Creative chiefs are far more than just designers – they play a vital role in making retail the dynamic industry it is. Charlotte Hardie brings nine top names together to find out what drives them

Without creativity, retail would quickly die a death. But amid the daily maelstrom that is sales targets, like-for-likes and market share, it can be easy to forget about the artistic talent that is helping keep the sector alive.

So what do creative directors do? What inspires them? What challenges do they come up against? And, perhaps most importantly, who are they?

Firstly, it’s time to banish misconceptions that might exist among those retailers immersed in the more logistical and less artistic side of the business. Making it to the strategic role of creative director requires far more than a flair for design. As Links of London creative director Elizabeth Galton points out: “You need strong determination. It’s not enough to be a creative. You need a certain amount of grit and business acumen, and I think a lot of young designers need to recognise that.”

A typical career path might involve a promotion from head of design to creative director. And once you reach that level the remit extends far wider than just product. Essentially, these people are the driving force behind everything the customer sees or touches – from product to ad campaigns to packaging. But it varies from one retailer to another – Harrods store image director Mark Briggs’ role is a case in point. He doesn’t oversee product design, but focuses on visual merchandising in-store, with additional responsibility for the creative in-house team and marketing.

One pressure of the role is ensuring the teams strike a fine balance between creativity and commerciality. Oasis creative director Nadia Jones says: “We have to ensure everything we deliver is aspirational, on brand and at the same time will make money.” Briggs agrees. “If I decide to do a promotion that none of our brands wants to buy into, that doesn’t help our advertising sales team,” he says.

Injecting personality and individuality into their work while keeping the customer at the forefront of their minds can be another difficult skill to master. For those who oversee product, there’s also enormous pressure on creative teams not only to devise that next signature best-seller but also to maintain a flow of fresh, exciting designs. As Karen Millen creative director Gemma Metheringham says: “There’s constant demand for newness – but then that’s part of the fun.”

1 SANDY VERDON

CREATIVE DIRECTOR, HOBBS

Inspired by: Books, films, flea markets, people-watching, nature. “I went to the south of France on holiday with my husband and most days I ended up dragging him into vintage shops for inspiration.”

Personal style: “Clean, cut, sharp and unfussy. I love simple, contemporary tailoring.”

Design icons: “Chanel for the cut and attention to detail; Azzedine Alaia for understanding how to make women look fantastic; Nicole Farhi for understated elegance.”

On design: “You need to experiment and push the boundaries, but the most important thing is working within the handwriting of your brand.”

On talent: “It doesn’t matter who actually draws the design, it’s a collective process. I love bringing a talented team of people together and helping develop that talent.”

Having studied for a fashion BA in her home county of Yorkshire, Verdon’s first step into the world of fashion design was at Next, where she focused on knitwear and accessories. In 1989 she moved to French Connection to become design director and after time spent as a consultant in the 1990s became design director at Jaeger in 2000, before being promoted to creative director. Verdon moved to Hobbs in January this year.

2 GEMMA METHERINGHAM

CREATIVE DIRECTOR, KAREN MILLEN

Inspired by: “I love London for people-watching – all the exhibitions, theatre, restaurants and markets.”

Personal style: “I’m an eclectic collector – our house is full of textiles, ceramics, antique kimonos, paintings, drawings, art books and photographs.”

Design icons: “Miuccia Prada – I love the way both Prada and Miu Miu are always designing exciting new ranges that challenge your expectations, and I’m always inspired by the beautiful quality and detail of their clothes.”

On design: “I always dreamed of working in fashion, but I’m not sure I could have envisaged a role as diverse, interesting and challenging as what I do now.”

On creativity: “I think it’s absolutely about nature. Creativity is something you live and breathe and can’t switch off. I find myself thinking about the brand and the range all the time.”

