There is plenty of female talent to be celebrated within the fashion industry. However, there is still a way to go before there are as many women at the top of fashion businesses as there are men.
Research by Women in Retail and consultancy Elixirr last year revealed that 85% of shoppers and 60% of workers in the industry are women, yet just 10% of retail executive board members are female. And in 2015, 15% of retail CEO hires were women – a fall from 25% in 2014.
While not a retail-specific issue, the under-representation of women in leadership roles is something that must be addressed and changed. “Retailers have a real opportunity to lead the way for other industries. It’s commercially, as well as morally, right,” says Karina van den Oever, director of Elixrr.
Fashion’s future female leaders are the ones making their mark today. Drapers meets 11 rising stars and inspiring leaders who are taking on the fashion industry on their own terms. Whether starting their own brands, building ecommerce platforms or making a difference in high street retailers, they are carving their own paths to success.
To mark International Women’s Day on 8 March, they chat with us about their journeys so far, about the women they admire, and give advice to women starting their careers. And in a few years, maybe they will be the ones raising the number of execs in the boardrooms to more equal measures.
Alice Hall, owner and creative director, Pink Boutique
Accidental entrepreneur Alice Hall started Pink Boutique from her kitchen table aged just 23, with an initial investment of £90. Struggling to pay her bills and juggling numerous jobs back in 2012, Hall alighted on the idea of selling unapologetically glamorous womenswear on Ebay as a way of generating some extra income. Now a fully fledged online retailer, Pink Boutique has an annual turnover of £7.7m, employs 57 people and ships 2,000 orders every day. Annual sales have risen by a total of 138% over the last three years.
“I wouldn’t say I was always an entrepreneurial character – I was never the kid selling sweets in the playground,” Hall tells Drapers. “But I’m hooked on business now.”
Pink Boutique’s ultra-glamorous approach to product and styling is not for everyone. But its distinctive look has been the secret of its success, appealing to a customer ignored by many other retailers and one that returns to Pink Boutique time and time again.
“Traditional retailers are often too cautious to go down a niche path and make a bold statement. We weren’t afraid of that,” Hall says.
With no formal training, Hall learned on the job. In the early days, she and her mum shared and did everything in the business, from photographing stock, packing orders and processing returns. As a result, Pink Boutique has retained a nimble approach. International expansion is next on the to-do list, focusing on growth in Australia, the US and eastern Europe.
The woman she admires: “For me, it’s Baroness Michelle Mone [founder of Ultimo]. She’s forthright about what she wants to achieve and I’d love to meet her.”
Rixo Henrietta and Orlagh
The brand founders
Henrietta Rix and Orlagh Mc Closkey, founders, Rixo London
Stocked by Net-a-Porter and creating a serious buzz among buyers, British contemporary womenswear label Rixo London is one to watch. Former Asos buyers Henrietta Rix and Orlagh Mc Closkey took a leap into the unknown when they left their jobs and decided to launch their own brand in 2015. The duo have been working flat out to meet demand ever since. Rixo’s vintage-inspired silk pieces have been an instant hit with its target market of women looking for unusual occasion dresses at a premium, rather than luxury, price point.
“There was such a huge gap in the market and buyers immediately reacted to the brand. It was scary, but somehow we always knew it would work,” says Rix.
An early disaster when the brand’s print designer pulled out weeks before the first samples were due forced Rix and McCloskey to tap into their shared love of drawing, and create their own quirky prints, which have since become the brand’s hallmark. The pair’s shared experience in buying has given them an instinct for what works, coupled with a healthy dose of determination and a knack for social media.
“So much of the retail market is about safety,” adds Rix. “We did a lot of cold calling, knocking on people’s doors and having the phone put down on us, but we kept going.”
Rixo was shortlisted for Premium Brand of the Year at last year’s Drapers’ Awards and the brand shows no signs of slowing down. Cracking the US is the next big ambition and the brand is also expanding its product offer into bikinis, scarves and knitwear.
Woman they admire: “Flo Campbell [acting buyer, Net-a-Porter] has been a real support and is someone we really look up to.”
The digital trendsetter
Dalbir Bains, vice-president of womenswear, Zalando
As German etailer Zalando’s vice-president of womenswear, Dalbir Bains steers a 180-strong team of fashion talent across 15 different European markets. Her role involves everything from designing collaborations, building partnerships with international fashion brands and working with Zalando’s technology team. Bains challenges her teams to think about how their decisions will improve the experience of the womenswear customer. Blending technology with a fashion-forward customer proposition is a key focus.
“The best thing about my job is the diversity,” she says. “My team represents people from 15 nationalities and speaks 18 languages. Operating in 15 markets means you are always being challenged to learn more about your customer in each country.”
