The MT Interview: Kim Winser

Spotted as a potential tennis star at 18, she forsook that dream for another: a career in the retail business. Can she turn around languishing British brand, Aquascutum? Quiet please...

by Emma De Vita
Last Updated: 07 Nov 2013

Inspiring Women 2013

Kim Winser will speak at MT's Inspiring Women conference on November 27, 2013 - click here to find out more.

London Fashion Week has just kicked off, darling. A gritty former Post Office loading bay on London's New Oxford Street is about to host Aquascutum's spring/summer 2007 collection. As high-volume industrial dance music bangs out, around the catwalk mill the capital's fashion crowd, mobiles glued to ears. One woman with green foundation looking like the Wicked Witch of the West slinks in. A few directionally dressed prima donnas air-kiss among the grafitti'd brick pillars.

The celebs arrive, fashionably late. There's the lovely Sophie Ellis-Bextor, an asparagus-thin singer and new face of high street chain Monsoon.

And there's the 'willowy' supermodel Erin O'Connor. She's almost as tall as towering Olympic rower and marginal B-lister James Cracknell, whose shoulders pack out his suit like Mr Incredible. British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman takes her place in the front row - naturally. MT's editor gets row three and sits wondering what to do with the black silk neckerchief in his goody bag.

Amid this whirl stands Kim Winser, the new chief executive of the 155-year-old British label. Tall, tanned and dressed head to toe in black, she carefully greets her guests. Japanese equity firm Kaleido Holdings took a controlling stake in loss-making Aquascutum's owner Renown last year and Winser's boss Takaaki Kawashima has made the trip from Tokyo to see the new collection. There's a lot riding on this.

Queen bee Winser does her bit with aplomb, but you get the feeling that this down-to-earth, 47-year-old single mother is not entirely at home with the sunglasses-wearing, skinny fashion junkies that surround her.

She might feign nonchalance towards celebrity but it's truly not the glamour of the industry that gets her going. With 20 years of M&S under her designer belt, Winser likes nothing better than to get her hands on the collar of a business and give it a good shake. And Aquascutum needs taking by the scruff.

The week before the catwalk show, we meet in Winser's elegant first-floor office above the company's flagship store on Regent Street. Super-cool black-and-white prints of past Aquascutum stars - Peter Sellers, Sophia Loren and Michael Caine, all dressed in its iconic trenchcoat - hang near PA Emma's desk. The heavy wooden furniture and parquet floor lend the antechamber a clubby air.

This understated glamour is reflected in Winser's office, which, until her arrival, was the archive room. Glossy coffee table books (Bauhaus, Armani) are stacked artfully on glass shelves. There's a steel desk, dark leather sofas and a shiny black standard lamp that give the room a masculine feel. On the mantelpiece stand snapshots of Winser with Prince Charles, Princess Anne, Ewan McGregor and Sophie Dahl. A winsome photo of her smiling son is placed on a shelf in direct view of her desk.

'When I first started,' she says, sitting on the edge of her chesterfield, 'my office was over in the City, and I said: "I can't run this business from the City! I have to be here, I have to see the customers."' Knowing her own mind and wanting to be in the thick of things is typical Winser.

'I love it because any time of the day I can just pop out there and I can see what the customers are buying. What you can't learn from this store, it's just really not worth knowing.'

Winser exudes energy. She has a genuine curiosity about the people she meets and is an adept social networker (a necessity for anyone involved in fashion). Her warmth has none of the snootiness of a couture doyenne.

'I really like people. I enjoy learning from virtually everybody.' Her core, however, one suspects, is tough. Indeed, her ability to execute difficult business strategies without putting anyone's nose out of joint is a big part of her success. She herself admitted that while chief executive at Pringle, she 'had to be ruthless. It was like closing the business down and reopening it.'

Aquascutum needs tough love. Renown's ambitious goal is to turn around the loss-making British brand within three years (Aquascutum Ltd suffered a loss of £2.25 million in 2005).

That means doubling sales to £450 million and making a profit. Quite a big challenge, then? 'Yes!' Winser almost yelps before throwing her head back in a hearty laugh. 'Well, I like a big challenge, but in all honesty' - her tone becomes more serious - 'this business can do it.'