Metheringham started out in Marks & Spencer’s design studio in the late 1980s. She moved to Next in 1990 before joining the Sears Group in 1992 to set up a design studio in the newly acquired Richards chain. She returned to Next in 1996 as design manager, but her ambition to work for a smaller, more aspirational brand led her to Karen Millen in 1999. She became creative director last year.

3 MARK BRIGGS

STORE IMAGE DIRECTOR, HARRODS

Inspired by: “Brainstorming with my creative team.”

Personal style: “I love and appreciate opulence just as much as I love a slick, modern brand.”

Design icons: “What Tom Ford has achieved is outstanding. He’s effortlessly taken famous, successful brands and made them even greater. I also admire Simon Doonan [creative director of Barneys, New York]. He gave that store an identity and its windows are thought-provoking and contentious.”

On design: “I initially studied theatre studies and that was how I got into visual display. I was particularly interested in the idea that through stylish design, you could make things sell.”

On marketing: “It plays a very important role, but some retail businesses don’t understand the visual merchandising and creative point of view. There sometimes ends up being a disconnect between the millions they spend on advertising and the customer journey in the store. It must be seamless.”

Briggs’ first ever job was as a window dresser at Harrods 16 years ago. His background is in visual merchandising and display, but over the past nine years his responsibilities have grown to include the creative in-house team, advertising and marketing.

4 MARK WOODS

CREATIVE DIRECTOR, DEBENHAMS

Inspired by: “It can be anything I see, no matter how irrelevant some people might consider it.”

Personal style: “It’s about realness and relevance, but with aspiration.”

Design icons: “Philippe Starck and Terence Conran – I love designers which are so obviously passionate about their work.”

On design: “The difficulty is balancing design creativity with commerciality. It’s so important to focus on what the customer requires – you can’t let creativity get in the way of that.”

On his career: “The subjectivity of creativity can be frustrating, but the good thing about it is that everyone has an opinion – and a strong one at that.”

Liverpool-born Woods’ background isn’t in design – after failing to realise his ambitions to be a footballer he followed the traditional route into retail by starting out as a retail management trainee. After various roles at retailers including Littlewoods, he moved to Debenhams in 1989, where he became head of retail. He gradually took over increasing creative responsibility and became creative director in 2004. Woods says: “I’ve grown into this role. It might be seen as an unusual route because of my retail background, but I’ve always found the creative side of retail particularly rewarding.”

5 JANET WARDLEY

VISUAL MERCHANDISING DIRECTOR, HARVEY NICHOLS

Inspired by: “I tend to think in pictures, so for me some of my inspiration comes from magazines. I’ve got boxes and boxes of magazine tears.”

Personal style: “Contemporary and clean but with a twist. I like a certain amount of edginess.”

Design icons: “Alexander McQueen. He doesn’t play things safe. Years ago I went to one of his shows in a disused church and all the models wore animal horns.”

On design: “I used to regret not following my dream of becoming a fashion designer but, actually, I still work with fashion and I get to do retail theatre on such a grand scale. Every day is exciting.”

On her career: “It’s not glamorous. Sometimes we have people doing work experience working with us. They think it’s just going to be about making things look pretty. Actually, it can be hard, physical work.”

Wardley originally wanted to be a fashion designer, but she says: “My parents didn’t think there were enough jobs in it.” So instead she went to college to study display and design. Her early career was spent at DH Evans and Chelsea Girl and as a freelancer, before landing a role as display manager for Warehouse. She moved to Harvey Nichols 12 years ago, working alongside then marketing and display director Mary Portas.

6 NADIA JONES

CREATIVE DIRECTOR, OASIS

Inspired by: anything vintage, and photo shoots in aspirational magazines. “They take you on a flight of fancy.”

Personal style: “It’s a mix of vintage and modern. At Oasis I’m particularly proud of our New Vintage range. We took vintage and replicated it in short runs for the modern day. It’s been one of our biggest successes.”

Design icons: “I really admire Vanessa Bruno for understated fashion and I love Arne Jacobsen [Danish architect and designer]. I’m half Danish – his furniture reminds me of my childhood.”

