LONDON, United Kingdom — Sara Ferrero is one of those once rare but increasingly common fashion executives who spent the early part of their careers outside the fashion industry. After six years at McKinsey & Company, the management consultancy, she entered the fashion business at Furla, the Italian accessories brand. Under her leadership, Furla’s retail sales tripled to over 360 million euros in less than five years.
Last year, Joseph, the London-based fashion retailer, tapped Ferrero as its new CEO, and since then she has been executing on a plan to revive the once-hip chain to its former glory. With more than 120 stores scattered across several countries, and a turnover of over £85 million, the Joseph Group is an important player on the global fashion scene. But in recent years, Joseph had somewhat lost the original excitement that drew the fashion hordes under the brand’s charismatic founder and namesake, Joseph Ettedgui back in the 1970s.
I spoke to Sara at the Joseph showroom to get the inside scoop on her strategy to take Joseph back its roots, starting with its store in London’s Westbourne Grove, which celebrated its official launch during London Fashion Week.
BoF: Why did you decide to take on this challenge now?
There is so much in the essence of this brand. I was actually living here in London in the early 1990′s and at the time, Joseph at Fulham 77 was the place to go if you wanted to be cool. It was known for this kind-of chic take on fashion, with a sophisticated sexual undertone.
When the opportunity arose to join Joseph, I couldn’t resist because, as a former customer, I knew exactly where this business came from and where it needed to return. Even today, amongst most international fashion-savvy customers, there is a brand memory for Joseph as a fashion leader and trend-setter.
Joseph himself was a fashion curator known for bringing the best brands of the time — Alaia, Prada, Marni, Kenzo — together in one-place, carefully selecting the styles from each collection to create an offering that reflected his own distinctive fashion point-of-view . He combined this with the development of great separate pieces under his own name. Eventually Joseph also became known for these basics with a twist, like a great pair of pants. Finally, all of this was delivered all of this within truly impressive retail spaces.
In essence, Joseph invented the idea of the concept store as we know it today — before Colette; before 10 Corso Como.
BoF: So, what happened at Joseph in the intervening years prior to your arrival?
After operating independently for almost 20 years, in the late 1990s Joseph and his brothers (who owned the business together) decided to take on some prominent private investors from France, who bought 50 percent of the equity. In the years after that, the business was diffused a bit and the stores started to lose their special feel.
Then in 2005, Onward Kashiyama, the Japanese company that also owns Jil Sander and GIBO, bought both parties’ stake and Joseph left the business. By now, the stores had become too safe and began to lose the directional point-of-view altogether.
BoF: Now you are trying to re-capture that cool factor. What are your plans to get it back?
There are three elements to my strategy.
First, we needed to find a fashion curator of Joseph’s calibre. For this, I turned to Alain Snege, who previously was a buyer for Colette in Paris. Just like Joseph, Alain has a strong point-of-view, and his direction is now reflected in our stores merchandising and look-and-feel.
Second, we needed to re-energise our retail spaces. We have some amazing locations, on Fulham, Sloane Street, Westbourne Grove, Old Bond Street in London and avenue Montaigne, rue St Honore and boulevard St Germain in Paris, but our stores started to feel boring. We have identified 8 stores which will be completely re-furbished and stocked with products specially selected for their clientele and environment. Each store will look and feel different, but they will all have a strong Joseph point-of-view.
Finally, we will also return to our focus on the Joseph own-label as a place for customers to find great fashion pieces styled together with basics to ensure relevant looks for today but also items that they can turn to time and time again, at prices which are competitive and deliver good value. I expect that our own brand component will compete with new, upcoming Contemporary brands from around the world, like 3.1 Phillip Lim, Alexander Wang and Isabel Marant.
BoF: But admittedly, it’s an odd-time to be relaunching a high-end fashion chain that stocks Balmain and Givenchy, some of the priciest brands on the planet, isn’t it?
To the contrary. Our sales numbers for designer brands are up 67% for Spring/Summer 2009, which reflects our new buying strategy. We sell 2-3 pieces of Balmain, Alaia and Givenchy every day and we have bought more than anyone else in London. Our customers are still spending, although they are certainly being more careful.
What’s more, we are doing special collaborations with many of our brands, including Alexander Wang, David Szeto and Comme des Garcons. We will have product that nobody else will have. On the retail side, we are collaborating with Tom Dixon for the refurbishment of our Bond Street Store opening next Friday. This is not only a commercial effort, we also believe in supporting the creative talents that we believe in, something that Joseph was also known for.
BoF: What about online retail?
Just like our flagship retail stores, the new online presence for Joseph will reflect the fashion point-of-view that we will become known for, and it will be going live soon, so stay tuned!
CEO Talk is BoF’s forum for in-depth discussions with the fashion industry’s global decision makers, conducted by founder and editor-in-chief Imran Amed.
This interview has been edited and condensed.