Three years in to her role as CEO of Farfetch-owned Browns, the former Net-a-Porter fashion director reveals how she has rebooted a fashion retail institution.
Holli Rogers has rebooted Browns, the pioneering London designer boutique, and in so doing is redefining multichannel retail.
Since taking the top job in July 2015, two months after it was bought by digital powerhouse Farfetch, she has spearheaded a transformation while honouring Browns’ heritage – from opening its first new bricks-and-mortar store in two decades to rewiring its buying strategy with a technology-driven focus. And the result? Browns declines to reveal exact figures, but Rogers smiles: “100% year-on-year growth, and I don’t see signs of that slowing down.”
As digital disruptor Net-a-Porter’s former fashion director, Rogers knows a thing or two about product. She also knows what modern shoppers want – often before they even know they want it – and how they want to shop. Her insight and innovation combined with the influence and investment of Farfetch means Browns is on to a winner.
“I’m a conductor,” says Rogers in her peppy American lilt of her role as CEO orchestrating the new vision for Browns. She is the stylish face of the company – how many other CEOs pull off a straight-from-the-catwalk combination of Chloé, Céline and Y Project for a Drapers’ photoshoot? But she is also an exacting leader with “perfectionist tendencies, much to the chagrin of some people I work with”, she admits.
It sounds so random, but I just knew I was going to change fashion
Growing up in El Paso, Texas, Rogers always wanted to work in fashion and tried to convince her father she did not need a degree: “I used the example of Bill Gates [the Microsoft founder famously dropped out of Harvard University], but that didn’t work,” she laughs. She graduated in fashion merchandising from the University of North Texas in 1995 and worked on the shop floor at luxury department store Neiman Marcus at its Dallas flagship. After completing a training programme at the retailer, she landed a job in its buying office.
On moving to New York in 1999, she found a job in wholesale, launching Chanel’s ready-to-wear collections in the US.
“At that time, I never had any strict goals,” she recalls. “It sounds so random, but I just knew I was going to change fashion.”
A sudden increase in her rent prompted her to leave New York for London in 2001. After meeting Net-a-Porter founder Natalie Massenet socially, Rogers took a job at the up-and-coming etailer. Net-a-Porter had launched the year before and was attempting to persuade the industry that women would buy luxury fashion online – which was, at the time, unbelievable to some. As assistant retail director, Rogers became its 32nd employee.
“It was an interesting period” at what she affectionately nicknames “Nap”: “We were dealing with global sales, which no one else had dealt with before. Figuring out how to work around the constraints of a global economy – a lot of the brands didn’t think in a global way.
“We used to talk about broadband penetration by country because people didn’t even have wi-fi. It didn’t exist,” she adds, wide eyed.
Rogers quickly rose through the ranks, taking the top product-focused job of fashion director in 2011. Net-a-Porter also accelerated as it rewrote the rulebook for luxury fashion. By the time Rogers left in 2015, revenue had soared 22.8% to £654m for the year to 31 March.
“Now I’ve had time to reflect, it was kind of crazy,” she admits, clearly proud. “I don’t think we even realised what we were doing. A lot of it was intuition. You can have all kinds of historical data, but it’s exactly that. It doesn’t tell you about the future.”
You just go in and buy the most killer pieces from all those brands
“I’ve known Holli since the early years of Net-a-Porter where she brought an expert eye, dedication and creativity which were invaluable to the growth and success of the company,” says Massenet, who is now non-executive co-chairman of Farfetch and was made a dame in 2016 for her services to fashion. “When I heard [Farfetch founder José Neves] had asked Holli to head the iconic Browns, it didn’t surprise me at all. Holli has always had an ability to see ahead of the curve when it comes to understanding the needs of the consumer.”
It was during a sabbatical, after more than a decade at Net-a-Porter, that the Browns job came up in 2015.
“When you run at full tilt for so many years, short of having a nervous breakdown, you need some time out,” confesses Rogers. During a “totally unexpected” lunch with Neves, he told her that Farfetch was planning to buy Browns and he wanted her to run it. “It was a big leap of faith for him as I’d never run a business before,” she admits.
“Holli has a passion for connecting with the customer, providing amazing service and championing talented designers. It is important to us both to create an innovative retail experience while honouring the Browns legacy created by [former owners] the Burstein family,” Neves tell Drapers. “Holli has done a phenomenal job at Browns, taking the business from strength to strength and leading it into a new era.”
Rogers’ first task in re-imagining Browns led her “naturally” to product: “I figured, the stores can look as they do – people will overlook that if you have the greatest product. So, we looked at the assortment and how we could broaden it to talk to a bigger audience.”
The brand list grew from 60 each for men’s and women’s wear, to around 180 in men’s and more than 350 in women’s. The price architecture was stretched, currently selling £20 Ganni socks to a £14,580 Gucci coat.
