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How I Became… Chief Brand and Content Officer at MatchesFashion

Having entered the industry following a ‘happy accident’ while working on the shop floor of Gap, Jess Christie is now the chief brand officer of a retailer reportedly valued at over $1 billion, following its acquisition by Apax in 2017. Here’s how she did it.
Chief brand officer at MatchesFashion, Jess Christie | Source: Courtesy
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This ‘How I Became’ article has been updated with insights shared by Jess Christie in the BoF Careers webinar series, Building a Career in Fashion, on March 8, 2022.

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Having transitioned from Gap’s shop floor to its in-house PR team while studying English Literature at University College London, Jess Christie moved to luxury fashion PR agency Brower Lewis, representing clients including Jimmy Choo, Anya Hindmarch and Net-a-Porter. There, she met and worked with Tom and Ruth Chapman, the founders of MatchesFashion. After returning to Gap to launch Banana Republic in the UK and Europe, as well as overseeing Gap’s collaborations with the likes of Valentino, Stella McCartney and Pierre Hardy, the Chapmans approached Christie to make the move to Matches.

In 2011, she joined the e-commerce platform as director of global communications. Alongside leading the company’s physical and digital marketing communications, Christie led the launch of the brand’s concept store, 5 Carlos Place, which opened in 2018. Today, she sits on the c-suite as  chief brand and content officer, overseeing a team of 180 in retail, brand marketing, content, design, creative, PR partnerships, visual merchandising, and more. Now, she shares her career advice.

How did your career in fashion begin?

It was a happy accident. When I was younger, I thought that if you wanted to be in fashion, you were a fashion designer, which wasn’t what I was going to do. I ended up studying English, thinking I’d go into journalism, which is fast and dynamic but there was no job security. Every placement I did in journalism was freelance-based but I like the structure of coming in [to work] and buzzing off other people.

I then temped in a PR agency called Hobsbawm Macauley Communications, which did the PR for Vanity Fair, launched Wallpaper and looked after the Booker Prize and the V&A. I loved it — something that uses the skill of writing but more broad and social.

Around that same time, I was working in Gap in High Street Kensington. It was the store from which they did all of the PR, so I stopped working in the shop and I started working in the PR office part-time. That’s what combined the idea of PR and fashion. It was a happy accident.

What would you attribute to getting your first job in fashion?

I was extremely keen and happy to do anything. That’s what I recommend to any interns. My first week in the Gap press office I spent under the stairs in a denim closet, organising piles and piles of denim in a space you could barely stand up in. But I remember thinking, “I’m going to do this really well.” In an interview later on, they asked me about Gap and said, “So what would you do if you had to count socks?” I replied, “I’d count socks.” It doesn’t matter how mundane the task is — do a good job, ask questions, do it well.

It’s not thankless but the point of being brilliant at PR is that you’re behind the scenes.

Some of my initial principles have always stayed the same. You should care at every stage of what you’re doing. Everything you do, you should do it with meaning — and to the best of your ability. That’s also something that I used to think was a problem, that everyone’s weaknesses are also their biggest strengths. The classic is that you care too much. But I’ve ended up feeling that that is a skill, to really care about something.

What is the reality of your day-to-day?

With PR, you travel, you meet incredible people, you go to places that you wouldn’t otherwise go. But it’s not glamorous, fluffy press release pushing and drinking champagne. You will do the most menial things and you have to do them with good grace and care about them as well. The presentation and the communication are also important — how you send someone something, how you speak to somebody.

It’s not thankless but the point of being brilliant at PR is that you’re behind the scenes. If you’ve done a good job, someone else is going to look brilliant, not you. So, you need to understand that too, especially in an age where a lot of people want to have a personal brand. In this role, it’s not about people thinking about you.

It’s important to work out what recognition means to you. What’s going to make you happy? Personally, it makes me happy when things sell. When I first started, if I got a story on a new young designer and that collection then sold really well, that was massive — and it’s not much more complicated than that now. For me, it’s about the success of the business. When we launched Carlos Place last year, the success was seeing the response to it, the amount of people who have come, that halo effect for me is hugely satisfying. It’s the bigger picture.

