Friday, July 17, 2015

New York Fashion Cool-Aid™

FGI Tastemakers: Pamela Baxter & Rose Marie Bravo

Pamela Baxter,  Margaret Hayes & Rose Marie Bravo
Photos: Bruce Borner, FGI

Pamela Baxter has always known what she wants and how to get it. As a young girl growing up in South Dakota she worked on her family's ranch to get money for school clothes. As a 12-year-old Vogue reader, she decided to place a phone order for a pair of black patent shoes with a zipper that she had spied amongst the magazine's pages. When they were delivered C.O.D. her father paid the postman, then sent her to her room with the warning that she would be working all summer to pay for the fancy footwear. That "passion for fashion" along with the work ethic instilled in her by her family, is what propelled her from Mobridge, S.D., population 5,000, to Paris and New York and eventually to become President and CEO of LVMH Perfumes and Cosmetics for Christian Dior.

Ms. Baxter and Rose Marie Bravo, Vice Chairman and former CEO of Burberry, Inc. were the draw at a Fashion Group International (FGI)Tastemakers breakfast at the 21 Club on Wednesday morning. Both of these top women executives in the fashion and beauty industry shared their experiences in shaping and branding of their respective companies however Bravo served the function of interviewer to Baxter's interviewee.  The event was well attended by many retail fashion and beauty executives including Linda Fargo of Bergdorf Goodman.

Baxter's dream out of school was to become a makeup artist which she did, working at a Seattle department store. She sold a car that her mother had bought her in exchange for an airline ticket to New York,  in order to interview for a national Makeup Artist program for Charles of the Ritz. She stayed at the New York Hilton and, as she tells it, "Thank God I got that job!" Her mother of course chided her for being "so stupid, so irresponsible." At Charles of the Ritz which was then part of Lanvin, Baxter learned that the "beauty business is intense and it covers everything that is involved in fashion" namely building a clientele ("clienteling") and importance on space and location. Her next move was to Estee Lauder where she was responsible for introducing Creme de la Mer and launching the Prescriptives brand. "This would have been enough if I had wanted to stay in beauty," she said of her two decades with the Lauder company.

She struggled to find a way to bridge the perceived gap between knowledge of the beauty business and that of fashion, as she attempted to make the transition to a fashion brand. After a lengthy process she eventually came to work for Bernard Arnault (or B.A. as she knows him). "Dior was broken in the US in a bad way and he (Arnault) wanted someone to fix it for him" she said. She started with revamping the beauty side in 2004 and was given "the fashion keys to the kingdom" in 2007. Interestingly, she told a story of how even though she was leaving his employ, Leonard Lauder had her best interest at heart. Upon hearing that she had accepted the Dior job he said, "Young lady, you have no idea what you're getting into. You will need someone to watch your back." She took the VP of Prescriptives with her to Dior with Lauder's blessing.

Working for Dior and living in France, Baxter had to adapt to the French way of doing business. "The French are very analytical and like to debate. They are also slow in making decisions." In short, she heard the word "No" (or "Non") a lot until she "learned to maneuver around it" by reading books about French culture and the educational system. She mentioned that although we live in a very globalized economy the French don't embrace e-commerce particularly at the luxury end. "They are worried about the accessibility of a $5,000 handbag" she said.

When Baxter finally broke through to the other side (meaning the fashion aspect) she realized the importance of the fashion working together with the beauty. "Strong DNA to brand needs to inform all areas of the business. If one gets disconnected, the customer gets confused." As a brand builder who came onboard 11 years ago, "Beauty and fashion were completely separated and not even speaking to each other" she remarked. There were about 500 licenses diluting the brand which Arnault thankfully put an end to. Dior was making logoed canvas handbags at an average price of about $750 when they decided to go back to their roots as a couture house. This was during the Galliano period and subsequent debacle after which Raf Simons came aboard the sinking ship. With his minimalist aesthetic as a menswear designer, not to mention that he'd never done couture, Simons was an unlikely choice who miraculously turned the house around. As for how he is managing his role at Dior, Baxter remarked that she has seen the film "Dior and I" about ten times and she cries each time. She gives credit to Simons for showing his vulnerability and to the company for allowing him to do so. "It really does give a heart and soul to the company" she said.

Speaking of couture, it is apparently alive and well. "We have about 20 new couture clients and they are younger, in their 30's and 40's. They're not just buying gowns but also dresses and suits."  The number one place that new clients are coming from is Asia followed by the Middle East however Baxter also said there were a few from the States, especially Texas. She added that there are about 250 workers in the Couture department and many of them are young people in their 20s, which is perhaps not what you would expect.

When asked by an audience member how Baxter (a grandmother) juggles it all, her answer was "I don't think about it. You just figure it out." As a shout-out to some of the young women executives in the audience trying to get ahead in the industry while raising young children she told them not to worry: "Mothers are always more organized because they have to be."

- Laurel Marcus

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