It’s about taking all of these channels’ best attributes and leveraging them in the best way possible
“You just go in and buy the most killer pieces from all those brands,” she smiles. In three years, menswear has grown from 5% of total sales to around 30%.
However, in keeping with Browns’ renown for supporting young talent, Rogers also buys heavily into emerging names. “I definitely keep that close to my heart. That was a promise to Mrs B [former Browns owner Joan Burstein] that I would never change.”
New York Fashion Week label Sies Marjan, which launched in 2015 and has been stocked by Browns since 2017, is one such brand.
Sies Marjan at New York Fashion Week autumn 18
“Holli is an incredibly smart and shrewd business person with an impeccable taste level,” says Joey Laurenti, Sies Marjan CEO. “However, what makes her so successful is her ability to connect with designer brands on a more personal level.”
Rogers also introduced a total rebranding across every element of Browns – its first in 40 years – and relaunched and replatformed its website in November 2016. Ever pioneering, Browns was an early adopter of digital but, despite having an online presence for more than a decade, only 30% of sales came from its website when Rogers joined.
“I knew the possibility of leveraging the online space if approached in the right manner,” she says. After tackling the product offer, and addressing the “depth and width” of the range, Rogers spearheaded an online overhaul.
A lot of women are not taught that they can be CEOs, and that’s been another reason for me taking the job
“We needed to align the brand image with our [edit of products], so we relaunched brownsfashion.com with a fresh approach to editorial, social integration and functionality,” she says. The website now displays its entire range with an engaging, punchy tone of voice and high-quality, editorial-style imagery. It has worked: in less than three years Rogers has flipped the sales balance to 70% online and 30% in store.
The next big initiative was the opening of Browns East in Shoreditch, east London – the retailer’s first new store in 20 years. It was a departure for Rogers, who had spent much of her career advancing online retail over bricks and mortar.
“I said to José on our second or third meeting [before I’d accepted the job] that I wanted to open another store. I thought it was important and it would give a new life to Browns. And he said, ‘All right, let’s do it’.” Browns East opened in October 2017.
Rogers describes the 4,000 sq ft, two-storey space as the “Nomad project”: “It’s the 21st-century pop-up basically, but I just can’t stand that phrase,” she laughs. “Why can’t a shop be transient? Why can’t it be whatever we want? As long as you know intrinsically what Browns stands for, it can be anything, and anywhere, for any length of time. The whole idea of -cutter retail spaces is very outdated.”
Created in partnership with design practice Brinkworth, the flexible space remodels itself every few weeks, and takes a gender-fluid approach to merchandising. With its in-store café, artworks (which are for sale) and “immersive experience room” for interactive activities and events, Browns East is tapping into demand for retail “experiences”.
Why can’t a shop be transient? Why can’t it be whatever we want?
Packed with integrated technology, lots of which was formed as part of Farfetch’s Store of the Future initiative unveiled in April 2017, it features interactive digital mirrors, RFID (radio-frequency identification) tags and mobile points of sale that enable staff to give a much more personal, intimate level of service. The “infinite shelf” concept gives staff access to Browns’ entire product inventory digitally from the store for 60-minute delivery direct from the warehouse.
Net-a-Porter founder Massenet refers to the shop as “one of the most exciting bricks-and-mortar stores I’ve seen in my career”.
Rogers reveals that the introduction of the RFID tech in particular has brought a “huge” improvement in day-to-day operations: “RFID has cut our stock-take time down significantly and, as we fulfil our web orders from both our physical stores and our warehouse, stock accuracy is key.
“Additionally, sales associates are instantly able to search for available styles and sizes creating a pick list which is then sent through to the stock team. Through this technology, we’re now in a position where we’re able to get the product to the customer faster than ever before. Technology enhances the customer experience whether they realise it or not.”
Roger’s approach to retail, integrating the bricks-and-mortar experience with online via the help of tech, is a big part of her multichannel success: “Technology coupled with efficiency and experience are what’s driving retail forward today. You need to engage the customer in different ways. For us, it’s about taking all of these channels’ best attributes and leveraging them in the best way possible.”
She now sees stores as “showrooms” in which product can “rotate” in and out, and, having achieved this at Browns East, she is in the process of remodelling the famous flagship, a row of four former townhouses on central London’s South Molton Street, to reflect this new approach. Browns’ Sloane Street store closed in 2017.
Looking to the future, Rogers says things will become “bigger and brighter”, teasing, “I think you’ll see [new store concept] Nomads popping up all over the place.”
When asked how it feels to be head of Browns, Rogers says she is “very happy” but admits calling herself a CEO still “freaks her out”: “I think, unfortunately, a lot of women are not taught that they can be CEOs, and that’s been another reason for me taking the job to be honest. I want to be an example for women.”