Were she not chief executive of Aquascutum, one of Britain’s most iconic retailers, Kim Winser would have liked to be a Formula One racing driver. But despite her penchant for fast cars, the impeccably dressed blonde is by no means a petrol-head.
In her black-panelled office behind the Regent Street store, Winser is proudly showing off handwritten messages from some of the retailer’s most illustrious customers. Signatures from the likes of Lucille Ball and Jack Lemmon grace the pages of the visitor’s book. On the mantelpiece are photographs of dignitaries, and on the shelf is a framed certificate from Queen Victoria, praising company founder John Emary for his invention of waterproof clothing – the innovation from which Aquascutum (Latin for ‘water shield’) takes its name.
Winser is now steering the retailer through the next stage of its evolution, seeking to take the brand back to the heady days when it was sported by iconic Hollywood actors and influential politicians alike.
“It is a bit like with a car,” she explains. “You can launch a beautiful new Lexus, but it will never be a beautiful Aston Martin. The idea of taking a rich name like Aquascutum, which in my view is very similar to an Aston Martin, and making it desirable and modern, was just irresistible.”
As part of the next stage of her vision, Winser is scouring locations across the globe for a new generation of stores, which she hopes will raise the retailer’s fashion credentials and drive the business back into profit by 2010. The first new store will be on London’s luxury fashion epicentre Bond Street, with stores to follow in catwalk capitals Milan, New York and Paris by the end of next year. Partners in Japan, Hong Kong and India will then roll out the format.
Winser says the decision to expand follows the positive reaction to the Aquascutum autumn/winter 2007 collection, which highlighted modern product and widened the brand’s appeal to a broader customer base. “The reaction was extraordinary,” she enthuses.
Winser is listed at number three in the Wall Street Journal Europe’s rundown of the most successful businesswomen and it is easy to see the shrewd business acumen behind the affable exterior. “I just love the whole excitement of seeing people love shopping, and seeing the carrier bags go out the door,” she says. “I am a retailer through and through. I am a merchant.”
Winser began her retail career selling shoes as a teenager. She was drafted in to run Aquascutum by Japanese owner Renown in 2006, with the aim of turning the stagnating business around by 2010. So far, things are picking up, with sales up 26 per cent year on year in March – despite it being the worst month for clothing sales in eight years, according to the BRC.
Winser cut her teeth at Marks & Spencer. “M&S taught me about brand and brand value and that you must never forget your customer is king and queen,” she says. “They come in with their hard-earned money and want to invest in your business.”
Since joining Aquascutum from Pringle of Scotland, Winser has revamped product, expanded the wholesale division into new markets and delivered store refurbs. She has also injected sex appeal into the retailer’s ad campaigns, which have featured the likes of Pierce Brosnan and Gisele Bündchen. The launch of two sub-brands, the 60s-inspired Aquascutum Ltd for men and the Aquascutum Vintage collection of coats for women, followed. An accessories line will roll out this autumn.
There was “a bit of shock” at Marks & Spencer when Winser resigned to join Pringle. “I was the most senior woman [at M&S] at the time and the turnover of Pringle was less than one sweater that I was buying in Marks & Spencer,” she says. “People thought: ‘Why would you go from this huge area that you operate in with such a progressive career?’ But the idea of running my own business was very exciting and Pringle was a dead business, virtually non-existent, so it was very exciting.”
And it is this attitude that attracted her to the challenge at Aquascutum. With Winser at the steering wheel, it is clear Aquascutum is now going places.
Hitting top gear
Born: 1959 in Helensburgh, Scotland
Educated: Purbrook Grammar School, Hampshire
2006-present: president and chief executive, Aquascutum. Awarded an OBE in 2006 for her contribution to the fashion industry
2000-06: chief executive, Pringle of Scotland 2002: awarded an honorary doctorate by Heriot-Watt University for services to the industry
1977-2000: joined Marks & Spencer as a management trainee. Went on to various roles including executive director for menswear and divisional director of womenswear
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