As part of International Women's Day 2021, Ragtrader is celebrating the incredible women who make up Australia's fashion industry. Imogen Bailey speaks to three fashion leaders who took on new roles during the pandemic.
Think about when you first got the job you’re in now.
Remember the nervousness, the anticipation and the excitement for new challenges and learning opportunities.
Now throw in a global pandemic and the disruption that goes along with it.
That’s what Kathmandu’s first chief customer officer Eva Barrett found herself in.
Taking on the role after serving as global head of brand communications and sports marketing for Adidas’ Heartbeat Sports division, Barrett hit the ground running.
Within months of her appointment she forged a partnership with Uber that allows customers able to order and receive their goods on the same day.
The partnership capitalised on Kathmandu’s accelerated digital performance during the pandemic, which saw it deliver NZ$106.4 million in sales – a 63% increase – in FY20.
Barrett says that the partnership was made possible due to a reduction of barriers in the decision-making process, which has become prevalent during the pandemic.
“COVID has accelerated the decision-making process because of the expectation from the customer.
“So being very customer-first during COVID, we’ve all been looking at what’s been happening with traditional post suppliers and why does it take so long for deliveries to be made. That’s why we came up with the Uber partnership.
“When we looked at our customers, we thought, ‘it’s winter, it’s cold. If a customer wants to get a jacket in a couple of hours why do they need to wait a week or two because of the delays?’
“So all of that came together by looking at customer insights and I think there will be more and more of that.
“’How do we make the experience better for customers? How do we accelerate and keep on accelerating some of those decisions?’ I think that agility and that innovation will absolutely continue,” she says.
For Hush Puppies general manager, Charlene Perera, taking on the Clarks brand during the pandemic is exactly the kind of challenge she was looking for.
“I’ve been doing Hush Puppies for about five years now and in the last 18 months finished my MBA.
“I had already been thinking about the fact I needed to take on more which is kind of what led me to do my MBA in the first place, to prepare myself for something bigger.
“Then all things COVID happened and we had quite a lot of change across the business and that’s when I was approached by our CEO who said, ‘would you be interested in taking Clarks into your portfolio?’
“I was very excited because I love working with these heritage brands and I think it’s such an honour to look after brands like these,” she says.
However, the transition into the role proved to be interesting, as Perera had to take on a larger team and learn the ins and outs of Clarks, all while working remotely.
“It’s been such an interesting transition because I haven’t even been in the same room as my whole team yet so that’s been a challenge in itself,” she explains.
“In terms of how that changed my day-to-day, my team has more than doubled and whilst there’s brand similarities in terms of operations and how we do things, I’ve also had to really learn new areas.
“So on top of bringing the two brands together under my leadership, I’ve also then brought in retail operations and also our digital channels which is now in- brand.
“That’s a new area – not to learn because I’ve obviously been across it – but to have it reporting in means I need to have a different level of understanding,” she says.
Recently appointed Honey Birdette CEO Kim Kidd echoes Perera’s sentiments around learning new areas of operations when taking a higher leadership position.
Moving from CFO to CEO in 2020, Kidd had to become a jack of all trades, rather than a master of one. Charlene Perera
“Although my background’s always been CFO, I’ve always managed a number of different departments and had an interest in the wider company,” she says.
“I was very hands on, very in the detail and knew finance accounting and all my departments inside out and becoming CEO is almost like starting again.
“I think the biggest change is learning to spread yourself out and become a generalist.
“Although you need to be in the detail, you have to make sure that you can take every single department to a higher level,” she says.
And she has done just that.
Since taking on the role, Kidd rolled out individual in-store appointments to Honey Birdette’s store network. Recognising the need for a safe and socially distant way to shop during the pandemic, the strategy saw in-store appointments grow to contribute 15-20% of the business’ direct sales revenue.
“Our appointments basically started off almost as a necessity where we were asking ourselves, ‘how can we open quickly? How can we make sure that we’re social distancing and that we’re meeting the capacity requirements of the store?,” Kidd explains.
“So we thought about the customer journey right now and any anxieties that they might be having.
“We thought about the fact that they’re at home all the time so they’re not really buying things or going on holiday.
“The word ‘safe’ also took on this new meaning of, ‘you can come in, you can explore, you can be yourself, you can take as much time as you like,’” she says.
But it’s not just the work that’s changed during the pandemic, leadership styles have adapted to the new environment too.
Perera says that the work-from-home environment demonstrated to her how important trust and flexibility in a team is.
“Trust is really key, especially in these times. Trust and flexibility are really important.
“I think the thing that I’ve really learned with my leadership is that I just need to be the master generalist and trust my team because they are the experts in their field. I have to lean on them to get the right answers and to move in the right direction.
“So I have to make sure that they feel like they are the experts in their field – which they are – and that I’m there to lead and guide.
“It’s also been really interesting because I really like to bring a team together and build culture by getting to know them professionally and also personally,” she adds.
“I’m lucky with the Clarks team because we have spent a lot of time together but you need to make a much more concerted effort on that when you’re doing it over Zoom,” she says.
Barrett agrees and says that over communication in the work-from-home environment has proven important to the Kathmandu team.
“I think what’s important from a leadership point of view is to communicate as much as possible and even over communicate.
“So right from the start I’ve been very open and honest with the team and every Wednesday morning I hold a virtual huddle.
“Everyone dials in and I can get my complete rundown of what’s happening in the business and how we are tracking.
“But that also allows me to also make sure that managers are checking in on their teams as well.
“How are our people from a mental health point of view? From a safety point of view? Because I think that’s imperative, that we are really looking after our people.
“A lot of people in Melbourne have been going through this for a long time, especially if they’re home schooling their kids and trying to work.
“I really think that compassionate leadership is required. Letting people have that flexibility to home school their children and work when they need to,” she says.