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The female influence: fashion's inspiring women

While opportunities for women are improving across fashion retailing there is still much to be done to create parity with male counterparts, particularly at the top.

Drapers Cover1 FIN AF

As celebrations kick off for International Women’s Day on March 8, Drapers asks industry leaders to identify the women who inspire them and how they have left their imprint on the fashion world. The list contains leading women in sectors such as buying, design and retail but there is still plenty more to be done to increase the female board influence.

Despite 90% of purchase decisions across retail being made by women, just 8% of executive board positions last year were held by female leaders. The figure for non-executives was slightly higher at 26%.

Fiona Davis, a trustee of campaign group and members organisation Women in Retail, who was previously brand director for Ann Summers between 2009 and 2013, says: “It’s a double-edged sword. The numbers have gone up, which we’re delighted about, but it’s mostly non-executives. The Davies Review [published in October 2015 which looked at female representation on boards] has raised the profile of this issue so it’s no longer something that businesses want to brush under the carpet or feel they can, but it’s still moving slowly.”

To help counter this, Women in Retail is launching its Emerging Leaders initiative on April 14 in Leeds to support up-and-coming females and provide a platform for those entering leadership roles to share experiences, boost confidence and meet other like-minded women.

Gaps in market

But despite the slow pace of change at the top, Davis identifies a wave of female entrepreneurs coming through who are tapping into gaps in the market and answering consumers’ demands for services and experiences alongside product. She cites as examples Polly McMaster who founded womenswear brand The Fold in 2011 to better cater for high-flying businesswomen in need of stylish but work-appropriate clothing, and trio Erika Nilsson-Humphrey, Tine Green and Ewa Andriesz who launched men’s personal styling service Dappad last year.

“There’s a new brand of female retail entrepreneurs that are starting to step into the market that otherwise appeared over-supplied and are doing some interesting things, looking at the industry from a customer needs perspective and creating an experience.”

She adds women are also making great strides in accessing areas of the industry previously dominated by men, such as technology and finance, as they are able to offer a fresh perspective and ask different questions, listening to consumers and colleagues.

Fashion’s inspiring women

Peter Ruis, CEO of Jigsaw

Joan Burstein

I’m going to go for Joan Burstein. I grew up with Browns and used to queue outside the door as a teenager (for the Sale of course – I was on the minimum grant!) She brought designer fashion to the UK at a time when there was no real precedent, and Selfridges across the road could only dream about having her assortment. She was a trailblazer, started so many careers and I have never heard anyone who has a bad word to say about the legendary Mrs B.

Liliane Harris, owner of womenswear agency M&L Harris

Throughout my career in fashion a woman who has inspired me has been Joan Burstein. Her remarkable forward-thinking vision and unique taste saw the rise of prominent names such as Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan, John Galliano, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan [in the UK] to name but a few. I have always admired her boldness and found her modern approach amazing.

Beth Butterwick, outgoing CEO of Bonmarché and CEO-elect of Karen Millen

Vic Beckham

Victoria Beckham is a good inspiration – she has worked hard to establish herself in the industry and I admire her diligence and resilience, as well as her fabulous style.

Claudia Reth, vice-president fashion direction, Zalando

One of the women in the UK fashion industry that I have been following for a long time is Victoria Beckham. I remember that she launched jeans with a big crown logo for Rock & Republic and it took her a long time to get rid of this image. However, Victoria proved everyone wrong. If you look at the collections she is designing today, they are contemporary, effortless, laid-back fashion – incredibly sleek and feminine pieces. She is one of my favourite designers.

Ed Connolly, buying director for fashion and beauty at John Lewis

Angela Ahrendts

First, given my own background in technology, I would highlight Angela Ahrendts, for her achievements at Burberry in blurring the physical and digital retail experiences, her influence on technology within the fashion world and of course her visionary leadership. Second is Anya Hindmarch for her extraordinary drive, commitment to innovative design and craftsmanship and her philanthropic work with charities and politics. Finally I would mention Margaret Howell for her understated influence on style within fashion and homeware, her unique handwriting and timeless design and of course her unwavering support of British manufacturing.

Nitin Passi, CEO and founder of Missguided

Natalie M

Natalie Massenet is a forward-thinking, driven entrepreneur who has pioneered great examples of how to marry content and commerce in an authentic way. She consistently looks to evolve and experiment – a true fashion innovator.

