As company CEO Beth Butterwick describes the contemporary Karen Millen customer, it feels as if she could easily be sketching a portrait of herself. “She has this inspirational, international lifestyle. She aspires to luxury. She’s progressive, curious about life, polished and sassy. Details matter,” she says.
It’s no surprise when the trained fashion designer reveals to The CEO Magazine that she jumped at the chance to join the London-based fashion house in August 2016. “I’ve always loved Karen Millen,” she says. “I’ve worn it since it first launched on the high street. I like the designs, the cutting-edge feel, the quality, and the fact that it celebrates individuality. It was a phenomenal opportunity to run a label that was close to my heart.”
The story of the British brand’s birth is legendary. In 1981, the Karen Millen and her then husband Kevin Stanford borrowed £100 to buy a roll of white cotton to make, in their kitchen, tailored white shirts to sell to family and friends.
In 1983, the first Karen Millen store opened in Maidstone, Kent, and by the 90s its distinct prints and feminine party dresses were being worn by media darlings on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2004, Karen sold the company, along with the rights to her name, for a reported £95 million and today, completely distanced from its eponymous founder, the label is owned by Icelandic Bank Kaupthing and has a presence in more than 65 countries around the world.
Beth Butterwick's in her dream role
Vacating her post as CEO of Yorkshire clothing chain Bonmarché to take up what she calls “her dream role”, Beth joined the high street favourite at a challenging time – characterised by a flat retail market and increased operating losses. Rather than be deterred, however, she saw an incredible amount of potential. “My observation was that it was a business that talked a lot about product and collections, but it didn’t really talk about its customer,” she explains.
Under her leadership, that has all changed. She has what she refers to as “a real passion, almost an obsession, around putting the customer first,” a legacy inherited from her first graduate position with iconic British retailer Marks & Spencer.
Our customers have to be allowed to shop the way they want to.
As Beth outlines her current strategic priorities, it’s clear that the customer is now firmly positioned front and centre. “Our customers have to be allowed to shop the way they want to,” she says, admitting that she feels the business has lagged in its digital revitalisation.
Today’s fashion lover can keep track in real time of what’s trending from New York to Sydney, and Beth is acutely aware that allowing clients to access the complete breadth of its collections, no matter where they are in the world, is imperative. “We might design a special collection for Bloomingdale’s in America, but it will also be available for customers around the world to buy online,” she says.
She has also instigated a shift away from traditional marketing methods towards social media marketing. “Our best ambassadors are the people who buy, wear and love our brand, and talk about it and recommend it to others,” she explains.
Turning Karen Millen into a complete lifestyle brand
One of the most important questions Beth has asked since becoming CEO is: “What does the Karen Millen customer actually need in her life?” In finding the answer, she says one thing has become crystal clear: “Not only do we need to improve our existing collections with this in mind, but we need to consider what else we should be offering.”
Travel accessories, homewares, active and sportswear, and even bridal wear are potential categories Beth mentions as she looks to develop Karen Millen into a complete lifestyle brand. “Women today are more empowered than they were when Karen Millen first launched over 30 years ago,” she continues.
“Today’s woman is strong, complex and dynamic, and this is reflected in their need for clothes and accessories that enhance their eclectic lifestyle. Our mission is to create distinctive, style-led pieces that resonate with and empower women of all ages. Our DNA is one of unapologetic confidence.”