The Creative Class | Andy Rogers, Brand Director

Andy Rogers was convinced he was going to become a painter. Instead, a mix of gumption and luck led him to work for a series of luxury and fashion houses, whose identities he helped to define with his unerring creative vision. Here, the branding guru tells BoF how a camp Welsh farmer, Stella McCartney and the rise of the Internet paved the way to his current position as brand director of British sportswear legend Fred Perry.

Andy Rogers | Source: Courtesy photo

LONDON, United Kingdom — It’s hardly the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Bangkok, but there is, in fact, a burgeoning punk scene in the Thai capital. Meanwhile in Copenhagen, fresh-faced boys start Brit-pop inflected bands on what seems like a daily basis. And several time-zones away, local scooter clubs have been known to cruise the streets of Sao Paulo on a roaring fleet of motorbikes. What do the three utterly divergent subgroups have in common? A penchant for wearing a uniform of Fred Perry polo shirts, buttoned all the way to the top, collar turned down.

It is Andy Rogers’ job to know these things. Since being appointed brand director at the storied British label best-known for its laurel-logoed polo shirt, in May of this year, Rogers spends no small part of his days conceiving of ways to harness the die-hard devotion of so-called “superfans” of Fred Perry’s signature product in order to build the company’s brand and, ultimately, drive sales.

“Branding is about exposing the soul of the brand and creating a meaningful, respectful relationship between the customer and the brand and vice versa.”

Rogers isn’t new to the game. He has helped invent (and reinvent) a series of brands since the early 1990s. That almost all of them have been quintessentially British seems like a natural corollary for the born and raised Londoner who says retail is in his blood. “We think of fashion as the exciting part of the industry, but actually it comes down to retail, because you buy fashion from shops. And being English and British — as the phrase says ‘a nation of shopkeepers’ — it’s very inherent in our culture,” Rogers tells BoF.

Rogers cut his teeth as Stella McCartney’s creative point person, who, almost from the label’s inception, worked with the designer to make many of the visual communications choices that helped turn her business into a global brand. He also played a key role in rescuing British retailer Reiss from fashion obscurity and turning it into a profitable premium high street brand.

But what exactly does Rogers do?

The brand director jokingly says he’s a “jack of all trades and master of none.” And indeed, regardless of the title on his business card or what brand he’s working on — he was visual director at Stella McCartney, and brand director at Reiss — the number of decisions that fall into his purview stretch in many directions.

“Branding is about exposing the soul of the brand and creating a meaningful, respectful relationship between the customer and the brand and vice versa. It’s done through dialogue and subtle timing rather than through constant, evasive communication and meaningless content. And today you can do it across all digital touch points, while also allowing the consumer to be able to touch, feel, see and hear the substance of the brand in retail and events,” he says.

In practice, what that means is that Rogers oversees Fred Perry’s marketing, PR, visual merchandising, e-commerce and retail, among other aspects of the business. “First and foremost, I am a creative, so I approach everything from a creative point-of-view, but I also know that unless the right systems and processes are in place, it hampers creativity.”

There was a time when Rogers did not want to have anything to do with brands or retail. “I initially dismissed fashion and swore I would never go into retail after working in shops on Saturdays [as a teenager].” After completing a foundation course at Central St. Martin’s, he trained to be a painter for four years at Winchester School of Art. According to Rogers, this early artistic formation continues to inform his career on a daily basis.

“Art school is about training your eye and understanding, looking at and producing creativity, but beyond that it’s an environment where you learn to talk about your creativity. You can produce anything you want, but you have to be able to communicate and defend why you produced what you produced. I’ve built my career on those two things. Through experience I’ve developed an eye to understand and know what’s good for the brand I’m working for, but an equally important side of my job is then being able to commit to that and communicate it on every level — to my bosses, to the consumer and to my team.”

Rogers was determined to make a living in the art world and did just that for about 2 years. It was only to subsidise his painting practice (“materials are expensive”) that Rogers took a job creating window displays at Simpsons, a department store housed in an exceptional art deco building on Piccadilly.

There, Rogers’ frustration with the retail world quickly returned, as it “never felt innovative enough.” “I could see all the things they were doing wrong.” So in his free time, Rogers created a completely unsolicited advertising campaign for the department store. “I did a real 360-degree view of what I felt Simpsons needed to do to modernise and move themselves forward, and I went into the CEO’s office and left it on his desk.”

Though the campaign was never realised, the CEO loved it, earning the young, eager employee a bonus and, more importantly, the “aha” moment he needed to propel his career in a new direction. “It opened my eyes to looking at a brand differently.”

Rogers went on to work for Asprey, the traditional Bond Street jeweller, where he became the right-hand man to Tom Ellery, who had risen to fame as a retail savant and window display guru for Saks Fifth Avenue and Peter Robinson’s (later Topshop) in the 1960s.

Ellery, whom he indelibly describes as a ‘camp Welsh farmer in his 70s,’ became one of Rogers’ most important mentors. “He was very instinctive about what the brand needed to do to protect its heritage. The touchy-feely things — the window displays, the carpet, the flowers, the lighting, the whole ambiance of the store, the events — we did amazing events when Asprey was owned by the Brunei family.” To wit, when the jewelry house merged with Garrard, Ellery and Rogers covered the length of Bond street with a red carpet, and in 1998, the master and his apprentice were involved in decorating the table for Prince Charles’ 50th birthday at Hampton Court. “I was incredibly privileged to be part of that process at such a young age.”

