With a decade of experience in the fashion industry, can GUESS Country Director for China, José Blanco, be considered an authority on style? When The CEO Magazine asks him to describe what goes into the perfect cut of jeans, he rejects the idea of a one-size-fits-all solution. He’s a bit more nuanced than that.
“It’s definitely something you think about when you’re working in our stores, because you’ll see a customer take a pair of jeans into the fitting rooms and instinctively want to ask them what they thought did or didn’t work,” he says.
Everyone has different ideas about what makes the best pair of jeans, José reflects. He tries to understand each customer as an individual, providing “a range of pieces customers can keep trying on until they’re happy”.
As a global company, GUESS tailors its outfits across Europe, North America and Asia to suit regional trends. “Within that, I try to find out what customers want,” says José. “How can I understand someone just from the jeans they wear, and how can I offer them something that is valuable? I want GUESS to be a brand that’s facilitating that dialogue with consumers.”
Synonymous with Back to the Future and German supermodel Claudia Schiffer, GUESS has defined bravado in fashion for a generation; pioneering designer jeans and denim products since the 1980s. With recent collaborations featuring the likes of Jennifer Lopez and singer J Balvin, GUESS’s collections are associated with allure in fashion, a staple of any stylish wardrobe.
With a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, José was one of the more unlikely candidates for a leadership position with the brand. “My career development has been strange,” he reflects.
“I didn’t study fashion in school and my first job was in a telecommunications consultancy. It was a growth industry and it seemed natural for me. It helped me to understand the technological aspects of business and, when I started out, everything I did was steeped in that industry.”
When he left the business, he says it was for personal reasons, moving back to his home town and working for Spanish clothing company Inditex. “It was the biggest retailer in the region and that was the opportunity available to me,” he says, adding, “I never expected to be working in fashion.”
After José joined Inditex, though, the opportunities for development were plentiful. “I began working in the IT department and brought what I learned in the telecommunications industry over, thinking about how the business could do a better job of connecting with customers. Inditex was a big company too, so there was an appetite to execute those changes,” he adds.
“I learned about products, operations and supply chains at Inditex, and how the three are connected. I saw that everything happening in one store was communicated to managers who oversaw supply chains and they were applying that information immediately. It taught me an efficiency of processes. It’s a lot of constant improvement, where decision-making is consistent and sensible.”
As people began recognising his dedication, José began moving away from technological maintenance and into business management. “Technology helped me to understand business and that coincided with Inditex’s growth in China,” he says. “I understood that if I wanted to do something else and develop my leadership skills, I could move to China to do that.”
Shifting regions, José worked on the launch of the company’s ecommerce projects while managing operations in Western China. “Those were the circumstances that were keeping me interested in this industry and this region, and they’re the reason I decided to stay in this part of the world,” he says.
When José’s former boss at Inditex, Victor Herrero, became GUESS’s global CEO in 2015, he offered José the opportunity to lead the apparel company’s operations in that region. “I looked at this enormous project and thought it was right for me to bring my own distinct touch to,” José reflects.
He says his seven years of experience with Inditex gave him the background to begin leading in the industry. “I’d developed my own way of thinking and I wanted to try different approaches,” he explains.
“The opportunity to become Country Director of China meant I could make my own decisions, as opposed to just helping to develop someone else’s existing successes.”
José says his goal as Country Director was to make China a leading region for GUESS. “We know the possibilities of the area, and I think the core identity of this market matches what we want to see with GUESS. I want to make it happen.”
His ambition and work have so far focused on making the Chinese region a powerhouse for GUESS, in which customers are able to identify with a brand that is important to them. “I want China to have a brand that is locally connected and aware of its people, and I want that commitment from the people who work here,” he says.
“I want China to have a brand that is locally connected.”
“It doesn’t matter if you’re in accounting or if you’re selling the jeans behind a counter – we’re all part of the GUESS brand. If we want to become the strongest, most well-recognised international brand in China, we have to put the work in.”
Head in the cloud
Digitalisation has become an important avenue for Chinese businesses and José has spearheaded GUESS’s embrace of ecommerce to connect with customers in the region. “Access is important,” he says.
“We can already see a difference between bricks-and-mortar retailers and ecommerce retailers and that’s the access to data and information a digital presence creates.”
He says GUESS’s work with Baozun has helped in the drive to open more digital retail space. “We’ve been working together for the past four years to develop our ecommerce efforts, and they’re a partner with whom we feel deeply connected,” explains José.
“Another aspect of digitalisation is that young people are connected through their phones. They represent mobility and if everyone is spending increased time interacting with their phone to make payments, socialise and read the news, we must bring our business to them. That’s not as simple as just setting up an ecommerce side of the business; that’s less than a quarter of it. We want to connect with customers through different technologies, and we want to connect with them even when they’re not in the store.”
Globally, growth for the brand will rely on being marketable to today’s youth. “We’re always going to advertise GUESS as something that is ‘young, sexy and adventurous’,” says José.
“We’re always going to advertise Guess as something that is ‘young, SEXY and adventurous’.”
“But a lot of us aren’t too young anymore, so we have to listen to customers to find out what they want. Often, we’ll revisit our best campaigns and bestsellers to plan novel approaches to the market that will keep us fresh and appealing, then try and match those qualities with who we are now.”
José singles out Nicolai Marciano, son of GUESS’s founder Paul Marciano, as a key driver of that strategy, having notably commissioned collaborative lines with rapper A$AP Rocky, as well as media collective and record label 88rising in the past year.
“He’s always looking to connect with the industry, he relates to the kids and knows how to work out these great collaborations and get our name out there,” he says. “Nicolai is helping to drive an awareness of trends and culture.”
José says that GUESS is analysing what’s happening in the industry and what’s working, and from there formulating plans for the seasons. “That’s happening globally and locally for jeans, dresses, activewear, outerwear, handbags and so on,” he adds.
Because the brand has more than 20 distinct categories of clothing, José says growth can come from making cross-appeals to customers. “We’re always balancing the various categories in how we can best approach them, and we’re going to put a lot of work into that going forward,” he says.
“Above all else, I want to connect people,” José says. “I want everyone inside the business to value the development of the brand, and I want our customers to feel like they are valued by us.”
Speaking about what’s inspired him through the years, José says it’s a love of the brand and an ability to commit to his profession. “If you’re going to dedicate your life to work, then dedicate it to work that you love,” he advises.
“It’s going to take a lot of your time. Doing something because you must or because it’s easy is no way to live your life. If you want to be successful, you have to feel that passion for what you’re doing.”
“They assist us with execution and have helped us open more than 50 stores in the past three years. When I work with them, I have zero delays, zero complaints and zero incidents. I know that they get the job done. That’s important to our expansionary efforts, because I can focus on what I need to and they take care of the rest. They’re what I would call an invaluable partner.”
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