LONDON — Holli Rogers’ career took an intriguing turn in 2015 when she was named chief executive officer of Browns, the landmark retailer famous for introducing big designer brands — and young, homegrown talent — to London starting in the Seventies.
The longtime fashion director of Net-a-porter.com and an architect of that site’s success, Rogers was all about online retail. While she had worked in the past for Neiman Marcus and Chanel ready-to-wear, her experience with brick-and-mortar retailing was limited.
And Browns wasn’t any old store: Founded by the Burstein family in 1970, Browns was a London institution and its beating heart was Joan Burstein, known as Mrs. B, who for decades took risks on young talents including John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan after introducing the likes of Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani and Missoni to the U.K. market.
A little more than two years ago, Browns’ new owner José Neves, founder of the online fashion retail platform Farfetch.com, set Rogers up for the challenge of creating a luxury specialty store of the future, one that could shift seamlessly between shop floor and e-commerce site, and serve its customers better without losing its quirky charm.
So far Rogers, a Texas native, has been working with the Farfetch team on improving back-office technologies such as stockkeeping, warehousing, customer service and delivery. She’s also introduced new branding and relaunched the web site with a chatty, colloquial tone and imagery inspired more by Instagram than glossy magazines.
Today, most of Browns’ revenue is generated online — with the balance from the South Molton Street and Sloane Street stores — and sales growth overall has tripled year-on-year.
Here, Rogers talks about the challenges of unifying different sales channels and handling a heritage retailer with care.
WWD: This summer alone Matchesfashion.com was sold to Apax Partners at a reported valuation of $1 billion, while Colette revealed plans to shut its Paris store. What does that say about the state of multichannel fashion retail right now?
Holli Rogers: Colette leaving that space just kills me, to be honest, because I remember going there when it first opened. You had to go. It was so important. And every time I came to Paris for work, it was, like, “Let’s go see what they’re doing.” For me, to our industry, it is devastating to see it leave that space. Interestingly enough, you hear it more and more that the physical space is actually very, very important to consumers, it’s just what you do with that space. It’s the experiential nature of how you engage your customers in a different way, rather than just slapping a bunch of racks in a room.
The Matches valuation was amazing — and where it is all moving right now. All of these stores for the most part have always existed, but they now have an online presence, which means they are omnipresent. They are now at your fingertips — I think that’s what’s really changed. And with social media, you also have that instant availability of what people are wearing on the streets and you are able to talk directly to customers as new products arrive.
WWD: Browns has introduced a number of changes over the past year with the aim of knitting together online and off-line. How has it all been going?
H.R.: We have been laying the foundations. We now have a web site that is global, we have geo-pricing, a great customer care team. All of these things were more about foundation laying than actually innovating. Now I am trying to align the online and off-line, which is probably one of the bigger steps for us as a company. How do you talk to the consumer through all these different channels and try to have a unified voice? It is also about how you align the visual imagery that you are using in-store and online. You want to ensure there is a common thread through the whole journey, no matter where you come into that journey. We’re still definitely in the early stages of that, but we’re getting there.
WWD: What other changes have you made?
H.R.: On a more technical level, we have started using RFID [radio-frequency identification] in the store and it is more about understanding where the stock is than for security, but we will definitely move into using it from the security side. Obviously, there are challenges. The South Molton Street store is located in five different town houses so we are trying new things to see how we can scale them. RFID has also been great in terms of customer service. How can we find this pair of shoes faster and get them to the customer? We have implemented stock runners and RFID, so the salesperson doesn’t have to leave the customer’s side. The salespeople all love it because they don’t have to dig around in the stockroom and we like it because it is more tidy. It is a bit of a buzz kill, as a customer, when you’re like: “Have they found my shoes? Or should I cut and run? I’m getting bored.” We are starting to layer in the technology piece a bit more into the customer experience in the store.
WWD: What’s the ultimate goal of all these developments?
H.R.: Bringing it all together and making it come full circle for the customer, no matter where he or she is. If they have been at home putting a bunch of stuff on their wish list and they want to come into the store and try it on, you can accommodate that. If they allow you access to their wish list, you can see what they are going to look at. Because you know the stock, you can complement things they have chosen with things they haven’t. It’s all about how you bring all of that together. It’s a cyclical journey.
WWD: Where is there room for growth at Browns?
H.R.: It’s still a relatively small number of people who are purchasing online. In terms of the luxury industry, there is so much more that can be done in that space. I think the great thing about online is that you can inspire people globally, you can talk to all different kinds of people, and that is really democratic. People aren’t afraid and that is the beauty of it. You can inspire through content and a couple of different mediums, but nothing replaces human contact. Now that I have been around a physical store for the last two years, it has been super fascinating because you see this connection that you can have with the consumer.
People talk about the energy that is in the store space, which is something that you cannot replicate online. You always have to have people around to generate energy. I think that is an important element of what we are doing — energy. We all get quite emotional about fashion and I think it is why we all exist in this space, too. It keeps you going and it keeps you excited. In our South Molton Street store, some sales associates have worked there for 25 years and some of them are brand new, but they all have passion and they love helping people. They make such a difference when connecting with people.
