I am a massive movie fan and I found the Oscar’s this year to be by turns inspiring and utterly deflating. My film of the year was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and I thought Frances McDormand’s acceptance speech was the highlight of the night; at once both a rousing paean to the success women have fought so hard to achieve and a call to action that there is more yet to be done. This is why I was so disappointed that Greta Gerwig did not win best director for her absolutely fabulous film, Lady bird, a film which is unafraid to see women, not merely look at them, and to see them in all their complexity.
This was a better year than most for diversity and inclusion in business, though had you only watched the news it may not have felt it. Across a range of key metrics the presence of women at the top of companies is growing, and the continued success of organisations like the 30% Club and Level 20 give me hope that we are on an upward trajectory.
As some of our readers may know, my colleague Maria has recently published a report on the case for diversity in private equity. While the report showed that there is much work to be done, we were encouraged by the responses we received from those in the industry, which demonstrated how engaged people are in tackling these issues.
As a long-time member of the judging panel for Veuve Clicquot’s Business Woman awards I have been gratified to see the rise and rise of women to the upper echelons of commerce, and honoured to be able to draw attention to some of the best talent in business today, and this year was no exception.
All of this year’s nominees (a full list of which can be found here) are titans in their field and boast impressive careers and inspiring resumes. From Olivia Garfield, CEO of Severn Trent to June O’Sullivan, CEO of the London Early Years Foundation these women embody what it means to be an effective leader and an able operator.
But, for this column I want to focus on one nominee in particular who has had a transformational effect on our industry – Ruth Chapman, co-founder of Matchesfashion.com.
Ruth’s story is a lesson in the value of innovation and insight, of foresight and a willingness to act and think differently that is powerful and inspirational. She and her husband Tom grew a small South London store into a world-bestriding fashion and luxury ecommerce giant with revenues of over £250m. Last year they sold the business to private equity investors for $1bn – that gave the shareholders a return of 10X on their original investment. The numbers are defiant.
When she and her partner (now husband) Tom Chapman opened a small fashion boutique in Wimbledon Village in 1987, the area was known mostly for its world-famous tennis club. But in the choice to open the store Ruth demonstrated an intuition for the needs and wants of the customer that has served her well for decades and consistently marked Matches out from the rest of the pack. She knew, instinctively, who her customers were, where they were, and what they wanted.
‘The success of our business has been down to understanding people’s lifestyles, how much they’re travelling now, how much time they’re spending in their pyjamas, how much people are exercising, how much they want to have in the wardrobe to go to the gym. We dress people for a holistic lifestyle.’ – Ruth Chapman, in conversation with Fashion Network
As the world later realised, it turned out those customers were in fact in Wimbledon, and what they wanted was a heady mix of established labels and the new kids on the block; a combination of classics, trailblazers and boundary pushers that has since come to define the Matches offer.
Ruth quickly became known for her willingness to work with new and up-and-coming designers, particularly those from the UK, and for providing them with a platform and a springboard for success. Erdem and Christopher Kane are just two that have benefitted from Ruth’s eagle eye for talent. Similarly, to read a list of the labels that Matches was the first to stock in the UK is to take a stroll among some of the best known and most revolutionary names and brands in fashion, from Prada and Bottega Veneta to Vetements and Diane Von Furstenberg.
What Matches keyed into far earlier than so many other luxury boutiques and retailers was the idea of fashion retail as hospitality – it didn’t take the rise of ecommerce for Ruth to realise that just as important as the clothes was the experience. From the beginning, 20-30% of floor space was devoted to hospitality. Things have clearly changed since then – growing from a coffee machine in the corner to a multi-storey Marylebone townhouse – but this belief in shopping as something to be experienced and enjoyed as an act in and of itself was baked into the company from day one.
This in part explains why Ruth and Tom were believers in omnichannel before some companies had realised there was more than one channel. 95% of the company’s c.£250m sales currently come from digital, but Matches’ three stores remain utterly crucial to the business’s identity.
Ruth successfully grew a business from a boutique in Wimbledon to one of the largest fashion etailers in the world. She and Matches have been consistently innovative, pre-empting the consumer by answering their demands and reacting to trends before they happen.
For me what resonates with Ruth is that she kept the business in Wimbledon and lived there too while her 3 children, who are now 25, 23 and 19, were growing up so that she could do both equally well – run a business and have a family. In addition, whenever you speak to anyone who has worked for Ruth, they talk about her mentoring skills and what a role model she has been to so many young women in fashion who have all managed to go on and do great things. One stand out has to be Vanessa Kingori who began her career at Matches and is now the Publishing Director at Vogue.
What defines and runs through Ruth’s story, and the stories of the nominees and past winners of the Veuve Clicquot awards, is a willingness to be first; a fearlessness in the face of the unknown. Not just in the sense that many of these women were first by fact of their gender, first to be CEOs of their companies or first to lead FTSE 100 and international firms but also in the sense that they are innovative and groundbreaking business thinkers, thought leaders and visionaries.