Of course, she's been here once before, at knitwear firm Pringle of Scotland, which she spent five years turning from a naff brand beloved by golfers - Nick Faldo was its poster boy - into a modern, luxury label that's worn by the likes of David Beckham. It was a considerable achievement for Winser, though critics point out the uncomfortable fact that the business has still to turn a profit.

Evidence, perhaps, of the limits to how far a British fashion house can be pushed in such a short space of time. True, it happened for Burberry, but can the rest follow suit? 'The Burberry turnaround was very fast,' says Lorna Hall, executive editor at fashion industry magazine Drapers.

'A lot of people got on the back of that, like Pringle and Daks, but you have to have extremely deep pockets to do it really well. Burberry is the market leader because it was first mover. It's much harder for Aquascutum, though that's not to say it couldn't do it well.'

The cash is there, though. Renown is investing between £30 million and £40 million in its three-year turnaround plan for Aquascutum. The only global brand owned by the company, 'it's the jewel in their crown', says Winser. Her strategy centres mainly on three things: expanding Aquascutum's international presence (in particular in the US, with the launch of the New York flagship store); developing a strong accessories line; and revamping the lacklustre image of the brand.

Comparisons with Pringle are inevitable but, says Winser: 'Pringle was a very different challenge. This business is built. We've already got 160 stores in Japan, 94 across Hong Kong and China and 26 in Korea. The collections are already developed. We've done a lot in the past four months, but the products already had a good grounding.'

During her four and a half months at Aquascutum, Winser has been ringing in the changes in a conscious flare of publicity that has included national press, TV (she's had the BBC's Money Programme following her for months), and radio - she jokingly invited the Today programme's John Humphrys to model for the label.

'At the moment, the investment has predominantly been in people,' she says. 'I've brought some extra talent in - they're all people with international experience, luxury experience.' She persuaded her communications director for Pringle to come with her, and has taken on a licensing director and was in the middle of making a senior accessories appointment when we met.

She has also restructured the company's senior executive, bringing together disparate teams and making London the world HQ. 'In the past month, we've put together a brand presentation saying: this is the business, this is who we are, these are our brand values and this is what our clothing must therefore represent. It's really become a true global brand, which is what you have to do for true luxury.'

Aquascutum's first - and current - global marketing campaign is the focal point of the design house's rebranding. Winser's brainchild, it features former James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan, and was shot by fashion photographer Mario Sorrenti. Winser went on the shoot herself and found Brosnan to be 'a true gentleman. He was charming, and I thought: gosh you are so perfect for Aquascutum! All that charm and style and Britishness.' Easy to forget Brosnan is Irish.

This sense of Britishness is key to the company's revival. But it has to be modern British, not stuffy British. Aquascutum's traditional customer is old. Winser wants to attract a younger set with edgy, stylish advertising and a more directional collection that draws on the heritage.

Aquascutum was founded in 1851 by John Emary, the man credited with inventing the first waterproof woollen cloth - hence the name Aquascutum, Latin for 'water shield'. The company, whose Royal warrant from the Queen Mother runs out next year (Winser wants Prince Charles to confer his), developed men's waterproof coats that were soon adopted by soldiers in the First World War. The term 'trenchcoat' was coined. Later on, its high-tech fabrics were worn by Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing when they scaled Mount Everest in 1953. During the '60s and '70s, it became a brand beloved of stars such as Warren Beatty, Peter Sellers and Mia Farrow.

You could almost picture them now, wandering through the glamorous, revamped Regent Street store - which, in the run-up to London Fashion Week, has been decked out with a mock catwalk show. In reality, however, the only customers on the shop floor are an octagenarian German couple. So much for Hollywood.

It took Winser a year to accept Aquascutum's job offer. 'All the time I was at Pringle I was offered various jobs, but I would only do something that I felt really excited and passionate about. I first looked at this and thought, hmmm, very interesting business. But I didn't really know much about it - I hadn't been in the store for 10 years. As I started to investigate, I realised that not only was it a brand that had maintained beautiful values but the potential for the business was substantial.'