Bains spends most weeks travelling to meet brands across Europe, so much of her inspiration comes when she’s on the move, whether seeing new stores in cities such as Copenhagen or heading further afield to California’s Silicon Valley to meet Google.
Diplomacy, negotiation and the ability to see a situation from a different perspective have all been key skills Bains has needed throughout her career.
“Working with large teams, you learn the importance of vision and building up teams around a clear focus. I would also say fashion requires a specific kind of fearlessness to know when to speak up, take risks and challenge the norm.”
The women she admires: “I admire women who are growing their businesses at scale while staying true to their brand identity, like Stella McCartney.”
The event director
Alice Elliott, event director, Jacket Required
Alice Elliott is the organising might behind premium menswear trade show Jacket Required, juggling everything from visiting potential venues to nurturing new brands. Elliott has been at Jacket Required since its second edition in 2012 – the January 2017 edition was the 12th – developing a close relationship with founders and menswear veterans Mark Batista and Craig Ford.
“I’m involved in every aspect of the show. There’s a lot of organising, a lot of planning, and a lot of building and nurturing relationships. Organising Jacket Required is like running a good indie – it’s about the right mix of brands working together.”
Her advice to women starting out on their own careers in fashion is to “change and innovate before you have to” and, when necessary, develop a thick skin.
“Being a woman in a predominately male environment can sometimes be tough – even when you’re the boss. However, Mark and Craig have never treated me this way and have always been the best people to work with.”
The women she admires: “I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by really good girlfriends with amazing work ethics. They work in varying sectors but all care about the quality of the work they produce, which inspires me.”
The footwear designer
Katie Harland, designer and founder, Rogue Matilda
Katie Harland is the brains and creative force behind footwear brand Rogue Matilda, which specialises in comfortable but cool flat shoes. Rogue Matilda was born from Harland’s frustration with the flat shoes on offer to women. Redefining the classic brogue, Harland uses flashes of animal print, fur pompoms and neon laces for a fresh take on a footwear staple.
After taking a one-day course in shoe design she launched the brand in late 2015. Today it is stocked in Harvey Nichols and won the 2016 Footwear Friends Award for Most Export Potential. Harland’s past experience working in advertising means her playful designs are tempered with a keen sense of what will sell.
“A lot of people who come out of fashion school create these amazing creative projects but it is a business and the vast majority of customers are looking for something a bit more wearable, but still with a special feel,” she tells Drapers.
A particular career highlight for Harland has been seeing Rogue Matilda’s brogues on model of the moment Gigi Hadid, as well as on the feet of women across the country. The brand manufactures in Portugal, which has been a learning curve for Harland.
“Manufacturing has been the biggest challenge. I’m not trained in footwear design, which means I take a different angle. I’m physically ripping apart samples to see how we can improve, and spending more time in Portugal, so I can select the skins, look at the heels – really be there from start to finish, which avoids costly errors.”
The woman she admires: “Within my category, it has to be Sophia Webster. She’s having so much fun with her brand at a time when so others many are channelling Scandi-minimalism.”
The womenswear design chief
Queralt Ferrer, womenswear and lingerie design director, Marks & Spencer
Queralt Ferrer often says fashion and fabrics are part of her DNA. She was heavily involved in her father’s textile factory in Vilada in Spain growing up but when recession hit in the 1990s, she knew she had to forge her own path in the industry.
She studied design in Barcelona before becoming an assistant menswear designer at Massimo Dutti, where she was given her first big break. She was asked to launch Massimo Dutti Woman at age 23, just four months after leaving design school.
“Always grab the opportunities in life,” she advises. “I was scared but I had to trust my instincts, and trust that the people around me had seen something in me.”
She spent 17 years at Massimo Dutti, rising to the role of womenswear design director before moving to Marks & Spencer in 2013 as head of design for Autograph and Limited, and taking up her current role in 2015.
“If I hadn’t taken the chance [at Massimo Dutti], I doubt I’d have had the opportunities that followed – like moving to M&S. It was an incredible chance to move to an iconic brand with a rich heritage but it also brought me to London – one of the world’s real fashion capitals.”
She says that balancing work with her family – she has two daughters and a son – has been her greatest challenge, but M&S is supportive and she likes that her children see her working and have grown up with design.
“My career would not be possible without the support and input of my family,” she says, crediting her husband and children for making the move from Barcelona to London so she could pursue a role with M&S.
She relishes the challenge of restablishing M&S’s style authority: “I love getting the positive feedback from customers and seeing the progress we’re making.”
The woman she admires: “Coco Chanel changed fashion from a design point of view by creating a new shape and silhouette for women to wear, but also she changed it for women working in the industry.”