On design: “At college my tutor once told me that to be a designer you need to have a sixth sense. You can’t learn that.”

On her career: “I’d always wanted to do fashion, but had quite a hard time persuading my dad, who wanted me to do IT.”

After studying fashion at university Jones decided that instead of working abroad for a major fashion label she would make a go of it in the UK. Time spent at a Marks & Spencer supplier in the early 1990s made her realise she wanted to work on the retail side. She moved to Richards in 1993, then Next in 1996. She joined Oasis at design level six years ago.

7 THEO WILLIAMS

CREATIVE DIRECTOR, HABITAT

Inspired by: “Doing anything, going anywhere, trying new things. I love to see shows and museums, but at the same time inspiration can come from walking the aisles of supermarkets looking at colours and techniques.”

Personal style: “Clean and simple with an interesting edge. Creatively, I question many areas – materials, cost, ergonomics – and push ideas to maximise their potential.”

Design icons: “I particularly admire those who have created a defining style and identity.”

On design: “The more experience you have, the greater the responsibility to nurture creativity and transfer that into decision making, taking into account factors such as environmental concerns, commerciality and desirability.”

On his career: “I always knew I would have a creative career. The 14 years I spent in Milan taught me an enormous amount about products, materials and manufacturing. It was a constant progression of ideas fuelled by a passion for aesthetic and design.”

After graduating with a degree in industrial design, Williams moved to Milan to work in the studios of Italian designers Marco Zanuso and Aldo Cibic. He later opened his own studio, working in all areas of industrial design, furniture, graphics and packaging. In 2004 he moved to Amsterdam to join Mexx as design director, and relocated to London to join Habitat last October.

8 ELIZABETH GALTON

CREATIVE DIRECTOR, LINKS OF LONDON

Inspired by: “Anything and everything. I’m a fanatical scuba diver and a sports junkie, but you can find inspiration just from walking down the street.”

Personal style: “Sculptural, bold and quint-essentially British.”

Design icons: “Alexander McQueen and John Galliano for avant-garde designs, the glass artist Dale Chihuly for his use of colour and form and Anna Piaggi, Isabella Blow and Daphne Guinness for their extravagant, iconic styles.”

On design: “You’re only as good as your last collection. The challenge is to find the next best-seller. You’ve got to keep thinking about what the next iconic product will be.”

On creativity: “Creatives are sensitive souls. You need to nurture their strengths.”

Galton ran her own jewellery brand for 10 years, focusing on high fashion jewellery, couture and catwalk projects. In 2005 she secured investment funding on the TV series Dragons’ Den to help grow her business and was shortlisted as UK Jewellery Designer of the Year at the UK Retail Jewellery Awards in 2006 and 2007. She joined Links of London in March this year with a remit to “develop a new look with more statement and bolder pieces”.

9 JOHN FRANCOMB

CREATIVE DIRECTOR, TM LEWIN

Inspired by: “Classical design and tradition.”

Personal style: “I like form and function. I don’t particularly like the word fashion. It suggests something ephemeral.”

Design icon: “Sir Norman Foster. His architectural designs are stylish and relevant for today, whilst also being functional and long-lasting – rather like a well-cut suit, which needs nothing more than to be expertly made from quality cloth.”

On design: “I trained to be an actor and got into designing and making costumes. I was fascinated by the engineering element of design; the fact that a flat piece of material can be turned into fabulous garment.”

On his career: “The general impression is that being a creative director is all about going to shows and reading magazines all day. I can assure you that it’s not – there’s far more to it than that.”

After realising office jobs weren’t for him – “I used to change my jobs once a year, whereas I’ve been at TM Lewin for 20-odd years, so something’s certainly keeping me interested” – Francomb studied for a BTEC in fashion and design. One of his first jobs was a sample cutter for Zandra Rhodes. In 1982 he set up his own fashion house – Asquith Brown, which was bought by TM Lewin in 1987.

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