WWD: You’re bringing back some of the labels that Browns made famous in the U.K., in particular Calvin Klein and Prada. Why?
H.R.: When Browns started, we were the only store that sold these sorts of products. Bond Street, as we know it, didn’t really exist to the same degree. Mount Street didn’t exist. As the brands started to open up their own stores, they obviously wanted to keep the distribution to themselves and some of them left. It is interesting now that they understand the importance of working in a multibranded environment and the value it adds from a marketing and exposure perspective. There is always going to be an overlap of customers, but you have a customer who will come to Browns and who maybe will not go to another store and that is where the brands see the value.
WWD: How have you bought Calvin and Prada?
H.R.: We bought them with the Browns’ eye. In both cases, both men’s and women’s, we have been having this real dialogue between the two teams about this idea of gender blending. What can we have from the men’s side of the table that actually can suit women as well? It is kind of taking up that holistic view on the brands, but also talking to the really feminine pieces, in particular at Prada.
WWD: Can you talk a little more about gender blending?
H.R.: So many of the people I work with at Browns are shopping in the men’s store and I kind of love that idea. I started seeing men shopping in the women’s store and when you look at the Gucci show or at Saint Laurent, all these things are the same products in a lot of cases. I just bought a Gucci suit, which also exists in men’s, except that it’s in a different color. It feels really relevant to what is going on. Brands have adopted it in a meaningful way and it’s really taken hold. I don’t think it’s going anywhere.
WWD: Are there any other old Browns brands on your wish list?
H.R.: The one I was going to start talking to was Dior because we did have Dior at one point and I need to speak to them again. At the end of the day it is about the designs they have going on, as opposed to a heritage piece of it. It is always really nice to go back to brands that you have a relationship with.
WWD: You’ve re-branded the store and relaunched the web site. Can you talk a little bit about why you chose to move away from a magazine-style layout?
H.R.: That is what Net-a-porter started with, that was the premise, and it kind of set the tone for everyone else. We relaunched our web site last year, and we don’t follow that same format. As a species, I think we are visually led, which is why Instagram is seeing the success it is seeing. It is about taking that visually led component and making that what we stand for. I didn’t want the site to seem so functional, which is why tone of voice was an important element, too. We asked ourselves “How do you talk to customers in a meaningful way that engages them?” If you are taking someone’s time, you want to give them as much as you can, so they connect with you in the most meaningful way. We have embraced the use of emojis, too, because they are fun. Gifs are also a really important part of what we are doing right now. I think we have got a lot more traffic on the web site than we did last year and the designers are a lot more engaged as well.
WWD: How closely do you work with the team at Farfetch?
H.R.: Very closely. We practically sit on each other’s laps, as a matter of fact. I was brought in to work alongside Sandrine [Deveaux, managing director, Store of the Future at Farfetch]. Then there’s the Black & White team [a Farfetch sister business that operates monobrand e-commerce sites for designer brands]. We sit together to figure out how all of this is going to work in a meaningful way going forward. We’re testing things out, but it’s not technology for the sake of technology but what is going to make sense to the consumer. From a business standpoint, the reach of Farfetch.com is vast. They work with 400 boutiques. Browns went from being very low down in the rank to being one of the top in a relatively short period of time. They talk to a huge, huge audience and I think that has been fantastic.
WWD: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far?
H.R.: Changing the look and feel of Browns and the re-branding. And the challenges of growth, which are good challenges. I am also worried about the Bursteins remaining happy with what we have done. Anytime we make big changes, we call them up, or e-mail them. I completely and utterly respect what they built. When we went through all the re-branding, I wanted to tell them what we were doing and it has been great.
WWD: How would you describe your management style?
H.R.: “Collaborate” is always the word that comes up, but clear and supportive. I have my moments of micromanaging, I’m not going to lie, because I also feel like I know a lot. People do make their own mistakes, but sometimes you can’t afford for them to be too big. For me, it is important to have constant dialogue so that people aren’t scared to do their job. If you’re clear from the beginning what you are trying to achieve, and you recognize the talent and the people you have hired, as long as you are checking back in on your objectives, your strategic objectives, there’s no reason for micromanagement.
WWD: Who are your mentors?
H.R.: All kinds of people. Susanne Tide-Frater, who sits on our board, is amazing to work with. She is a very conceptual thinker when it comes to fashion and very much about new talent. Obviously, Natalie Massenet. She is really great about supporting talent. José has been wonderful to work with. He is a serial entrepreneur and I have learned quite a few things from him.
WWD: What are some of the first questions you ask during a job interview?
H.R.: I usually don’t ask too many questions, I listen to what they have to say. I feel like if you are too leading then it says something about your agenda and not who they are. I am an observer by nature, but then I always have to ask them what designers they like. Who’s your favorite designer? For years and years people would say Marc Jacobs. And I would be like: “Do you mean Marc by Marc, or Marc?” When both brands were going at the same time they could never answer me.