Leading by design Down Under
Alison Evans credits her early career with Marks and Spencer as the catalyst to an enduring love for all things retail, which now spans over 20 years. After working at Home Retail Group and Argos in the UK, Evans made the move to Australia five years ago. Based in Melbourne, Evans previously worked for brands including Target and Kathmandu, leading their retail operations, before joining global fashion brand Karen Millen.
Currently, the director of Australasia for Karen Millen, Evans jumped at the chance to lead the iconic London fashion label’s brand Down Under. Evans has always loved and worn the label since it first launched on the high street and relished the opportunity to run a label that was close to her heart, with the opportunity to expand her knowledge beyond her retail operations, format and VM expertise.
Her current role also leads marketing, digital and merchandise planning teams, and it’s this diversity of remit that really excites Evans, one day dressed to the nines, hosting a PR event the next, or in a hard hat and high vis vest touring a container ship at the dockyard.
Alison’s passion for retail is all about the people. The buzz of getting it right for customers and the privilege to lead great teams both in-store and the office. A great believer in only being as good as those who surround you.
Designed in London, and with stores in over 60 countries across six continents, Karen Millen is renowned for creating beautifully crafted female fashion. Inspired by couture, Karen Millen’s mission is to create distinctive style-led pieces that resonate with women of all ages and imbue confidence in the wearer.
Inside Retail Weekly: How has business been over the last 12 months for Karen Millen?
Alison Evans: It’s actually been really exciting for us and a real year of change. It’s also been quite challenging. We have a new leadership team in place and as a business have had an unrelenting focus on stabilising our business and returning it to overall profitable growth.
There have been a number of strategic changes made that are having a really positive commercial impact, which is great. We’ve been very focused over the last 12 months on the digital part of our business, which has been revitalised and are actually experiencing significant year-on-year growth digitally.
Another area that we’ve been really focused on is our client-first mentality, which is something that has been introduced under Beth Butterwick’s leadership [global CEO]. We’re seeing a real shift from being just a label that sells a collection of products, into a brand that has its own persona and offers a total brand experience.
So moving from being UK-centric to becoming much more of a global brand and much more client-centric as oppose to product-centric. There’s been a real cultural shift in the organisation over the last 12 months, which has been a fantastic thing to be a part of.
There’s also been a very extensive review of our product offerings and we’re starting to see some really positive outcomes from that in current ranges hitting our stores. We’ve tried really hard to get back to having a confident purpose in our product.
In Australia specifically, we’ve done a lot here in market to set the business up for success in the years ahead. Strategically we have reviewed the bricks-and-mortar proposition for Karen Millen here in Australia, which over the last 12 months – yes has seen us close some stores – but it’s also seen us open and relocate others.
In addition to our presence in Myer we also put our first David Jones concessions.
We are investing heavily in our digital strategy, which is something that’s been done globally, and will be launching imminently onto a new web platform, which I’m super excited about.
We’ve also grown our Karen Millen database here in Australia, with the acquisition of new VIP clients and we’ve done that through a much more social approach to our marketing.
Over the last 12 month, myself and our leadership team have spent a lot of time ensuring that we’ve built a strong team in market. I’m a real believer in the greatest legacy any leader leaves behind them is their team. We have a very collaborative, autonomous approach to how we do business at Karen Millen and for me that really places well, in terms of being able to deliver for our customers, which is our overarching goal.
I’ve worked in retail longer than I care to admit, and I have to say, the calibre of our store teams is very genuine and invested in the Karen Millen brand, all have the desire to please our customers – it’s a real asset and for me having spent a year now with the brand, it’s real retail gold.
IRW:Tell us about KM’s history in Australia and what the brand’s value proposition is.
AE: It’s a global brand, London-based in 60 countries and six continents. The Karen Millen business started out with a roll of white cotton and its shirts were the legacy of where it all started. We’ve been in Australia over eight years, the business actually started out in this market as a franchise business and then we bought it back and it became company-owned again six and a half years ago.
We have our product offering and proposition, our online business here and also have full stores represented in most states. We have outlet stores and concessions present in both Myer and David Jones. That’s the brief history of the brand and while I would say that although it’s nearly a decade-old, brand awareness is something that we’re trying to work really hard on, in terms of that Australian consumer awareness of the brand and what we offer.
We really want to work quite hard in consolidating our position as a key bridge brand – sort of between that high street and luxury – and so building product awareness of our product offer. From a consumer perspective, I think Karen Millen within the Australian market is well-known for its occasion wear offering and particularly dresses, which is the lifeblood category for us. And that’s obviously a strong part of our heritage and what we are about.
One of the things that I’m trying to do is build our credentials in workwear, weekend and relaxed clothing. Because we actually do offer a broad range of clothing options that can meet the requirements of our clients for every event in their lives.
We’re also looking to continue building the presence across our concession portfolio and stores.
