The CEOs of the future may come from unexpected places

It was a great pleasure to welcome William Kim, CEO of AllSaints, as the host of a dinner and roundtable discussion held in partnership with MBS this week. We always like to mix people together and get views from different ends of the spectrum, and that was reflected in the array of inspiring fashion businesses we had around the table. It included the CEO of new fashion label ALEXACHUNG; the global VP of product and marketing at Dr Martens, a brand that seems to be collaborating with all the hottest names at the moment; and an investor who backs fashion and luxury brands around the world.

We were proud too to welcome such fashion and luxury powerhouses as LVMH, Richemont and Prada – companies that continue to lead with such design and creative integrity.

The topic of our discussion was ‘the new generation of fashion executives engaging tomorrow’s customers’ – with a focus on the CEOs and business leaders of the future. It was fascinating to discuss how brands are starting to look beyond traditional leadership models in favour of new approaches and new types of leaders – particularly as they face market disruption from every angle.

Nowhere is this more the case than in fashion, where brands have faced huge upheaval in the wake of digital transformation and changing consumer behaviours. Increasingly these businesses are looking for a new generation of leaders who can reimagine their brand’s place in the world and connect with today’s young customers.

This could include hiring executives from outside the industry who can apply the lessons learned from other markets – or perhaps seeking out CEOs with a diverse mix of skills (especially around technology, digital, supply chain and product), rather than the tried and tested commercial route.

William is an excellent example of the changing role of the CEO. When he took the helm of British fashion retailer AllSaints in 2012, some industry figures suggested it was a risky move by the company’s private equity owner Lion Capital. He had no previous CEO experience, and Lion was planning an ambitious turnaround strategy after buying the company during a period of financial difficulty for AllSaints.

Five years on and AllSaints is thriving thanks to William’s dynamic, innovative leadership. Having joined from Burberry where he was SVP of retail and before that, SVP of digital commerce, William introduced a forward-thinking strategy aimed at ensuring the brand would be relevant not just today, but well into the future. This has involved tailoring the business model to the changing needs of customers, with a digital strategy more akin to a pureplay ecommerce specialist than a traditional retailer.

“[Digital] is a place not just to sell clothes, but a medium to connect with customers” – William Kim, CEO of AllSaints

William has kept most of AllSaints’ operations in-house, helping to achieve consistency across all customer touchpoints including physical stores. In its last full-year results, AllSaints posted its fourth consecutive year of growth and announced ambitious overseas expansion plans that include growing international trade to two-thirds of all sales by 2020.

The decision to make William a first-time CEO has undoubtedly paid dividends. Although he has spent the majority of his career in fashion, including roles at Gucci and Burberry prior to joining AllSaints, his route to the top was far from conventional. Indeed William’s hugely varied career has included roles in finance, store operations and digital and stints growing brands in Asia, Europe and North America.

With all of this amazing experience and insight to share, it was a pleasure to welcome William as the host of our roundtable discussion. He began by providing an outlook on the fashion industry as a whole, and where the opportunities and challenges currently lie. He noted that fashion is a very traditional sector in many ways, but one where technology and heightened consumer choice has led to the emergence of countless startups that are threatening operators’ market share. “Whether it’s athleisure or new street brands, all of these startups are engaging consumers in a whole new way,” he said.

William noted that in their role as brand custodians, fashion leaders often fear “losing control” over their brands. He suggested that fashion executives of the future must be willing to open up their brands in order to have a closer dialogue with customers.

This requires brands to find new ways of engaging customers and indeed there was much discussion around the table about the importance of content – and the need to find the right content skills both now and in the future.

Content is becoming one of the primary ways that fashion businesses are reaching younger consumers and establishing what they stand for in a fast-changing world – yet these skills are hard to come by, putting the onus on CEOs and senior executives to develop the right talent pools going forward.

Indeed William described digital platforms as a place “not just to sell clothes but as a medium to connect with customers”. He also argued that leaders should take inspiration from pureplay ecommerce businesses and empower younger members of staff to take on projects regardless of their job seniority.

This elevation of millennial, digital-native staff should be combined with the expertise of management in order to get the right blend of skills and experience, William suggested. This would help to encourage a culture of talent and innovation, while also bringing through the leaders of the future.

This view was shared by some of the other fashion industry executives around the table, including Sian Keane, executive vice president, people at Farfetch. As the discussion turned to the difficulty of finding the right people for the right roles, Sian noted that brands need to look at new platforms that go beyond the more traditional hiring resources. This could include social networks like Instagram, where Farfetch aims to identify some of the most engaging and innovative young people.

Given the speed at which Farfetch is expanding, the business has focused on ensuring values, cultural fit and personal attributes are a priority in the hiring process.“We have hired around 2,000 people in the last five years – with that many people coming into the business it is very important that we focus on values,” said Sian.

A values-based approach is also important as fashion businesses seek executives with a deep understanding of today’s consumers. Indeed Johanna Murphy, global CMO of fashion brand Rag & Bone, highlighted the importance of customer experience in what is becoming an increasingly crowded fashion marketplace.

Affluent luxury customers have always enjoyed greater choice over how they spend their money – and this choice has grown further with the emergence of new startup brands and ecommerce sites. To stand out, fashion CEOs need to be willing to listen to customers and craft experiences that will attract and engage them into the future.

“It is a challenge to generate customer loyalty in the luxury space,” said Johanna. “Customers only have so much time and they have so many other options available to them. We are competing for share of mind and share of time, which is why the customer experience is so important.”

At the end of a very interesting and inspiring discussion, some of the huge changes taking place across the fashion industry had been thrown into sharp relief. It is certainly clear that as the sector changes, business models – and the processes for hiring and nurturing the best talent – are changing considerably too.

@TheMBSGroup | The MBS Group