The Meccas of technology and fashion — Silicon Valley and Fifth Avenue — have little in common. At best, magazine editors and stylists brandished BlackBerrys during runway shows. And as the world evolved to iPhones and Droids, the fashion elite still tucked those distinctive, curved keyboards into their trendy Balenciaga and Fendi bags.
Fashionistas change with the slightest shift of season, but their gadgets remain stubbornly staid.
Meanwhile, in sunny California, the legends of technology — Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg — donned decidedly anti-fashion uniforms, whether a black turtleneck and jeans or an omnipresent hoodie and Adidas sandals. Yes, they built companies that competed on breakneck innovation, but when it came to their wardrobes, they approached fashion with a neglectful sloppiness that bordered on outright disdain.
Their gadgets had up-to-the-minute updates, but their outfits seemed perpetually frozen in the past.
But the worlds of fashion and technology are merging. Bloggers, editors and stylists line the front rows of runways, tapping away on phones clad in chic cases designed by the fashion houses they cover. Meanwhile, technology is branching into wearable devices, such as Dick Tracy-esque smartphone watches and Terminator-style Google Glass.
Even Apple, arguably the most image-conscious of the tech giants, looked outside the Valley to fill replace its head of retail. What it found in Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts, was one of the most successful chief executives in fashion.
The company Jobs co-founded is at a tricky juncture. As a dominant brand, its long-term success lies not in the number of sales of today’s gadgets, but in the set of values its brand represents. Consumers don’t simply buy an iPhone, they buy the image it gives them — because it’s cool, hence they’re cool — as the Mac and PC advertisements subtly convey. Rival products, Apple would like you to believe, are mainstream and thus, decidedly uncool.
Nobody, it seems, wants to be a PC.
But Apple is no longer the hungry wunderkind that projects an image of rebellion. No — it has become the definition of the corporate machine. So it must work harder to keep an allure of exclusivity, even as it broadens its audience base with cheaper devices like the iPhone 5C and iPad Mini.
Apple, though, sends smoke signals on where it hopes to go. By poaching talent like Ahrendts, the company is trying to maintain a sheen of class and elegance while becoming more accessible to more consumers. It’s drawing on the experience of a woman who has made a career understanding the intersection of high-end luxury and down-to-earth accessibility — and she may just turn Apple into a heritage brand of technology.
Not much is known about the 56-year-old Ahrendts, who maintains a decidedly low profile in an industry known for its flamboyant, often mercurial characters. As one of six children born to a small-town businessman and a stay-at-home mom in New Palestine, Indiana, she lived in a cramped four-bedroom house, sewing her own clothes and dreaming of one day working in the fashion industry, according to the Wall Street Journal.
By her own account, she had a modest, Midwestern upbringing, and stayed close to home by enrolling in nearly Ball State University. But the day after her last exam, she bought a one-way ticket bound for New York City to begin what would become a slow 30-year slog up the ladder of the garment industry.
Along the way, she cut her teeth at unglamorous, but enduring, companies, like bra maker Warnerco and officewear staple Liz Claiborne. Not the most chic of labels, nonetheless, they reached a wide audience, and taught her the importance of maintaining a strong brand, and using it to clearly communicate to the right audience.
“From Apple to Starbucks, I love the consistency — knowing that anywhere in the world you can depend on having the same experience in the store or being served a latte with the same taste and in the same cup,” she told Harvard Business Review. “That’s great branding.”
She logged stints at Donna Karan and ritzy retailer Henri Bendel, but the climb wasn’t smooth. According to Forbes, in an industry founded upon massive snobbery, she always felt like an outsider — her background often a sticking point.
“I was a classic Midwesterner — something the Financial Times had fun mocking when I first took the [Burberry] job,” she told Harvard Business Review. But her upbringing also laid a grounded reputation in an industry where egomania runs rampant.
“[Ahrendts] truly doesn’t care about image, about ego, about seeming cool or exclusive, which is virtually unheard of in the fashion world,” Paul Charron, former chairman and CEO of Liz Claiborne who hired her as its merchandising executive in 1998, told the Wall Street Journal. “People want to work for her because she’s completely unadorned and she has a life. She’s all talent and no pretension.”
She used that modest, low-key temperament to understand the way brands could be high-end, yet speak to a broad audience — how to retain prestige and cachet without seeming pretentious or unattainable. It was that talent that Burberry sought when it approached her to become its CEO in 2006.
Ahrendts nearly passed on the job. When her predecessor, Rose Marie Bravo, well-known for guiding Saks Fifth Avenue, was readying her retirement, Ahrendts was one of a short list of candidates to replace her at Burberry. But Ahrendts wasn’t looking for a job. She had a comfortable position at Liz Claiborne, which gave her the time to balance a fulfilling work life, with a husband and three children.
“I had achieved work-life balance, so I thought that was it. It can’t get any better than this,” she told Forbes. “I think that’s why I told [Bravo] ‘no’ the first couple of times because I thought I had it all figured out, and I didn’t want to mess with anything.”
