HONG KONG, China — With her striking looks and impeccable taste, it’s no surprise that Sarah Rutson-Pang is a permanent fixture in the front rows of Paris and Milan. There are countless YouTube tributes dedicated to her inimitable style. And she has become something of a celebrity on street style blogs like Jak & Jil and The Sartorialist.
But her influence goes far beyond the front row appearances and glamorous photos. As the fashion director of the highly influential Hong Kong-based luxury department store Lane Crawford, Rutson-Pang has the important — and sometimes difficult — job of educating and enticing the world’s largest group of luxury consumers: the mainland Chinese.
Before Lane Crawford opened a presence in Beijing in 2007, the mainland’s exposure to fashion brands was largely limited to monobrand boutiques run by luxury giants like Louis Vuitton. But with the growth of multi-brand retail environments like Lane Crawford, things have evolved quickly. “The customer today likes to feel that they are in an environment with a choice of edit across brands, price points and design. It makes for a unique option to personalise themselves outside of a monobrand environment. Edit is everything and, within that, the freedom of options and choices is what the customer enjoys,” says Rutson-Pang.
Rutson-Pang has been passionate about fashion ever since she was a teenager in London. Her own fashion education began with accompanying her stylish mother on shopping trips to Brown’s and hearing the stories of the store’s owner, the now legendary Joan Burstein, or Mrs. B. By the age of 12, she was customising her school uniforms. “I reacted to having a mother that stood out in the crowd and didn’t dress like everyone else,” she says. And by 15, she was spending her weekends on the King’s Road, stocking up on favourites like Body Map and Azzedine Alaïa.
Her first foray into retail came soon after her 16th birthday, when she nabbed a job at Jean Genie, one of retail mogul Sir Phillip Green’s first stores, on Kensington High Street. But when she realised that her salary wouldn’t cover her Alaïa dresses, she joined Marks & Spencer and stayed on for nine years, becoming the company’s senior head buyer.
She describes the experience as perhaps the best possible training ground for her future career. “It was there that the business of fashion started to fascinate me. I was working on the shop floor, seeing what was selling, learning how to move merchandise around. It taught me everything. Running a business, the bottom line. That being said, I was a square peg in a round hole. One day I came in wearing a pair of silver Robert Clergerie shoes and they sent me home!” she laughs.
In 1992, ready for a new adventure, she bought a one-way ticket to Hong Kong where she stumbled upon Lane Crawford. “I walked in and thought ‘Oh my god, what is this dinosaur?’ I didn’t know stores like that still existed. It reminded me of those out-of-town quaint department stores you find in England, but at the same time it felt right. I found out who was in charge and faxed over my CV. That was it,” she says.
With her sharp eye and keen business sense, Rutson-Pang went on to completely transform the Hong Kong retailer, first by launching a contemporary department in the 1990s and again, in 2004, when, returning to Lane Crawford, she was brought on as fashion director to reinvent the company’s image and open their groundbreaking new flagship store at Hong Kong’s ifc mall.
Until this point the role of fashion director had never existed at Lane Crawford, nor any department store in Asia. “[The role] was created for me because I was a merchant and I could realise something that was going to happen before it happened. I had the conviction to know what would be strong, whether it was a designer or trend,” she says.
In addition to being the public face of Lane Crawford, Rutson-Pang’s job involves a lot of behind-the-scenes work. A typical day can consist of anything from strategy meetings and pre- and post-buy meetings to training sales teams and meeting with customers. She is also involved in developing exclusive product collaborations with fashion designers and other creatives, such as Nicola Formichetti, with whom Lane Crawford recently collaborated on a line called Nicopanda.
“It’s about merchandising, but also being a visionary. I am there to make sure that I lead the team to be open to what’s going to be happening next,” she says. “I tell them where I think fashion is moving. It can come from what’s going on around me, be it music or art, or after seeing definitive collections. I remember seeing Christopher Kane years back when he created those t-shirts with screaming Gorillas. Now you see that influence in other designer’s collections. It’s being able to be aware of it — being ahead of the curve is critical. What also keeps me fresh are the people I surround myself with. There are great young people coming up in the company who keep me on it,” she adds.
As someone who is positioned firmly between East and West, Rutson-Pang has also watched with keen interest as Chinese customers have quickly become just as sophisticated as their counterparts in Europe and the US. "When we opened [in China] our top selling brands were McQueen and Rick Owens. It blew out the barometer of what everyone said couldn’t work, or that it was 10 years away. From the outside, everyone says it’s about monobrands or taking the easy option, but we are experiencing something very different [here in China].
“The Chinese customer is proving to be very fast — they have a need and desire for new and now. Exclusive, niche or hard to find brands, brands that are not obviously recognisable, are now a must, even more so in an economy where what people buy is more carefully calculated and money is not wasted. This is becoming very important. They are appreciating their uniqueness. It’s about their own personal luxury and not always following the pack,” she says.
As a result, Rutson-Pang and her team are always looking for new and innovative ways to excite their customers. Case in point is their upcoming collaboration with American contemporary fashion phenomenon J. Crew, which is set to launch its first bricks-and-mortar presence outside North America, in Hong Kong and Beijing, in close partnership with Lane Crawford. “J.Crew has a dynamic offer at an affordable price point. This collaboration is about the momentum of growth in the contemporary market that we have been experiencing for years now,” she says. “It’s so exciting to be the first to collaborate with them in this way — in a multi-channel format — and push the boundaries of retail across Asia with them.”
So, with 27 years of industry experience under her belt, what advice can this seasoned veteran give aspiring fashion directors? “First and foremost, understand it isn’t all about glamour. So many young people today have this fame thing. Just because you are outfitted to the nth degree doesn’t mean you have a valid voice in fashion. You have to prove it. There has to be substance and passion there. You can do this by working on the sales floor, getting your hands dirty and working hard. If I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be in the place I am today. Respect comes with a lot of knowledge and hard work. Don’t expect it to be an outfit.”
“I am offended by people who just talk about what I wear,” she says. “I love my Alaia’s, but I am so much more than that.”
The Creative Class explores the personal and professional stories of leading creatives from across the fashion industry. More stories on Kate Lanphear, Peter Marino, Inez & Vinoodh and others are available here.
Divia Harilela is an associate contributor at The Business of Fashion.