“But the single most important thing I learned from his was the ability to step away from the project. He smoked a lot and when we were working on a store, we would spend a lot of time looking at the store from the other side of the street while he had a cigarette.”

“He knew how to just direct, which is the hardest thing to do. Sometimes when you’re so immersed in the project and delivering the project, it’s almost like a defence mechanism to not want to look at it from afar, because you might find out that you need to start over. So it’s a real art to know when to step back and ask one-self, ‘am I going in the right direction or do I have to start again?’”

To this date, Rogers has retained the skill to critically zoom in and out of a project at every stage. “I always step away from whatever I am working on, walk around the block and maybe come back and go ‘it’s not right, let’s do it again or change it this way.’ It sometimes means making bold decisions and often ends up costing a lot of money, but ultimately you get a better result for it.”

It was James Seuss, Stella McCartney’s first chief executive, who asked Rogers to come on board at the just-established house in 2001. “Everyone thought I was mad at the time,” he says about leaving Tiffany’s, for whom Rogers worked for 2 years on store planning, to join the newly formed label of a famous but, at the time, relatively unproven name.

He went on to spend seven years working at Stella McCartney, involved in every decision that concerned the image of the young brand. He speaks fondly of this time, which became his main training ground and cemented his reputation as a formidable creative mastermind.

“It was amazing, because since my background was purely creative, Stella would just knock on my door or call me and ask me to be in almost every meeting.” When the house decided to launch a fragrance, for instance, it was Rogers who made sure that the scent — and crucially, its packaging — were in line with the designer’s vision.

Apart from creating the visual identity for several product lines, “I spent a lot of time in the stores, [overseeing]  the ambiance for all the fashion shows, and creating all the packaging.”

My job was to think, “What does a Stella McCartney store look like, feel like, smell like? What colour must it be? Should it have hardwood floors or soft floors? Is it bright or dark? All the things you sometimes take for granted in retail, but are very important. The shows, presentations, booklets, swing tickets, hangers, shopping bags, and so on, they all become the touchpoints of your brand and need to be in sync.”

Apart from honing his craft, at Stella McCartney, Rogers developed a passion for his job that shines through whenever he speaks of it: “I love thinking about all of the nuances of the brand. To make something look like Stella though a piece of aluminium, paint and carpet is very challenging but it’s the part I really love.”

In 2008, Rogers left Stella McCartney to become the brand director at Reiss, a family-owned clothing chain that lacked a real fashion identity. “The opportunity came up and I took a bold leap, it was a really bold leap.”

During his 5-year tenure, Rogers was instrumental in introducing Reiss to a younger, more fashion-conscious audience, while helping the brand, which had been badly hit by the recession, become profitable, an achievement Rogers credits in large part to his decision to leverage the until-then untapped potential of digital media.

“When I joined, online was generating £700,000 (about $1 million at current exchange rates) a year. When I left we were up to £36 million ($56 million),” says Rogers, indicating a staggering increase of over 5000 percent over a period of five years. “I think in the end we proved with Reiss that creative content equals sales — that it could drive profit.”

Now, Rogers is bringing his savvy in discerning and enhancing the unspoken codes of a brand to Fred Perry, and his plans for the heritage-rich sportswear label are no less holistic than his work at his previous workplaces. In a way, Rogers has his job cut out for him.

For a company that’s just over a half century old, Fred Perry has an unusually rich trove of authentic references to draw on, ranging from the various subcultures that have appropriated it — foremost among them the Mod scene of the 1960s, but also skin- and suedeheads, as well as said Thai punks — to the legacy of its namesake founder and 1930s tennis champion; to the label’s long-standing connections to the music industry. There is also the ongoing designer collaboration with Raf Simons, which Rogers says will continue to be a pillar of the brand. But perhaps, more than anything, there’s the rich semantic value of wearing a Fred Perry polo shirt. “The Fred Perry shirt is a part of culture now, you wear it because it defines a certain attitude in you.”

Today, the brand director’s main challenge is: “How do you expand globally and keep the cred?” says Rogers. “My job is essentially to tell a story that feels valid and legitimate, but in the case of Fred Perry the story is already there, so I just have to connect the dots. For me, as brand director, it’s amazing that we have nearly 1.2 million superfans on Facebook who take pictures of themselves wearing the product, that’s completely organic. My challenge is to expose what [these fans] are doing in Moscow, Brazil and Japan to a broader audience on our main site, and to figure out ways for them to engage more [directly with the brand].”

The rise of the Internet and social media has significantly changed the business of branding, says Rogers. “We can be a lot more reactive, we can do something very quickly and reach a lot of people almost immediately if we get it right.”

Instagram, for instance, has had a huge impact on Fred Perry’s business, according to Rogers. “Our superfans, as well as our stores, use it and there’s been an incredible response, it immediately affects sales, because people actually go out and buy a shirt because they’ve seen it in a new way. That’s essential for a brand that relies so much on one key product that really doesn’t change that much season after season.”

Rogers is a bit of a superfan himself. He recently gave his young son his first Fred Perry polo shirt, a fatherly present that was accompanied by an earnest admonition, “If you want to be cool, when you wear it you always have to have the top button done up, and the collar down. And if you wear it that way you get a little nod from [those who know].”

As for advice for those wishing to follow in his footsteps, Rogers says: “I love working with generalists. So my advice is learn as much as you can and look at everything you can. Because in the end, it doesn’t matter where you start your career or education, but you have to have a 360-view of things.”