But Bravo persevered, pointing out the lack of women in CEO positions in any industry. It was also a unique opportunity, she said, to take a beloved company to the global stage.
“It’s funny, but to this day, I didn’t take the job because of the opportunity to be a CEO,” Ahrendts said. “I took the job because of the opportunity — because of what I could do for the company, not necessarily because of what the title and the position were. It was more like, ‘Wow, here’s this gem, look what we can do with it’.”
Taking Burberry there would be anything but easy, though. When she arrived, the company was navigating a tricky spot in its long, storied history. Founded in 1856 by Thomas Burberry, a draper’s apprentice who opened his own store in Basingstoke, England, the company was the first to introduce gabardine — a breathable, yet water-resistant, textile weatherproofed and woven into fabric.
Early on, Burberry focused on outdoor attire, cultivating a reputation for rugged authenticity and adventure. In fact, famous explorers, like Ernest Shackleton and Roald Amundsen, wore Burberry on expeditions across Antarctica and to the South Pole. When, in 1914, the British War Office commissioned the company to redesign its officer coats for modern warfare, Burberry invented the trench coat, before, in the 1920s, introducing its now-famous check-pattern.
When Ahrendts took control of Burberry, the company’s reputation as a British institution had taken a beating. The label was commonly associated with “chavs,” or working-class youths from rough-and-tumble neighborhoods. Meanwhile, its pattern was widely counterfeited.
In a problem largely of Burberry’s own doing, its name and pattern were freely licensed to a hodgepodge of merchandisers, who stuck it on everything from dog coats to baseball hats. The result was a diluted brand in danger of standing for everything, yet nothing.
More troubling, there was no consistent vision to unite the company. Ahrendts quickly discovered that separate design teams in different countries worked independently of one another. The iconic trench coat — once a staple in many well-to-do British wardrobes — was manufactured not just in England, but all over the globe, from New Jersey to Germany to Italy, robbing the brand of its heritage as a prime example of British craftsmanship.
Ahrendts brought discipline and cohesion to Burberry. She boldly removed the distinctive plaid design from nearly all its products, and then began the laborious task of rebuilding its reputation from the ground up. She elevated emerging talent Christopher Bailey to design director, making him its “brand czar” and passing all creative decisions through him.
“Great global brands don’t have people all over the world designing and producing all kinds of stuff,” Ahrendts told Harvard Business Review. “It became quite clear that if Burberry was going to be a great, pure, global luxury brand, we had to have one global design director.”
Under the direction of Bailey and guidance of Ahrendts, Burberry began to turn around its fading reputation. Bailey and his team garnered rave reviews, acknowledged for their artful blend of classic design with contemporary commercial dazzle.
Soon, Burberry wasn’t simply keeping up with competition — with Ahrendts at the helm, it led the charge and made headway into a digital realm that few rivals dared to embark upon. Understanding the influence of the Internet, she embraced technology as a critical element of its marketing campaign, and established a strong presence on Facebook and Twitter, among other sites.
Next, she digitized the company’s ornate, historical stores and outdated back-end systems with sleek, modern technology. She and Bailey didn’t merely create an online retail experience, they took the concept of the website and harmonized it with its retail space.
Burberry also expanded to a wider swath of businesses, like beauty, accessories and fragrance — often entry points for consumers with a luxury brand — without losing its prestige. The effect boosted the sheen of Burberry. It comes across as hip and contemporary, while remaining true to its reputation as a practical, down-to-earth brand.
Still, critics question its digital focus, pointing to the low volume of online sales. But Ahrendts views the investment as long-term play. “Sometimes it’s a little frustrating, but at some point, people are going to understand that this is the way you build community,” she told the Wall Street Journal. “One of the important things we’ve accomplished is having Burberry speak to younger people — having it be relevant and modern. This is now the way people connect to brands — how loyalty is built.”
Clearly, though, something is working: under her watch, Burberry tripled its revenue to $3 billion. But beyond the financials, she resurrected a 150-year-old brand for a contemporary audience, boldly positioning it for further success in the next century.
Ahrendts begins her tenure at Apple in mid-2014, but her contribution to the company started earlier, when Burberry used 50 iPhone 5S devices to shoot its runway show.
“The camera was so progressive. Our head of creative media was viewing the capabilities on the camera and were absolutely blown away. They felt it was an opportunity to totally disrupt,” she told Fast Company. “It was about collaboration, but it was even more about how we stay on the forefront.”
Ahrendts inherits a fleet of already-strong Apple stores, famous for its bold interior design and enviable amounts of foot traffic and consumer spending. Spacious and striking, the Fifth Avenue flagship in New York City, for example, mixes glass, concrete and steel into a functional, yet beautiful, destination that tourists mob each day and night.
On average, a single Apple store brings in $13 million in revenue every three months — double the income of luxury jeweler Tiffany & Co., according to Asymco. And from April to the end of June in 2013, Apple stores earned over $4 billion in revenue from 84 million passing visitors, the New York Times reported.