Did she have a close confidant with whom she could mull over the offer? 'I talked a little bit, funnily enough, to Bruce Oldfield (the designer). We just sort of chatted and he loves the business, absolutely loves the business.' (This is the only 'absolutely' Winser uses in our conversation together; furthermore, she says 'fabulous' just twice. An Ab Fab Eddie she clearly isn't.)

She continues: 'We were having dinner in San Lorenzo's and in comes Lauren Bacall, and Lauren Bacall was huge within Aquascutum, and she starts chatting to Bruce and I want to tell her that any minute now,' Winser almost shouts with excitement, 'I would be taking the job! It was certainly an omen.'

Winser was born Kim Haresign, in Helensburgh, Scotland, the second of four children. Her father, a petty officer in the Navy, travelled a lot, and so did the family. With her father away for long periods and with little money, her mother would pack the children on the bus for Sunday trips out. 'It wasn't easy but I think we were brought up in a very secure, a very happy home, so everywhere we moved, it didn't matter because we were all together. So there's a security in that and maybe a confidence.'

She was an achiever at school, becoming head girl of the Hampshire grammar school she attended, but not academic, choosing not to go to university.

'I didn't do what the school expected me to do,' she says, rolling her eyes. Instead, she applied to Marks & Spencer's management scheme. But the offer of a job left her with a dilemma. Her passion for tennis had borne fruit at the same time. She'd been spotted by an agent and was given the chance to go to the US to train as a professional. She was only 18.

It was a big decision for a teenager. And you'd expect most to plump for the exciting tennis contract. Not Winser. 'I decided on M&S because I thought I can always play tennis in my free time, whereas really learning about business seemed more exciting. But I remember my parents saying to me: it's your call. I always think we were brought up to be quite responsible, to be able to make tough decisions.'

Winser was married by 21 and divorced by 27, though she's tight-lipped about what went wrong. Her son, aged eight, is the product of a relationship with a former M&S divisional director and it's clear that he doesn't have a daily hand in his son's upbringing.

Is it hard being a single mother? 'It is tough because you get invited to many things and there are times you just wish you could go to three of them in one week,' she says.

She has a live-in nanny in her Berkshire home because she travels so much, and she's conscientious about how much time she spends with her son. 'In four years of him being at school, I've not missed one of his activities, not one sports day, not one parents' evening, not one nativity play,' she says.

Winser makes sure that she spends an hour with her son in the morning before she leaves for work, and an hour with him before she puts him to bed. After that, she might start work again, sometimes carrying on until one in the morning, catching up with business in the US. 'I work exceptionally hard,' she says. 'Too long? No, I'm very disciplined because I'm a single mother, so I have to give full commitment to my son.'

So she's happy with her work/life balance? 'I'm not saying it wouldn't be good for me to play the odd game of tennis myself, but at the moment that's all on hold because my commitment is to my son and to the business.'

With her time already so pressed, it's difficult to imagine Winser with the brood of six children she'd like to have had. 'I'd love to have had one of those big country houses with lots of kids,' she says, laughing.

It's easy to picture her amid the hubbub of a chaotic family. 'But I never found the husband,' she says half-jokingly. Is she still looking for one?

'No comment ...'

Although Winser now runs the Aquascutum show from her eyrie on Regent Street, it's easy to picture her on a Marks & Sparks shopfloor. Her two decades at M&S are an intrinsic part of her makeup. She joined at 18 and over the next 20 years ended up, via childrenswear and menswear, heading the womenswear division. She never covered food, but ironically, her brother rose high in that division before leaving to work for a supplier. She became M&S's youngest-ever and the only woman divisional director. Her impact on the business was considerable: she increased sales in nearly every division she ran.

'I really enjoyed running womenswear,' she says, 'because it was the toughest job. It was in the '90s, when there was a lot of change going on in the high street - Next was coming on board, Zara was arriving, and M&S didn't have that position that everybody has to shop with you.' Winser helped set up the retailer's first designer collection. It was then that she fell pregnant, at 38, and soon after having her son, returned - only to be headhunted by Pringle.

