Style gurus

Fashion headhunters have to combine business brains with a sense of creativity

The likes of Vittorio Radice, Yasmin Yusuf, George Davies and Philip Green are hardly household names. But every time you step into a branch of Marks & Spencer or Top Shop, these people will have had a major say in what you purchase, how much it costs and what you’re likely to buy in the future.

As the creative directors, designers and entrepreneurs behind some of our most popular high street brands, these people are highly sought after – and more often than not, fashion brands now turn to headhunters to ensure they recruit the right combination of creativity and business genius to make their brand successful. Only last month, for example, the executive search company Russell Reynolds was given the high-profile task of finding a new chairman for Marks & Spencer.

So how does headhunting the design gurus who decide what ends up in our shopping baskets compare with other types of recruitment? Sourcing the fashion industry’s top talent involves a lot of the techniques associated with traditional search and selection, but with a distinct twist, according to Mike Sheard, director of search firm MGM International, whose clients range from major high street names to smaller boutique stores such as Fat Face.

‘People aren’t on the move in fashion recruitment. If they’re on the move then they’re in the process of being replaced, and they’re old news’

“In most sectors, everyone’s chasing a tiny pool of talent. But in fashion the pool’s even tinier,” he explains. “They need both commercial nous and flair, and you don’t often find the two together in one person. Searches in other industries are a lot more practical as a lot of the discussion is about technical quality, but knowing someone who has the ‘eye’– recruiting a creative director – is totally different.”

In short, recruiting designers and creative directors is more about intuition than whether the candidate has a certain qualification or track record, as Floriane de Saint Pierre, who runs a fashion and luxury goods headhunting business in Paris, pointed out at a recent fashion conference: “Formulas can be applied to cost-cutting or restructuring. But there is no formula for creating the trendiest pair of jeans around. Thus when we try to find the right person for the right job, we have to go about their recruitment in a non-formulaic way.”


This becomes even more of a challenge when it comes to recruiting whole teams: something Moira Benigson’s firm MBS Group is frequently called upon to do. Her first major assignment, in 1991, was to build the entire executive team for fashion chain French Connection.

“Straight search firms tend to go for functions, whereas we also take into account how people will fit in in the long term,” she says. “We take it as a done deal that they’ll be able to do the job: it’s about cultural fit and building a balanced team.” To help her do this, MBS employs a full-time psychologist who assists on assignments, particularly if the candidate will be driving a major turnaround.

But building teams doesn’t happen overnight. One of MBS’s recent projects was to build the management team at London department store Liberty. The company was asked to recruit a chief executive, buying director, head of retail, design director and head of home products. The whole process took several months and MBS has only just placed the final member of that team.

Keeping one eye on current and upcoming trends is crucial when it comes to search and selection in the fashion industry, and many of the top consultants in the sector have come out of fashion houses or creative backgrounds. At MGM International, for example, a number of Mike Sheard’s consultants have come into recruitment from senior positions at stores such as The Body Shop, River Island and House of Fraser. One of MGM’s associate consultants even used to be on the board at Harrods.

This also means hard work for researchers. According to Moira Benigson, MBS Group employs more researchers to consultants compared with the average headhunter, with four consultants to five researchers and another on the way. And rather than relying on the old boy’s network, Benigson ensures her researchers and consultants are constantly attending conferences and fashion events to brush up on current and future trends in the market.

When it comes to recruiting chief executives or board members though, knowing what will please investors, rather than customers, is more important than an eye for fashion. Beatrice Ballini, country manager for Italy at search firm Russell Reynolds, deliberately decided not to go down the route of hiring creative or artistic directors. “Unless you’ve lived in that world and know these people it’s very difficult to assess their talents and competencies,” she says. Instead, Ballini gets involved in a host of top-level searches for many major retail brands, including advising the team at Russell Reynolds who will be placing the new chairman at Marks & Spencer.