Ahrendts takes over from retail chief John Browett, who lasted just five months at Apple. Her real inheritance comes from predecessor, Ron Johnson, who unsuccessfully tried to apply his successful strategy at Target to Apple.
But Ahrendts faces significant challenges, too. While Apple’s brick-and-mortar stores are well-designed and filled with glamour, its website is relatively staid, changing little since its inception a decade ago. Ahrendts is expected to align in-store and retail experiences, and hone customer service on both ends, much like she did at Burberry.
“I have wanted one person to lead both of these teams for some time,” Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, said in an internal memo, according to the New York Times. “I believe it will better serve our customers, but I had never met anyone whom I felt confident could lead both until I met Angela.”
At Burberry, Ahrendts made successful inroads into China, understanding the nuisances of the critical Asian market that Apple needs to expand in. Her low-key reputation also fits well with Cook, who has shown little tolerance for egotistic personalities, such as former iOS head Scott Forstall, who was unceremoniously ousted for his supposedly arrogant, and often difficult, behavior.
Ahrendts isn’t the only fashion hire by Apple, either. Over the summer, Paul Deneve, former chief executive of French label Yves Saint Laurent, who also helmed Lanvin and Nina Ricci, joined Apple to work on yet unnamed “special projects.” Meanwhile, former J. Crew CEO Mickey Drexler, who famously transformed the struggling sportswear brand into a mass market powerhouse, sits on Apple’s board.
But Ahrendts is unique. She distinguishes herself as the only woman among an Apple leadership team full of designers and engineers. As the only one with experience in luxury, some analysts believe she has the grand vision and savvy, leadership ability to eventually succeed Cook, once he steps down in the distant future.
The idea of Ahrendts leading Apple is an exciting one, not only for the historical significance of a Silicon Valley icon being led by a woman — but for what it portends at a company that purports to “think different.” Some brands endure well after their founders and namesakes pass on the reins, while others quietly fade to the graveyards of fallen, once-dominant companies. Whether at Burberry or Apple, Ahrendts, it seems, has the special skill to adapt a brand to stay relevant, yet remain true to its heritage.
In fashion, it’s easy to create buzz — hire B-list celebrities to sit at shows and lend dresses and accessories to the much-photographed starlets and fashionistas du jour. But it’s hard to build the prestige and durability of heritage brands. They must be, above all, seen as authentic and genuine — an enduring lifestyle and set of values that withstand the chaotic change of fashion.
That means time is needed to build a reputation for solid craftsmanship, superior service and genuine luxury. So it comes as no surprise that heritage brands at, all price points — from high-end Hermes and Louis Vuitton to more accessible Frye and Mulberry — are hundreds of years old. Those decades and centuries spent honing craftsmanship, refining cultures and creating lifestyles, speak their values to loyal customers that pass their products from one generation to the next.
But a counter-balancing act is needed: refreshing a heritage brand to stay relevant to emerging fashions. Not all companies succeed: Levi’s, for example, struggled against trendier denim designers. But under watchful eye of Ahrendts, Burberry has appealed to a younger, exclusive audience, while growing a reputation as an English stalwart with a rich history for beautiful craftsmanship.
Ahrendts recognized the talents of Christopher Bailey, and supported his instinct to integrate technology into design and experience. To go into a Burberry store, or visit their website, is to enter an entire world, one that makes a legacy exciting, vibrant and alive.
The idea of a heritage brand in technology, though, is a relatively unusual concept. In any industry, businesses come and go, but the restless innovation and constant churn of technology seems especially dramatic. Large, seemingly massive companies, like Motorola or BlackBerry, often stumble and fall, before being acquired by rivals or outright sold for scraps.
But if there’s any one company in technology that can endure with a reputation and heritage for craft, elegance and authenticity — and can communicate its values clearly and cleanly with a broad audience — it’s Apple.
Ahrendts brings a unique set of experiences that serve Apple well as it tries to build itself into a prestigious, yet democratic, heritage brand: an ability to develop and communicate quality and luxury while still seeming accessible to all — to be both contemporary and classic at the same time. Those values are in the DNA of Steve Jobs and Apple, and likely Ahrendts, too. She’ll need time to learn the ins and outs of Silicon Valley, but she has shown herself to be a capable team builder, able to recognize and support creative talent, while retaining a strong vision to guide all the moving parts.
Long before Ahrendts joined Apple, she long professed an admiration for the iPhone maker, holding it as a model for her own stewardship of Burberry. “If I look to any company as a model, it’s Apple,” she told the Wall Street Journal in 2010. “They’re a brilliant design company working to create a lifestyle, and that’s the way I see [Burberry].”
She took the Apple blueprint and applied it to Burberry. And now she’s poised to go back to the source, expand on it with her own experiences in heritage and luxury and enlarge it for the next evolution to come. ♦