What is important experience when building a career in PR and marketing?

Try and get different perspectives when you’re starting out in the industry. For me, it was good to do a different degree and that I had done some things with journalism. The more diverse the experience you can get, the better. There’s no hard and fast rule but it’s interesting to experience high street and luxury because both have different points of view. You understand about the final customer of different products. I also worked both in-house and with an agency.

It’s also important to understand how retail works, visual merchandising, what buyers do, the importance of content, the performance, about tech and to know the provenance of what you’re selling. Tom and Ruth Chapman have always believed in the importance of story-telling and relationships. You can’t work with these young designers if you don’t tell their story.

I’m continually impressed when people ask questions. I really like it because you can tell they’re thinking and they’ve listened to ask the question. I would really encourage people to do that more.

Do you have any particular philosophy that guides your career decisions?

Fashion’s not one thing, it’s so many things. You have to have the curiosity to develop your own point of view, and it’s got to keep changing otherwise you don’t have that evolution. You have to keep growing your curiosity as well. I don’t know anyone that has been successful that has stayed still.

You have to respect authenticity. How do you inspire people? For example, we’re never going to do a press day of some rails of some clothes. That’s really the ethos of Carlos Place. What would make you come to an event? Just standing with a glass of champagne in and amongst clothes is really boring.

You build teams of people who bring different skills, who know more than you about certain topics.

When I first came back into the business, we started by doing beautiful dinners, but they were considered, like putting people next to each other who are going to have a good time or choosing a restaurant on the service or the atmosphere. It’s in the details. We also all move way too fast and people are massively overstimulated. You have to force yourself to slow down, to think and challenge yourself.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your position at MatchesFashion?

The most rewarding aspect of my role is how many people I work with across the business. That’s how you come up with inspirational ideas. There’s no way I could sit here and come up with ideas.

You build teams of people who bring different skills, who know more than you about certain topics. You learn from them. For me, that connectivity is really important. I like being challenged, that push pull you get when you’re working with lots of different people. It’s diverse so you are always learning.

As my role expanded, I realised the importance of curiosity and asking questions. That’s what’s great about reading different subjects at university or having other interests. Particularly in fashion with the way that this business is evolving, your interests need to be broader, you need to ask questions and keep learning.

What’s the biggest lesson you learnt that you pass on to your team?

You need to be direct, but with kindness to be constructive. If you have a problem or you don’t understand something, you should say so straight away. This advice came from my mum, who ran Somerset House during her career. I complained about trying to explain information to a new assistant and she said, “But are you actually being clear?”

It’s the advice I always give: never complain about somebody if you haven’t been clear. At Matches, there are no closed doors, no whispering or complaining about people. You’ve got to have the conversation directly, otherwise you can’t move on and that person can’t learn. You also have to have the resilience to be constructive, to learn early on to take criticism and to be self-critical.

The world’s not perfect — we’re moving fast and you’re going to make loads of mistakes. If you did everything that was safe and by the rules, you will never be innovative. Some ideas will work brilliantly, others will not. However, when something goes wrong, it’s not the end of the world but let’s learn from it. What went wrong? Why did that happen? If you don’t take the time to come together to celebrate success but also ask what you could have done better, how will you improve?

What is your advice in advancing a career in the industry?

Keep having that openness to change. If you’re doing a really good job, be challenged to think — how you could do it differently and better? What’s your purpose? What makes you enjoy your job?  That’s a really important part when I’m developing the team — people won’t necessarily just recognise your own brilliance and promote you.

If you can think about how you have the dialogues about what you want, where do you want to stretch, what would you like to do more of. No boss or leader is ever going to be upset by someone usually saying that they want to do more. As you get more experienced, then you open yourself up to keep progressing and evolving in your career.

It’s very important at that entry level, this idea of resilience and being adaptable. You have to embrace the challenge and be ready to adapt and be quite resilient, that if it doesn’t meet your expectations that you can pivot with it, and do that with a sense of curiosity and enjoyment, as opposed to just thinking this is what I signed up for.

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