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The Karen Millen feminine manifesto

beth butterwick web

Taking charge of Karen Millen was a longstanding ambition for CEO Beth Butterwick. After 18 months in the role, Butterwick is reviving the business with a renewed focus on empowering customers in all aspects of their lives.

“When I started my graduate training scheme at Marks & Spencer, Karen Millen was one of my go-to brands for my workwear wardrobe,” says Beth Butterwick, of the premium womenswear retailer. “I used to wait until I got paid as a graduate trainee, save up all my money and then buy tailoring and white shirts from Karen Millen – that was what it was really known for.”

Karen Millen Spring 18

Karen Millen spring 18

Sitting in a central London cafe, impeccably dressed head to toe in Karen Millen, Butterwick is still revelling in her role at a brand she grew up with. After taking the top job in August 2016, she is now aiming to return the brand to the one she knew at its best.

“It was the zeitgeist brand that took couture looks and brought them to the high street,” she says. “It’s amazing that the atelier, couture DNA continues today.”

Founded in 1981, in the 1980s and 1990s the brand dominated the premium workwear market with its bold, catwalk-inspired designs. Founder Karen Millen sold the business to Mosaic Fashions in 2004, and its fortunes changed. The owner of Oasis, Coast and Warehouse went into administration in March 2009, and was bought by the now-defunct Icelandic bank Kaupthing. In 2011 Kaupthing separated Karen Millen from the other Mosaic brands, in the hope of making them all easier to sell. Kaupthing is still the registered owner.

By the time Butterwick was brought in as CEO, replacing Mike Shearwood, who left in September 2015 after a failed management buyout, the brand had lost some of its sparkle.

Bolstered by her passion for the brand’s ethos, 18 months into the role and her turnaround plan for the business – which she says had “drifted away” from its original DNA – is beginning to pay off.

Karen Millen Spring 18

Karen Millen spring 18

Sales slipped 1.2% to £158.8m for the year to February 2017, in what Butterwick called a “year of change”, but operating losses were cut by 12% to £9.2m from the previous year, and gross profit rose by 1.6% to £95.4m.

“There are three core things I observed when I joined the business,” she says, with characteristic directness. “We promised we’d go from being product focused to being customer focused; from being a label to being a brand; and from very UK central to being global.”

Turnaround specialist

This would not be the first time Butterwick has spearheaded the turnaround of a brand. Before joining Karen Millen, she was CEO at value womenswear retailer Bonmarché. Having taken the reins of the struggling retailer at the end of 2011, eight weeks before it collapsed into administration in January 2012, she led a transformation that brought shoppers back and sales soared. In its full-year results for the 12 months to 29 March 2014, Butterwick had driven a 150% increase in profit before tax.

We promised we’d go from being product focused to being customer focused

Butterwick has also held roles at European womenswear retailer, MS Mode, where she was CEO for two years, and at Gap, as vice-president of womenswear, accessories and childrenswear at Gap Europe between 2005 and 2008. She began her career at Marks & Spencer, where she worked for 14 years, progressing from graduate trainee to head of accessories buying.

Andrew Skinner, CEO of Coast, who worked with Butterwick at Marks & Spencer, says: “Beth is a great example of the M&S alumni, when the classes of the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s – arguably the best modern-day decades for M&S – produced some fantastic retail talent, many of which have gone on to successfully lead other businesses.

“I remember Beth as part of the ladies knitwear group who were the number one M&S buying team, basically if they were on form, then the business had a great autumn season. Following Beth’s career since then she has taken that winning mentality with her wherever she’s gone and you can already see how she is getting Karen Millen back in track.” 

Product priority

One pillar underpinning Butterwick’s task at Karen Millen, is a renewed focus on aligning product to consumers.

“When I started, Karen Millen had moved away from its original proposition: bringing couture looks to the high street in a beautiful quality, with an atelier ethos,” she explains. “We’re a clothing brand, so if the collection doesn’t work, you can’t go anywhere. Fixing the collection and making sure that is aligned to our loyal client base was really important.”

This has meant returning to a collection that works as a capsule, rather than as one-off pieces, focusing on “professional, polished, strong and empowered women”, and creating a wardrobe that slots into their modern lives.

“Karen Millen is still very much a primary destination for the professional woman who wants to dress for success,” says Anusha Couttigane, senior fashion analyst at Kantar Consulting. “Under Butterwick, we’ve seen Karen Millen broaden the range of styles on offer – for example, by introducing more colour and trend influences, such as athleisure to its workwear ranges. This has helped to give its collections a more fashionable appeal to a younger audience, and adapt to changing attitude to workplace dress codes whilst still maintaining its formalwear USP.”

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Karen Millen’s “Suffragette blouse”

Looking around the brand’s Regent Street flagship store, the focus on slick, modern professional dressing is evident in neat dresses, colourful blouses and statement outerwear. Butterwick exemplifies this power-dressing aesthetic – in a pair of tailored high-waisted trousers, glossy ankle boots and a striped, balloon-sleeve blouse (dubbed the “Suffragette blouse” by the consumer press).