Cutting the cloth

So what are search firms looking for when it comes to finding a high-profile chief executive for a famous brand? “We’re looking for someone with high managerial skills, culture and a passion for innovation. They have to be able to manage several brands at a time and develop the lifecycle of those brands,” says Ballini. And even at chief executive level, they’re still looking for that crucial ingredient: vision. “The most difficult part of the job is to find someone who can combine the business head with the vision,” she adds.

The nature of the fashion industry also means that the candidate flow can be slightly different to other types of recruitment. There is a much greater emphasis placed on proactive search than waiting for the candidates to come looking for a new challenge, and contracts tend to be on a retained, rather than contingency, basis. “People aren’t on the move in fashion recruitment,” points out Benigson of MBS. “If they’re on the move then they’re in the process of being replaced, and they’re old news.”

This means the top fashion headhunters have to follow the careers of their candidates and potential candidates closely if they are to fill the top jobs. For example, MBS was responsible for placing Yasmin Yusuf in one of her first senior roles at womenswear chain Warehouse. Over a period of 10 years, Benigson continued to nurture this relationship and remained in close contact, and was ultimately able to put forward Yusuf for her current role as creative director at Marks & Spencer. This is also crucial for future business, since candidates often become clients.

‘In most sectors, everyone’s chasing a tiny pool of talent. But in fashion the pool’s even tinier. They need both commercial nous and flair, and you don’t often find the two together in one person’

And because the talent pool is so small, searches tend to be far more international. But according to Mike Sheard of MGM, jetsetting to the fashion capitals of Paris, Milan and New York is not always as glamorous as it sounds, and recruiters often have to manage candidates’ expectations of what the fashion world will be like. “Yes, it’s exciting to visit these places. But it’s not always like that. Your candidate could end up trudging round China looking for the best value materials,” he explains.

Either way, recruiting the right person for a fashion brand has a major impact on what we eventually see on the shopfloor. Genevieve Flaven, business development director for Style-Vision, a Paris-based ‘trendspotting’ company, believes getting the recruitment process right can ultimately determine whether a brand survives or dies.

“The big issue is how you create trust with the consumer,” she says. “They change, they’re demanding, they don’t show loyalty. Your brand has to keep changing and the person driving that brand needs to represent that, so your recruitment process should match your brand strategy.”

Just like in football, one bad season can make or break a senior executive in the fashion world. As the recent shake-up at Marks & Spencer has shown, getting the right man for the job is core to pleasing both your customers and investors. Style gurus aren’t just expected to be dedicated followers of fashion; they must actively shape trends before anyone knows anything about them. The headhunter’s job is to be even further ahead, and cherrypick those trendsetters before they even know they have it in them.

are you being served? shopfloor recruitment
Getting the senior executive mix right is one challenge in the fashion industry, but ensuring the people who meet and greet your customers on a daily basis reflect what your brand is all about is another mission altogether.

According to Richard Blythin, operations director of Freedom Recruitment, a retail recruitment agency based in the heart of the west end shopping district in London, this is because shops constantly struggle to find enough shopfloor staff. “It’s one of the most under-resourced marketplaces. There’s a constant shortfall of staff,” he explains. “People don’t tend to go to their career advisers and say ‘I want to work in a shop’, so it doesn’t have a traditional career path as such.”

Most retailers do the bulk of their recruitment directly, through adverts and referrals, adds Blythin. But they still require the services of recruitment agencies to help them overcome staff shortages. Clients often ask Freedom to assist with their in-house recruitment efforts because they simply cannot find enough shop workers. “In some high street shops there is a 100% staff turnover in six months,” says Blythin.

That said, the constant shortage of quality staff in retail means good business for the few recruitment agencies, like Freedom, that target the retail market specifically. “It’s the first market I’ve worked in that’s reasonably recession-proof,” concludes Blythin. “Even in a recession, we still need to buy things, so we’ll always need people to serve us.”

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