Frances Russell’s potential move to Amazon would be a departure for the fashion figurehead, after a career on the British high street.

The highly-regarded Russell left her role as womenswear director at Marks & Spencer last August following Steve Rowe’s appointment as head of general merchandise.

One source said that Russell had hankered after the position and was “clearly peeved at being passed over”.

Starting her stint at M&S as lingerie and beauty boss, Russell is understood to have impressed. Lingerie is one of the most important categories for M&S and the retailer has a significant hold on the market.

Her subsequent two-year tenure as womenswear head ended on a high when general merchandise sales increased in the quarter to the end of March 2015 for the first time in 15 quarters.

M&S suede skirt spring 15

M&S suede skirt spring 15

Marks & Spencer’s trend-setting brown suede skirt

She was at the helm when M&S aimed to ramp up its appeal to a younger demographic, with the famed suede skirt making headlines a few months before her departure.

Russell’s clothing expertise has been shaped by the high street.

She previously spent time as brand director of plus-size fashion retailer Evans and menswear specialist Burton, both owned by Arcadia. In fact she started her career at the Burton Group, which she joined as a graduate trainee in 1985, remaining there for 14 years.

Fashion ‘coup’

Although Amazon has not confirmed Russell’s appointment, industry sources are confident she is making the move and one insider regards her hire as a “coup” for the etail giant.

The specific role she might take is not yet known although there has been speculation that she will be responsible for the European roll-out of Amazon’s own-brand line.

The etailer is running various recruitment adverts for own-label development roles in the US and India, and is also looking for a senior product manager for a European private-label business.

Amazon Fashion imaging team at the site of the new studio in London

Amazon Fashion imaging team at the site of the new studio in London

Amazon Fashion imaging team at the site of the new studio in London

Amazon has recently ramped up its fashion credentials, taking on model Suki Waterhouse and blogger Chiara Ferragni as brand ambassadors.

Last year it invested in opening a photography studio in East London which it uses to create both editorial campaigns and stock images of its fashion products.

New challenges

But while Amazon currently stocks fashion from many brands and retailers, including New Look, French Connection, Levi’s and Hugo Boss, creating an own-brand offer is a different challenge altogether. 

Asos has done so masterfully but many in the industry point to the feeling exhibited by some Amazon management that own-brand fashion, with its long lead-times and trend-led strategies, is too much of a departure from the categories in which Amazon excels.

In this sense, Russell will be tested. Not only because she will have to adjust to the different culture of Amazon, but because fashion does not seem to come naturally to the ecommerce giant which has carved out a strong, if not market-leading, position in virtually every other non-food category.

“Given Amazon’s massive clout and resources there’s nothing to say they couldn’t invent a brand and make it worthwhile”

And Amazon has not mastered everything it has tried its hand at. Notable failures include Q&A website Askville and hotel-booking site Amazon Destinations.

So could own-brand clothing also be consigned to the dustbin of Amazon’s history?

“Various British etailers have proved that you don’t have to sell other people’s brands to be a success,” says one industry observer. “Given Amazon’s massive clout and resources there’s nothing to say they couldn’t invent a brand and make it worthwhile.”

“The question of which price point, and the consequent competition around it, remains. It would have to be affordable – the lower to mid of the middle market. And then they can perhaps launch a brand with a price point above that, if the initial brand works out.”

Looking ahead

Amazon’s decision to hire somebody of Russell’s pedigree indicates how serious it is about cracking that market.

While Russell will have a clean sheet to work with, rather than an M&S-sized monster to turn around, she is going to have her work cut out.

But failure in fashion does seem unlikely given Amazon’s ambitions and deep pockets. And if Russell gets it right, she’ll be known as the person that turned Amazon into a fashion force to be reckoned with.