By that time, she'd built up a reputation within the industry. So much so that three years after leaving M&S, she was publicly invited to return as board director of womenswear. She turned it down, clearly enamoured with life beyond her business alma mater.

She recently gave career advice to a conference of young businesspeople at Oxford University. Her words provide a deft insight into her own career approach: 'Be enthusiastic, passionate, come up with ideas, implement them, move forward. If you're in the job or profession that is right for you, that you care about, then you'll shine.'

But as a woman, her climb up the greasy pole was more difficult. She recalls that when she first started her career at M&S, 'it was very unusual to have a senior woman.

I mean, there were no directors, there were no executives, there were no divisional directors that were women.'

She recounts a breakfast board meeting, chaired by Sir Richard Greenbury, CEO of M&S at the time. 'Rick said: "I've got to tell you this joke, especially as there are no women in the room." And I was sat right next to him!' A fact she politely pointed out to him. 'Oh, you're one of the boys,' he replied - and told the joke. Adds Winser: 'I thought: I must wear more interesting dresses; I obviously wear too many pairs of trousers. In a way, it was quite pleasing, because nobody actually saw me as a woman.

'I didn't want promotion because I was a woman or a man or because I was tall or I was short or because I was blonde or I was dark. I just wanted to be seen doing the job I was doing, and if I was doing a great job, then promote me, give me a bigger area so that I can have more impact on the business.'

Of Winser, Greenbury says: 'She is a natural retailer, a good merchant, an easy-going personality. She's a very capable girl.' He put her forward for the main board, but Winser lost out - she was deemed too young and inexperienced and Clara Freeman got the appointment instead. 'I thought she would have been a good addition,' he adds.

M&S had its own impact on Winser and the way she chooses to run her own business. 'The business was always passionate about its brand values.

They were set by (chairman) Lord Sieff and applied to him, his family and every single member of the business ... As a single brand operator you must really have a set of brand values and hold them firm.'

M&S also taught her the importance of hiring only the best people and then properly supporting them. 'One of the most exciting things for me is to get the best out of people,' she explains. 'I don't expect anybody to be the same. I don't employ clones. I like people to have their own complete personalities - I love that - but so long as they achieve the most they can with support, with resource, with direction, with enthusiasm, then I feel really rewarded.'

Back at the catwalk, the lights go down and the models troop out. This is the fourth demi-couture collection (halfway between haute couture and pret-a-porter) for Aquascutum's new designers, Michael Herz and Graeme Fidler, who have 'delved into the archives, deconstructing vintage pieces and reconstructing them with a modern, irreverent twist'.

Vogue's verdict on the show was complimentary, ruling that Herz and Fidler had achieved their aim of creating a silhouette that 'was neither voluminous nor fitted', but 'much straighter'. The collection was made 'interesting by playing with textures, unexpected pleating and Swarovski crystals that made show-stoppers of tunic dresses glittering with embellishment'.

Beautiful though the collection was, it didn't generate the frantic excitement that some of the other, younger British designers created. But that's not Aquascutum's style. The aim is to create eminently wearable, finely made clothes.

Commercial success is what the bottom line demands, not outlandish couture creations.

Winser, recently bestowed with an OBE and rated Europe's third most successful businesswoman by the Wall Street Journal, is confident she can deliver the turnaround that has been asked of her. In the meantime, she prepares for our photoshoot. 'Shall I put my lipstick on?' she asks, turning on the heels of her steep black suede stilettos.


1. Taking Aquascutum into the US - a notable graveyard for British retailers - and making it a success

2. Competing with Burberry in an international luxury market with limited room for British brands

3. Making the company's revival financially sustainable


1959 Born 11 March in Helensburgh, Scotland. Educated at Purbrook Park Grammar School, Hampshire

1977 M&S retail management trainee, rising to merchandiser then executive in menswear and childrenswear

1990 Brooks Brothers and M&S's Canadian operations in buying departments and logistics

1993 Divisional director across the M&S womenswear group

2000 Joins Pringle as chief executive

2003 Non-executive director of the Edrington Group

2005 OBE for services to the fashion industry

2006 Appointed president and CEO of Aquascutum.

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