Mulberry’s creative director Emma Hill is leaving the company. The announcement on Monday (10 June) came as a total shock for most in the fashion industry. Proof of Hill’s importance to the brand and the subsequent shock that her departure garnered was evident from the £40m that was wiped from Mulberry’s share price on Monday after the company confirmed her exit.
“Emma has informed the company that she wishes to leave after a very successful period,” Mulberry announced in a terse statement. According to trade bible Women’s Wear Daily, the 42-year-old resigned because of “disagreements with management over creative and operational strategy”.
The “management” is more than likely to be Bruno Guillon, who arrived from Hermès just over a year ago to take over as Mulberry chief executive. Guillon has been clear from the outset that he wants to apply a more traditional, luxurious approach to the next chapter of Mulberry’s growth strategy. Price points have been increased dramatically, distribution has been made more selective and so far profits have disappointed.
Hill’s past success with Mulberry was very much at odds with her new CEO’s vision for the brand. Since arriving in 2007, she was widely credited with helping to turn the Somerset-based brand from a traditional maker of leather goods into one of Britain’s hottest accessory brands. But she did it in a very accessible, British way. Her designs captured the spirit of the London ‘it’ girl while eschewing the more traditional, French inspired high luxury approach to which her new boss seems to be committed. She favoured smaller accessories, younger clients and the kind of laid-back London aesthetic that traditional luxury brands would rarely focus on.
At the heart of Hill’s success was also the uncanny tripartite ability to create products that were clearly consistent with the heritage of the Mulberry brand, while proving to be ahead of the fashion curve and simultaneously desired by target clients. At this point I could produce a big steaming pile of business school bullshit about how she achieved this with a complex strategy of product innovation and lots of flow charts and diagrams. But I know enough about creative directors to know that Emma Hill does not think about innovation or strategy, she just does it. Her skills, like all great creative people, are god given and her ability is intuitive.
Hill frequently referred to it as the ‘nose-twitching’ moment that she sometimes felt while working on the design of a bag. It was the irrational but certain feeling that she was making something that was fundamentally right for the brand and for the market. It’s impossible to explain but equally impossible to resist. Her subsequent successes with bags like the Alexa and the Del Rey prove that her ‘nose’ was usually spot on.
The challenge for Guillon is huge and like all luxury brand CEOs it will be the biggest and most important decision of his career – finding a new creative director. The luxury business is not like any other. At the heart of all the great brands is a unique partnership between an executive and an artist. Think Angela Ahrendts and Christopher Bailey at Burberry or Sidney Toledano and Raf Simons at Dior. The fact that Guillon has managed to lose his greatest asset so quickly is a massive blow for Mulberry and his leadership. Now he must replace Hill with someone even better, and do it fast.
It must be someone he can work with closely and can produce hot new products. But also someone who fundamentally understands the blueprint of the Mulberry brand. The big danger for Guillon is that he leans too heavily on his Hermès roots and brings in a wonderful high-end, French designer who ticks only two of those three boxes and fails drastically as a result.
Guillon’s other concern should be the reason for Hill’s departure. Rumours are swirling among the fashion cognoscenti that she is leaving to take up the vacant role of creative director at American accessories giant Coach. In some ways that would be good news for Guillon because the alternative explanation is that Hill – a woman who clearly understands Mulberry at every possible level – does not believe in Guillon’s new strategy and sees impending disaster ahead.
It would not be the first time that a CEO has lost out because he introduced an approach that worked perfectly for his previous employer but failed when applied to the new brand that he now leads. Losing Emma Hill is not a fatal blow, but the reasons for her departure might be.