Scott Tepper, buying director for Liberty

The women in the UK fashion industry that have inspired me most in my career are Natalie Massenet and Joan Burstein. Both of these great entrepreneurs used their unique voices and instincts to create empires that were widely copied in the fashion world, but never equalled during their heydays. If the world were perfect, 2016 would see Mrs B write the ultimate insider’s book about the industry, spilling all its juiciest secrets and wreaking havoc. And Natalie would go back to her journalistic roots and save the fashion print industry.

Neil Hendy, creative director of Coast

Miuccia Prada

Miuccia Prada is a fashion visionary who constantly changes the rules, as well as an amazing innovator whose influence each season is indisputable. In 2015 I was inspired by the way Céline creative director Phoebe Philo continued to deliver her luxurious, minimalist vision and by Victoria Beckham, who defied the critics to build a British brand that goes from strength to strength. In 2016 I’ll be watching out for footwear designer Sophia Webster, whose unique and desirable accessories seem to be gracing ever more red carpets.

Lauren Ferguson, owner of independent retailer Sisters Boutique in Falkirk

Viv Westwood

Vivienne Westwood has been ground-breaking in her designs and, despite her maturing years, she has never “grown up”. She’s still happy to be a punk and never strayed from her original style, which I think represent timeless classics you can never tire of.



Angela Spindler, chief executive of N Brown

Kate bostock

I was a FMCG [fast-moving consumer goods] brand marketeer and then food retailer for the first 15 years of my career. My passion for fashion was ignited by working on George with Kate Bostock. Her real ability to spot the winners and a preoccupation with understanding the fashion attitudes of the target customer was truly inspirational. Hilary Alexander has to get a mention in any commentary about inspirational women influencing fashion retailing. A broadcaster, journalist and all-round A-lister, she has stayed current and relevant over many years in the industry.

Delphine Ninous, vice-president of women’s design at Belstaff

Sarah Andelman

When Sarah Andelman opened Colette in 1997 it created a revolution in Paris – mixing street style and couture opened a new era. It helped so many young designers to get established. She hasn’t only a great sense of fashion but she is a strong business woman too. She has built an institution while keeping her own discrete personality. Her choices have definitely influenced me over the years, but also today from the position I have, I feel a lot of respect for her and her successful business, and her unique standpoint in the industry.

Wendy Hallett, founder and managing director of Hallett Retail

Belinda Earl

I find Belinda Earl an amazing inspiration. I first met Belinda when she was CEO of Debenhams and we had just launched Fuse into Debenhams. Belinda was very supportive as I worked to build my business and developed the concept. Our paths crossed again when I joined the Retail Trust Ball committee where, despite a very full on role at Jaeger, she was chair giving her valuable time and experience. It was a great opportunity for me to observe her skill of getting the most out of a diverse group of people and to help me when I later took on the role of chair myself. Now she is style director for M&S and still leading the way for women showing that it is possible to work part-time while working at the highest level. I think the thing I love the most about Belinda is I don’t think she actually realises just what an inspiration for other women she is.

Ravi Grewal, buying and merchandising director of menswear independent Stuarts London

Julie Deane

I would have to say the owner of Cambridge Satchel Company, Julie Deane. I think she is a true example that believing in an idea and combining it with hard work makes it possible to take it to the next level.



Meg Lustman, CEO of Hobbs

Wendy Hallet

Wendy Hallett stands out as particularly inspirational. She has built a great business that provides an excellent proposition for brands and retailers alike, while unerringly maintaining a wonderfully feminine, successful leadership style.



Jonathan Capener, founder of independent retailer Outdoor & Country

Dame Barbour

Dame Margaret Barbour is an inspirational leader, who has transformed, shaped and evolved the Barbour business since she became chairman in 1973. She is a prime example of how hard work, determination and passion along with some sharp business acumen can make a successful company. She has ensured that the Barbour brand has stayed true to its heritage while still being relevant to today’s customer.

John Saunders, chief executive of the British Footwear Association

Souraya Karami

Souraya Karami, founder and designer of Esska, has an interesting professional background and it’s a really nice brand too. She originally trained and worked as an architect before studying footwear design at the renowned London College of Fashion. It was not only Souraya’s passion for shoes that led to her career change, but also in her own words “the lack of footwear aimed at women who place equal value on comfort and style”.