AE: We have a very loyal VIP client base here in Australia and as mentioned, have grown that quite substantially in the last 12 months through our approach to social. We’ve found social has played a really important role in driving our brand awareness because of the authenticity that comes with it as well.
Who better to showcase our products and what they stand for than our clients that are genuinely wearing them? That’s worked really well for us. Our brand purpose is all about confidence through distinction and we don’t make any apologies for that, it’s all about making our customers feel confident in everything that they do and that real distinction comes from our atelier ethos.
In our London head office, we have a dedicated in-house atelier and I think that really cements our position as that bridge brand between high street and luxury. The response to our brand has been very positive and those that know our brand are very invested in it.
But for us, it’s really about how we drive that awareness further and as ever, acquire more clients to the brand. I think we know that women today want exceptional style and couture craftsmanship without having to necessarily pay the high end designer prices. That’s really a key area focus for us in terms of fulfilling that need.
In that context, and all the reported ‘toughness of the market’, do you think the fashion sector is simply consolidating and those that don’t really stand for anything are the ones suffering?
IRW: I really do feel that is the key point. For sure, conditions are undeniably tough at the moment, particularly in the discretionary fashion space for sure, we all have to work really hard to grow our businesses.
It’s imperative that the businesses who continue to evolve and succeed in this market are those that genuinely understand who their customer is, and therefore continually evolve their retail model and product offering to make sure that their keeping that customer firmly at the centre of what they do.
I know that can sound simple, but in practice it’s challenging to deliver. From my business, I certainly feel that’s where we are quite well-placed to continue, because we want to continue to be known and deliver great product with fantastic quality that’s completely reflective of what we understand our client wants.
There is that element of product exclusivity customers look for and we continue to respond to that need by introducing unique, limited edition pieces and we’ve seen those resonate really strongly here in the Australian market.
The in-house atelier is a real differentiator for our brand – the sketching, hand painting of prints that they do in-house – I’ve visited it multiple times now and it’s so fabulous to see that, the intricacy of what they do, the amount that is done by hand with our embroidery and lace is so different in today’s market.
Being mindful of sampling and the fitwork they do to ensure that all the adjustments are made is one of the things that Karen Millen is known for.
That is our unique proposition, the design integrity and careful construction of what we do and therefore in many ways, it is true investment dressing. You’ve got to have that differential and really not lose sight of that and then continue to evolve your model to meet the needs of your customer.
Another challenge that I don’t necessarily have the answer to but we do face is navigating how distressed and discount-led the market has become here in Australia. I think having a compelling value proposition and that sort of unique quality-led offering does help in this market. It gives you that differential to encourage clients to not necessarily shop your brand based on getting discounts.
IRW: How important is sustainability for the company and what are some initiatives that the company has embarked on?
AE: Our corporate responsibility strategy is something that is very much developing. It’s continually being reviewed and we have just recently appointed a new role in the business, a sustainability and ethical manager for our company, and that’s literally hot off the press.
One of their first key areas of focus is really pulling together a strategy for our business moving forward. So we are looking at ways to integrate environmental sustainability into what we do, as well as a review of our ethical trade practices and also community enhancements. Those are all areas of key focus for the business. It is early days and a strategy that is developing.
Is Aussie fashion still a season behind global counterparts?
AE: I wouldn’t class it as being a season behind, I would describe it as being seasonally appropriate for market. For us here in Australia, we aim to ensure that the ranges are climatically relevant as best we can.
We also take into account those major events that we know our clients love and are really important to us. A good example of that would obviously be the Spring Racing Carnival, Spring weddings, Christmas parties all of that from an occasion perspective and ensuring that we have all the appropriate options for occasion wear for customers to choose from when they want it.
In relation to the climate aspect, we need to make sure we’re phasing our intakes of product in, in readiness for those shifts. So I think it’s more about being seasonally appropriate.
From a fashion stakes perspective, we are very design-led and like to have unique product offerings, but not necessarily pursuing the latest trends. Therefore that fast fashion immediacy of trends is not quite as relevant for our brands. However, we do bring in unique limited edition fun pieces into the mix of what we offer but we’re also very true to our product DNA and what we know our Karen Millen client looks for.
The other bit, which is great for me here in market, is I do have my own in-country merchandise planning team and their work’s invaluable for me in ensuring that we get the phasing and intake of lines timely to make sure that we do maximise commercial trade periods.
I’m personally working on building the approach to our buy plans for Australia, just to ensure that we do get the right depth on key lines.
We also have a Melbourne-based distribution centre, which is great, particularly for fulfilling products to our online customers as well, so there is some immediacy as well.
IRW: What is KM’s digital strategy and how does e-commerce tie in with that merchandising piece?
AE: We are really focused on delivering a true omnichannel client experience. It’s been part of our growth strategy and plan and something we have invested in globally and in this market.
We are about to launch onto a new web platform here in Australia, which is imminent, and currently designing that website to make sure that it’s reliable, flexible and fully mobile optimised. That will undoubtedly deliver an exceptional customer experience for both our Karen Millen Australia and New Zealand customers.
