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How to Make It in High Fashion – Don’t Give the People What They Want

Sarah Crook, CEO Of Christopher Kane, Has Seen The Future Of Luxury.

It’s impossible not to draw breath when you step through the doors of the Christopher Kane flagship store in Mayfair. It may be a paean to minimalism and the glowing properties of Portland stone, but that’s not the first thing you see. Instead it’s the rails popping with acid neon, lace, frills and fringing that set the heart racing. Designed by the architect John Pawson, the store is the perfect blank canvas for Kane’s dazzling collections, and proof of a disruptor fashion brand’s alternative strategy for success in the luxury industry.

The store, which opened a year ago, was one of the first developments overseen by Sarah Crook after she became CEO of Christopher Kane in 2014. After French luxury goods company Kering took a 51% stake in the brand in 2013, it sought out Crook for her modern thinking and challenging approach to the fashion business. Christopher Kane back then was a tiny, British label loaded with cool, but it needed new impetus to become a global player alongside the likes of Chanel and Louis Vuitton. Crook’s leadership is already bearing fruit in this regard.

Capitalising on an ability to move fast and innovate, with an eye on future technologies such as virtual reality and artificial intelligence, Crook is leading the brand fearlessly in to the future. Her brand-building credentials are strong: a nine-year stint at Stella McCartney saw her rise from the business development department to the VP’s office, as Stella McCartney grew from a stealth label for London girls to a dominant global fashion force.

Now she is set to do the same with Christopher Kane, even if the challenges are the toughest she has ever faced. Crook has blended seamlessly into the Kane family business set-up (alongside Christopher is his sister Tammy as main creative collaborator; another sister, Sandra heads up HR).

Luxury is changing, people want something new, they want innovation and change. They don’t want what everyone else has

“The marketplace is constantly changing,” Crook says, “and as a cutting-edge brand, it’s our job not just to keep up, but be ahead.” The fashion industry has exploded globally, and consumers now have thousands of brands to choose from across multiple platforms, with demand and delivery progressing at dizzying speed. “There is just so much product now,” she says, “so for us, the focus has to be on growing desire. It’s not just about giving people what they want when they want it, it’s got to have more value than that.”

Growth remains a challenge, especially since the most accelerated opportunities in recent years have been in the Asia and BRIC markets, where brands like Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Dior spend large marketing budgets. “My priority,” Crook says, “is to ensure we have the right structure to drive the business and build the brand. When you are brand-building, you can be agile and creative in your execution which is important, particularly for a highly creative brand.”

In its vibrant home market, Christopher Kane benefits from being an exciting young brand, but overseas British fashion labels have relied heavily on heritage. Crook sees her brand’s lack of tradition as an advantage. “The meaning of luxury is changing, people want something new, they want innovation and change. They don’t want what everyone else has got.”

Her best advocates are the customers, global ambassadors including style-setters from Alexa Chung to the Duchess of Cambridge. But Crook and Kane himself are fascinated by every kind of woman. Silicon Valley tech queens and pension-fund managers number among the fans, because although the designs are colourful and edgy, the collection is immensely wearable, making podium- and camera-ready dressing a breeze. Regardless of age or life path, the Christopher Kane customer has a common approach: a spirit of adventure and a track record in success. You want to stand out, but look together and on it? Wear Christopher Kane.

This takes careful brand management. “We like to try new things,” says Crook. “We recently held a life-drawing class in store, and we also do talks and private events that give the customer a Christopher Kane experience, not just a product.”
Summer 2016 also sees the launch of the brand’s e-commerce site – “Finally!” Crook exclaims with excitement – which will feature exclusive, limited-edition releases every two months and a non-traditional online shopping experience. “I think the days of turn left for content and right for shopping are over,” says Crook. “What we’ve done is create a world of now. We think customers will come to us knowing exactly what it is they are looking for, so we have made [the site] incredibly easy to navigate. But they are also savvy, so we need to look at what’s coming – the worlds of video, virtual reality and artificial intelligence.”

Innovation is a watchword at Kering, where chairman François-Henri Pinault puts young, unknown designers in charge of bigger brands and makes controversial strategic decisions. After he appointed Hedi Slimane to Yves Saint Laurent, Slimane removed ‘Yves’ from the name and repositioned the brand to much initial criticism, but sales were boosted exponentially. “It’s called freedom within a framework,” says Crook. “There are clear parameters for success, but Kering gives us a level of autonomy where we can define our own individual strategy. It makes it very exciting.”

Crook is one of a group of female fashion bosses who have recently taken the helm at fashion companies: Holli Rogers at Browns Fashion, Stefanie Cartwright at Harvey Nichols, Trino Verkade at Mary Kratantzou. But she is dismissive of this being positive discrimination. “If you look at the fashion industry it’s staffed mostly by women; 70% of our staff here at Christopher Kane are women. The cliché answer to what a woman brings to any role is that she can ‘multitask’, but actually I would be appalled if someone thought I had only got the job because I was a woman. I would hope any woman was appointed solely on merit.”

Perhaps a better question might be what sacrifices are required to make it to the top job, but Crook, “ never set out to be a career woman, it just happened to me.” Her advice for those looking to get into the fashion industry through traditional front-of-house roles is to think again. Taking a business route, as she did, can provide a clear career path as well as all the glamour.

Maybe the clue to her success lies in her fashion advice. What should a female executive be wearing for work these days? Crook laughs, and admits she balked when she arrived at Christopher Kane – her hitherto conservative uniform of black tailoring had kept her stealthily chic. “Stretch yourself,” she says. “That’s what I learned: you can go further than you think.” Advice noted.

Tiffanie Darke is Editor-at-Large of Sunday Times Style and Creative Content Director of The Times, The Sunday Times and The Sun.