Kiran and Aneeta Sumra
The independent retailers
Aneeta and Kiran Sumra, founders, Western Assembly
Between them, Aneeta and Kiran Sumra have a killer set of skills. Aneeta started her career as a sourcing assistant at Burberry before becoming a menswear buyer for the EMEIA (Europe, Middle East, India and Africa) region, while Kiran worked as a digital strategist. Their combined talents have culminated in Western Assembly – an ecommerce site and store on east London’s Redchurch Street specialising in carefully curated menswear for men aged 30 to 50, who like premium European brands. Aneeta heads product and Kiran looks after the marketing and ecommerce side of the business.
“We wanted to bring all these great brands together for a customer who might find somewhere like Mr Porter too luxury and some of the other independent boutiques too urban and trend-led,” explains Kiran.
The sisters used a government start-up loan to launch Western Assembly as an etailer in April 2015. Five pop-up shops followed, before they found their first permanent physical home in October last year. Their shared skills and passion for menswear helped encourage brands to get on board in the early days.
“We made sure we got out there and went to trade shows, so brands could see what we were like and what our vision was,” recalls Kiran. “Once we had some relatively well-known independent European brands on board, like La Paz and L’Homme Rouge, it really accelerated the process.”
Among the other brands are Swedish outerwear Stutterheim, Portuguese Delikatessen and Edinburgh-based Kestin Hare.
The woman they admire: “Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso is a big one for us. Reading her book #Girlboss was a big inspiration.”
Rebecca Tinker, womenswear buyer, Harvey NicholsAt 26, buyer Rebecca Tinker has already built a stellar career. Tinker heads Harvey Nichols’ renowned international womenswear department, overseeing around 45 luxury brands and buying for stores around the country, and for online. After interning at the department store while studying at the London College of Fashion, she was offered the role of buyer’s administrator in menswear and accessories.
“It opened my eyes beyond womenswear. I learnt that a great buyer should be able to buy any product, so never discourage any other pathways. At the time, London Collections Men’s was really taking off and the perception of menswear was shifting,” she says.
Tinker then stepped over into contemporary womenswear, where her keen eye for an emerging designers and work ethic (coupled with mentoring and training) propelled her from admin assistant to buyer in five years.
She now works with the big names in luxury brands, including Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Peter Pilotto and Erdem, as well as hunting for up-and-coming brands. Her role involves being able to pre-empt what customers will want, combining creativity and analysis.
Tinker enjoys the camaraderie of the Harvey Nichols team: “Having always been taught that it takes hard work, intelligence and a creative eye with conviction to be a buyer, it’s equally important that we make sure to have some fun along the way.”
There are constant “pinch me” moments in Tinker’s job. Standout memories have included attending Dries Van Noten’s 100th show in Paris, as well as being invited to a private screening of an upcoming documentary looking back at the Belgian designer’s extensive career.Woman she admires: ”Given that our industry is made up of a significant number of women, for most of my career I’ve had the pleasure of working for mostly female bosses and not to mention, also working alongside so many determined and dedicated women. To these women, I thank them personally as they have truly all been a great inspiration, and it is with great pleasure to be able to consider them as friends. For most they don’t truly realise the influence they have within the industry and how much of an impact to my career they’ve had, in both my current role and any future endeavours. I can only strive to achieve the same high standard of work ethic and hope to inspire my own teams in the same way. Having always been taught that it takes hard work, intelligence and a creative eye with conviction to be a buyer, it is also equally important that we make sure to have some fun along the way.
Lauren Bowker, founder and scientist, the Unseen
“My goal is to create products that could sit in the Victoria & Albert and Science Museums,” says Lauren Bowker, founder of material exploration house The Unseen.
The Unseen blends science and design to create intelligent textiles that use visual cues to be as practical as they are beautiful. While still studying at the Manchester School of Art, Bowker created a pollution-sensing ink that changed from yellow to black around carbon emissions. Realising that design could represent complex ideas simply and with a lifelong interest in fashion, she then studied at the Royal College of Art, where she created several more colour-changing inks, before founding the Unseen in 2014.
“Facts and figures are hard to communicate but product that can change colour, and literally show the impact of external factors is a very primal way of communicating a complicated issue,” Bowker explains.
The Unseen’s work has included a range of luxury accessories that change colour to reflect their environment – stocked in Selfridges – as well as a collaboration with Swarovski on a headdress that maps brain activity. Bowker explains that the Unseen uses fashion to demonstrate its ground-breaking materials and dyes, which are also used in the medical industry and in space.
“The retail focused work we do allows us to experiment and explore our compounds in the real world. Our project with Selfridges, which included beautiful scarves on the same level as McQueen or Chanel, allowed us to really push forward with research on a bandage that changes colour to reflect how healed a wound is.”
The woman she admires: “My mum founded and ran a womenswear designer clothing shop with my dad for most of my childhood and worked incredibly hard, both on and off the shop floor.”