings, which also includes London designer retailer The Shop at Bluebird, posted a pre-tax loss of £21.2m. But for the year to September 29, 2012, the business recorded sales of £60.2m, a rise of 10%, with pre-tax profits of £1.6m, after closing its loss-making Kew fascia.

At John Lewis Oxford Street, Jigsaw is the number one womenswear brand. “We take a lot more than Whistles, more than Hobbs. It makes you realise the product is there,” says Ruis. “The perception of the brand is below where the product is. We have beautiful, high-quality product made in a way that other people can’t make.”

Ruis believes the best way to achieve this is to start with the shops, of which Jigsaw has 61 and 29 concessions in the UK, plus four US stores. “We used to be streets ahead of everyone; we were doing shop design when no one was doing shop design,” he says. “I remember being blown away by the [architect] John Pawson shops and students from [Central] Saint Martins queuing outside when it opened on Bond Street in 1995.

I want us to bring back some unique shopfits.”

And he’ll do that pretty soon. Ruis is close to announcing a new Jigsaw flagship in London next year that will be “very mad and different, and get the personality back into our shops”, he assures. “What I’ve learnt is that the shop is at the centre of how your brand is defined, even with young consumers. That’s a big learning from John Lewis.

Each younger generation is more and more obsessed with the shop and a need to engage in a non-digital experience because they live their lives digitally. You crave and love a non-digital experience, so you want to go shopping.”

Alongside the stores, Ruis intends to increase Jigsaw’s marketing presence, starting with the launch of a Christmas campaign on London buses shot by photographer Rankin. “In the past, Jigsaw got Juergen Teller to shoot its look book. I’m going to bring the mentality that the brand needs to be more than just what it sells, and I want Christmas to be a big part of that,” Ruis says when I ask if he will recreate the magic of the now famous John Lewis Christmas TV ads - which he spearheaded as buying and brand director at the department store - at Jigsaw.

“I want to bring back the idea that Christmas is a peak time for retailers and I want to be at full price until December 24. It’s Christmas,” he cries, exasperated by the now established pre-Christmas discounting across the high street. “We’re just killing the market.”

In addition, Ruis is eyeing a slot at London Fashion Week. “In womenswear, we’re happy with the commerciality but we need to up the cool factor. I think Jigsaw can be very unique. We’ve always used people like [British tweed manufacturer] Abraham Moon & Sons and I think we’re [Carlisle-based mill] Linton Tweeds’ biggest customer. But we’re not marketing ourselves.”

While Ruis is confident that Jigsaw’s product offer is “good enough to drive the business forward”, it’s still an area he plans to address, after he took the team to the Westbourne Grove store for a field trip. “We had a big session with the team where we removed 20% to 30% of the options. After that, we said ‘It looks great now, doesn’t it?’.”

Within Ruis’s remit is Jigsaw menswear and The Shop at Bluebird, two businesses in which he sees great potential. Menswear relaunched last autumn and sales are up 30% on last year. It makes up 8% of total turnover and Ruis plans to take that to 20% to 30%. But what makes Ruis confident that Jigsaw can make a success of it second time around? “There’s such a gap for a cool menswear brand on the high street and I don’t want to be a womenswear boutique; I want to be a really interesting retailer,” Ruis insists, going on to explain the history of Jigsaw menswear, which became a licensed business and whose name changed to Yth, before “fizzling out”.

Ruis says the challenge for menswear in a traditionally womenswear business is where to put the clothes in store.

“Do men want to go through a load of womenswear before they get to the menswear? Or do we create big flagships?” Ruis says the new London flagship will make menswear “come alive”. He asks me: “Have you been to the Rapha [bicycle] shop? I want to create much more of a total experience. We’re bringing coffee into our stores; it’s very male friendly. We’ll obviously only get the best coffee.”

As for Bluebird, Ruis wants three or four of them in the UK and may even extend it to the US. It’s a bold move given how tough the sector is, but with the operational backing of Jigsaw - Ruis intends to bring Bluebird’s operations into Jigsaw - it could be a huge boost to the sector in terms of nurturing the new or smaller brands it stocks.

As Simon Burstein, chief executive of luxury independent Browns, says: “I’m a big fan of Peter Ruis, so if he says it’s good for Jigsaw, I suspect he knows what he’s talking about.” Bluebird will launch onto online portal Farfetch imminently, before unveiling its own transactional website. The development of Bluebird is arguably what Ruis is most excited about; we meet for coffee at the King’s Road store where he’s like a child in a sweet shop, pointing out a beautiful Woolrich parka and the Victoria Beckham collection, which the lady herself (together with David) came to see only a few weeks ago, among the treasure trove of books, art and homeware.

Ruis is currently looking for a head of buying to run the team of three.

So, let me see if I’ve got this right: increase Jigsaw’s cool factor, launch some crazy shopfits, grow menswear, expand Bluebird. That’s some to-do list. “It will take three to five years to get Jigsaw anywhere near close to where I want it to be,” says Ruis. “We want to take the business over £100m turnover to at least 10% net profitability.

We have an international business, but we are at the early stages of it. We’re opening a shop in Dubai next month, in South Africa in the new year, and we have ambitions to go into all the European department stores.”

If there is one concern among industry sources as to whether Ruis can get the job done, it’s the Robinsons. The husband and wife owners of Robinson Webster Holdings, John and Belle, are thought to be very hands-on and protective of their family business, so will they give him enough autonomy? It’s not good form to criticise your boss on your first interview, so I’m hardly expecting Ruis to say no, but I believe him when he says: “John is the conscience of the brand and ensures the shareholders are getting the right return. He gets excited about product and about new shops. He’s a wonderfully charismatic, mild individual. It’s the first time anyone’s really run their business,” Ruis concedes. “But I’ve had complete support for every decision I’ve made. The Robinsons have been brilliant.”

Plus, Ruis is the man who showed his old boss, John Lewis managing director Andy Street, the business’s Christmas ad for the first time just days before it aired on television. No long, drawn-out discussions, no sign-off required.

The decision making was all Ruis’s. And the trust was all Street’s. If that dynamic can be replicated at Jigsaw, then that is one transformation fashion retail would certainly welcome.

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