Butterwick has also taken an unusual approach to outlet ranges: “I saw outlet as an opportunity for people to discover the brand in a different way.” 

We are committed to making sure we do [the stores up], so they are amazing brand marketing experiences

“Rather than clearance stock, we’ve developed special ranges, so that it looks premium but at really good value, and it’s different from the main collection. It’s an amazing opportunity for all sorts of different clients to be able to afford a piece of Karen Millen and have the Karen Millen experience.”

As part of this focus, the store in Bicester Village outlet centre will get a makeover this month. Six other full-price stores have been refitted since 2016. In the past year, five stores have closed and six have opened, leaving 37 UK branches and 42 concessions. The focus is now on creating a high-end experience, and expanding into more relevant locations – and potentially airports or railway stations. 

“We are committed to making sure we do [the stores up], so they are amazing brand marketing experiences, fully serviced for our customers’ experience.” 

International approach

The overall focus has shifted to digital, which currently comprises 20% of sales, a figure Butterwick believes will grow: “Digital is just gathering pace, so we wanted to make sure we course-corrected to be a digitally focused, digitally enabled, customer-experiential digital business,” she notes.

The key is a multichannel approach: “Channels are insignificant. It’s all about making a smooth customer journey but it does start with the digital and mobile. There’s a lot more to do around that, whether it’s social and marketing, customer journey, feedback or using data to make sure our collection and service is relevant.”

This digital focus is also something that is being applied to the international side of the business, which in 2017 comprised 18.9% of total turnover, at £21.8m. The brand is currently sold in 397 stores in 58 markets.

Channels are insignificant. It’s all about making a smooth customer journey

“Rather than just land-grabbing, we’re going to approach the development of locations in a far more strategic way – underpinned by the digital customer journey. We’re looking at international markets in a completely different way, thinking: if we were going to enter the markets from scratch, how would we do it?”

The Middle East, Europe, the US and China as key markets. At Bicester Village, Chinese shoppers can communicate with the store manager before their visit, and place orders and reservations via messaging service WeChat

Karen Millen Spring 18

Karen Millen spring 18

Butterwick’s focus on the customer has led it to become synonymous with strong, working women. Karen Millen is not a feminist brand, but a feminine one: increasingly championing, empowering and celebrating women.

“One of the things we wanted to do was look for a partnership that was more than just clothing – that was about giving women experiences and helping them in their roles,” says Butterwick. Last August this saw the launch of the “Women Who Can” campaign with women’s empowerment network The Step Up Club. At workshops across the country women heard inspiring stories and were mentored to achieve their potential. Among the speakers were British and European Kick-Boxing and Muay Thai Champion Ruqsana Begum; Brita Fernandez Schmidt, executive director of charity Women for Women International; and Sharmadean Reid, founder of WAH Nails.

Alice Olins, co-founder of the Step Up Club, says: “This collaboration wasn’t about driving sales – although it did actually achieve this. Women Who Can was about giving something back to Karen Millen customers. This sentiment really struck a chord with us. It makes sense that companies with this type of power work to enhance the lives of their customers and their employees.”

As part of the initiative, Olins and her co-founder, Phanella Mayall Fine, also held mentoring workshops for the Karen Millen staff, as Butterwick is keen to ensure the brand’s message of empowerment is embedded in the business. “When you reinvent the brand, it can’t be superficial,” she says.

Karen Millen has since supported other initiatives such as the UN Women UK’s “Draw a line day” which campaigns to end violence against women, and International Women’s Day. 

I’d always look for a [gender] balance, but I wouldn’t ever end up choosing a gender just to get that

The theme of empowerment continues internally at Karen Millen, where Butterwick has set up employee forums, in the hope that people at all levels of the business feel they can drive change. Globally, 93% of Karen Millen employees are women and 7% men. Within the leadership team, 82% are female compared with the UK average of 23%. Butterwick says the high number of women is primarily because it is a womenswear business. Her approach focuses on talent and balance, rather than on quotas.

“I’d always look for a [gender] balance, but I wouldn’t ever end up choosing a gender just to get that,” she explains. “Because people think differently, it’s good to have a mix across the business. Cultural fit is more important than gender and sometimes even skillset. If you don’t have the right dynamic in a team or the right leader to galvanise a workforce, that can be damaging.”

That said, much has changed for women in the retail industry since Butterwick joined Marks & Spencer in 1991: “Over time more women are working and more women are coming back after having children. On that basis, we are developing a better skillset in the female workforce. Whereas 25 years ago there may have been a gender bias, the actual problem was that a lot of women left, or didn’t feel they could progress and have a family.”

With two children herself, aged 14 and 16, Butterwick is an exemplar of how opportunities have changed.

“You have to make choices, but it doesn’t mean you can’t live your dream or get to the top or do whatever you want to do,” she says.

Karen Millen is a good example of a brand that celebrates and empowers women both through branding and business. With its longstanding focus on powerful, professional women, Karen Millen’s outlook was ahead of the zeitgeist, and is heading back to full strength at exactly the right time. With Butterwick now settled at the helm, eyes will be peeled as her plans for Karen Millen’s transformation and regeneration begin to yield results.

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