Stephanie Phair, BFC Chair on harnessing Google, digital plans for LFW, the challenges of Brexit and co-hosting fashion in Downing Street with the Prime Minister
It’s been a very busy weekend for Stephanie Phair, the new Chair of the British Fashion Council. She will attend several scores of shows and events during London Fashion Week; hosted a Mulberry flagship boutique launch dinner on Piccadilly on Friday night and danced at Vogue’s party for Victoria Beckham’s 10th anniversary on Sunday. She will welcome guests at a soiree in the National Gallery for Chinese Internet giant JD.com on Monday; and on Tuesday closes out the London season by co-hosting a gathering in 10 Downing Street with Theresa May.
All of which she will do with her usual aplomb and positive personality. Her BFC appointment this summer marked the latest step in an impressive career. After graduating from Mansfield College at the University of Oxford with a degree in philosophy, politics and economics in the nineties, Phair moved to New York, initially working as PR of Issey Miyake when the great Japanese designer opened a flagship store designed by Frank Gehry. Before then joining Anna Wintour’s Vogue as an editor, her first inclination that fashion “might be her career rather than a temporary job before she went into management consultancy,” she recalls. Phair subsequently moved into fashion technology, rising to become CEO of The Outnet, the discount division of Net-a-Porter, founded by Natalie Massenet, her predecessor as BFC Chair.
In terms of designers, Phair favors Preen, Osman tailoring and the new ideas of Edeline Lee. Though she talks with a plummy Brit accent, Phair was born in Mexico and speaks fluent Spanish and French. Vacations are spent in sunny climes, most recently in Comporta, Portugal, “which reminded me of Punta del Este, where I went to as a kid and where I got married." Phair says she may visit Paris this season, but her main goal is to catch as many designers in London as possible and be highly present.
Many people would argue that Phair has very big shoes to fill, succeeding Massenet, a woman who almost single-handedly revolutionized both fashion and online retailing with her paradigm-busting e-tailing invention. They do come from very similar backgrounds, though Phair strikes one as even more business-minded.
Under Massenet’s guidance and that of the BFC’s longstanding CEO Caroline Rush, Downing Street did hold several cocktails in the past half-decade, though hosted by Samantha Cameron and not her Prime Minister husband David.
We caught up with Phair this weekend in London to discuss her plans for the BFC; her take on the future of fashion; how Brexit might impact London designers and British brands; and the BFC’s new plans with Google.
Tell me about Tuesday’s event in Downing Street?
We are very happy that Number 10 is supporting London Fashion Week. But it will not be just another designer jolly. It’s much more about international trade and we have concentrated on inviting important visiting retailers and editors who have come to London.
With your fashion and technology background, what do you personally hope to bring to the BFC?
I came on board in July, and I have a similar background to Natalie Massenet. I actually joined Natalie when I came to The Outnet, and we built a big business in seven years. After that, I took a year off and then joined Jose Neves at Farfetch, initially as Chief Strategy Officer – meaning concentrating on how to be forward facing, how to harness innovation and link up with start ups, dealing with corporates and M&A. That is still my day job.
One of the biggest challenges facing fashion is the disruption from digital. It can be seen as blocker or as a challenge and also as a new community. So, being able to have one foot in each industry - fashion and technology – helps bring together more of what we need to do. And personally I am very excited.
What are your key goals?
To build on the great work done by Natalie and Caroline. Focusing on three main pillars: Education, Business and Reputational. The BFC’s mission is to harness to collective power of our industry. So, the direction I want is more focus on metrics, more private funding and a more sustainable BFC.
In terms of the Business pillar, we’ve already been pursuing topics of conversation. I think designers also need to understand better the investment eco-system, and not just for emerging designers but also business that have existed for 10 years.
The BFC really needs to step in when perhaps government can no longer can. We do that already with New Gen and Fashion Fund, and in New York with the CFDA Fashion Fund. And we really need to
work hard on really promoting global trade and, quite frankly, trips aboard cost money.
I am quite obsessed that we need to find more private funding to compensate for public funding being depleted. The government has to prioritize and we have to accept that.
In what way specifically?
We are an artistic industry and we have to remember that. For instance, we will continue to support our Saturday Clubs, which allow teenagers to experience jobs and working in fashion in colleges and companies. That means both kids and their parents can be educated about what jobs there are in fashion. Not just designers and models, I also mean pattern cutters and merchandisers and machinists etc.
And I think the Reputational underpins everything we do. If you think about it, the BFC is the agency for the fashion industry in the UK. And our reputation is an essential pillar. So we have to focus on initiatives and communicating globally about our creativity.
All underpinned by digital?
We always need to see digital as an opportunity. Technology firms already benefit from all the beautiful images and content generated by fashion seasons. Google is very big supporter – and they have offered to put a Google person on all of our pillars. The BFC, Google and Holition have already created a data visualization project that really allows us to really measure the impact of LFW.
Our fashion season is really a big business, but you also need the skill set to support all our creativity. Like, for instance, helping designers understand how to put together an approach to Venture Capitalists.
Why the event with Mulberry?
It was mutually agreed and a wonderful thing to do. Johnny Coca is very talented designer and I get on very well with their CEO Thierry Andreatta. It’s a fantastic British brand with great credentials.
And finally, what are your views on Brexit?
I am British and I did vote in the referendum to stay in, like nearly everyone I know in fashion. Brexit is a very challenging topic for fashion, an industry with a lot of moving parts - both in terms of people and services. But whatever happens, we need frictional borders and tariff-free access to the European Union. We have had good conversations with the government but all the uncertainty makes things very hard to plan!
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