We are doing that with a known platform that we’re aligning to the global platform – so working with a really agile partner and I’m super excited about that and the opportunities for future growth that it provides in increasing the reach of our brands.
Within the digital strategy, we are really focused on creating content that really adds value, understanding what our customers need, we’ve spent a lot of time on this in the last year.
Through our digital strategy, we’ve been able to give customers more guidance, expertise and a much more personalised experience.
Moving forward, we are starting to do much more online storytelling and then trying to embed some innovative experiences throughout the shopping journey. It’s a really exciting time for our brand in that regard and certainly a part of our business where we’ve been seeing some fantastic growth on the back of the strategy.
What are expansion plans for Karen Millen?
AE: The review over the last 12 months has been about trying to set the brand up for success in the years ahead here in the Australian market.
Directionally in the years to come, there are a couple of key areas of focus for us in regards to expansion. We certainly see further opportunities in the concession space for the brand and that’s an area that we would be looking to expand for the brand.
We will also continue to investigate other digital host sites to have the brand through. Currently, we are on The Iconic and also on the David Jones website. We will review further opportunities there.
We also have our outlet proposition, and currently have one at Melbourne South Wharf DFO. That’s another part of the strategy to look at in terms of expansion, in providing the opportunity to acquire the Karen Millen brand at a really great and acceptable price. There’s also the investment in the digital platform itself and the continued online growth is a major driver of our growth plans in the 3-5 year plan ahead.
IRW: What other initiatives are on the cards?
AE: I want to mention our Women Who Can campaign, which is something we launched a couple of months ago and with some real success. We have a simple mission at Karen Millen, which is about giving women the confidence to be their best self and have done quite a bit of storytelling around products.
What I’m most excited about is we are now starting to share the stories of local Australian women and successful women who are within our client base and KM community.
And so it’s really telling their stories and celebrating strong, dynamic women. Really sharing their successes but also vulnerabilities. From a brand perspective, it’s about the great product we sell, but we also want to have more meaning behind the brand.
The Women Who Can campaign is really starting to open up a two-way conversation between us and our clients and we’re doing that through editorial content and social activations plus also running in-store events.
We held a recent Women Who Can event in our flagship QVB store and partnered with Business Chicks, whose CEO Olivia Ruello was our inaugural woman featured. It’s a global campaign, the opportunity to localise that in market and really drive relevance here in Australia is really important.
For our upcoming and busiest season ahead, which is our Spring racing season, we have an exclusive collaboration with Royal Ascot this year. The exclusive collection is being beautifully crafted and will bring a number of pieces to market. I’m quite excited about bringing in some of the UK heritage from Royal Ascot to the Australian racing community.
We are also going to have some continued range expansions in coming years, building on our proposition from an occasion wear to workwear and into weekend wear. Within workwear we successfully launched an essentials workwear tailoring campaign and there is fabulous product coming through there.
For our Spring Summer season, we are also going to be introducing for the first time, a real high Summer and holiday collection, which obviously for the Australian market is going to be super relevant. That will see new pieces like swimwear brought into our range, cover up for beach and crochet tops.
Final thing I’ll mention for expansion plans is, we are continuing to evolve as a brand from that British women’s fashion brand into a global lifestyle brand and one of the things that will play a key part in that is licensing moving forward. We have gone into partnership with IMG and that will really see that continued range expansion into a much wider range of things like swimwear, leisure, luggage and gifts. So there’s a lot happening in the product space.
IRW: Given your experience across multiple sectors at the likes of Marks & Spencer, Argos, Kathmandu, Target, I’d love to get your comparisons between the UK and Australian markets.
AE: I’ve been in the Australian market five years now and in retail nearly twenty years back in the UK.
The speed of adoption back in the UK for all things digital and mobile was just huge and therefore so was the trajectory of growth of digital in that market. Therefore here in Australia, it’s going to be our biggest area of opportunity for retail in the coming years. From a KM perspective we already trade quite strongly online, so 14 per cent of revenues are online already, which places us quite well.
But if I were to align with the UK on that, our opportunity is double that, to even start to get close to the level they’re hitting. I think that’s probably one big area of difference and therefore massive upside and opportunity for us in the Australian market.
More from my Argos background, is the whole demand and customer expectations in the UK around speed of fulfillment and of products, with same day, one and two hour windows in cities.
So the expectations from the UK are exceptionally high in that space and I genuinely see that it’s already started to happen here, and will become ever more prevalent here in the Australian market. I’m sure will pose some real challenges for many retailers around how to respond to that.
From a Karen Millen viewpoint, between the two markets and my knowledge of both from a consumer perspective, it’s broadly consistent in terms of the women we speak to globally, a modern woman with a very busy lifestyle, so from a product perspective of what sells well in the UK tends to sell well here. The attributes of the best sellers tend to be global.