Michelle Emmerson, CEO of luxury British brands association Walpole

Sarah Burton’s stunning creations at Alexander McQueen never cease to amaze. It’s impossible to overlook the influence of Vivienne Westwood on the UK’s fashion landscape – she is truly inspirational. The meteoric rise of Victoria Beckham has been a joy to witness and it was my pleasure to present her with Walpole’s Best British Brand Award 2015, in recognition of her strength as both a designer and business woman.”

Natalie Bolton, design director of handbag brand Radley

As a strong fashion force former American Vogue creative director Grace Coddington has taught me that creativity has no age limit and I’ve always found Vivienne Westwood’s rebellious nature exhilarating.Throughout my career I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with so many strong women, who have championed me over the years like Radley founder Lowell Harder, who has harnessed my creative streak for the past 15 years.

British designer Sophia Webster just keeps getting stronger and stronger. I love her fun and playful mix of colour and style. I also love luxury accessories designer Karen Mabon’s use of print and pattern. She’s an emerging designer who already has a loyal following and a growing Asian business.

Tracy Lewis, outgoing chief executive of Wacoal Europe

Gwen Widell

Throughout 2015 I had the privilege to work with Gwen Widell, senior vice-president of merchandising at Wacoal America. Her knowledge and dedication to the industry is legendary. Watch what she does in 2016. 

I would include Mothercare chief executive Ann Iverson, for introducing me to retail theatre, and Debenhams’ divisional trading director Susie Calvert and womenswear trading director Sara Stern for being fabulous retail and brand advocates throughout our long business partnership.

I am also inspired by Bravissimo founder Sarah Tremellen for creating an amazing business that put larger-cup bras on the map and independent lingerie store owner Sadie Ayton for being the best “Bra Lady” in the northeast and beyond.

Gemma Metheringham, chief creative officer of Karen Millen

Mary Katrantzou

Mary Katrantzou impressed last year with how she is building her business while retaining the integrity of the brand and her unique creativity. Natalie Massenet is a true innovator and a ground breaker in the digital arena who spotted a gap in the market and changed forever how we shop. She is continuing to do wonderful things for London Fashion Week and making it the destination of choice. Also Penny Martin, from [fashion film website] ShowStudio to The Gentlewoman, continues to demonstrate a considered, creative and highly intelligent approach to fashion journalism and media.

Tess Richards, former creative director of Crew Clothing and Ghost, and current co-founder of womenswear brand Richards Radcliffe

Diane Von Furstenburg

Diane von Furstenberg has carved her own way in the industry. Fashion comes and goes but her USP of the jersey wrap dress has never faded and I hugely respect that – having the confidence to follow the designs you want. I love her work ethic of starting her business up and working around her young family. She is the epitome of work, play and family balance for me.


Deryane Tadd, owner of independent retailer The Dressing Room in St Albans

Dame Mary Perkins, co-founder of Specsavers and one of the pioneers of the Everywoman Retail ambassadors programme is a great source of inspiration. For someone that has achieved so much to showcase and champion the opportunities retail offers as a career choice for women of all ages is fantastic and a great role model.

Rhian Bartlett, eBay’s senior director of soft goods in the UK

One of the many women I admire in fashion retailing, in fact retailing in general, is Rachael White founder of Thingimijigs. Just over 10 years ago, Rachael dreamt of starting a business in children’s apparel that would give her the flexible working she craved to spend more time with her children. The business began with £200 and an eBay page. Today it’s a multimillion-pound business, with its own warehouse, staff and thousands of items that are shipped internationally.

Simon Berwin, managing director of Berwin & Berwin

Debbie Hewitt is a non-executive director to several businesses, including Moss Bros and White Stuff. She is also mother to seven-year-old twins Ellie and William. Her empathy for people makes her a mentor and leader to many. She has a deep grasp of corporate governance. She understands situations with ease and always brings common sense solutions to challenges. She sees opportunities others miss. It is no coincidence that results wherever she appears have improved significantly. Whenever I have introduced her to people in the industry, they have subsequently built meaningful relationships, as everyone likes to chew the fat with her. Debbie is an unsung hero of our industry.


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