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Apple Hires Burberry CEO To Improve Customer Experience


Two industries on opposite sides of the Atlantic this week were rocked by the same piece of news: Angela Ahrendts, the American who revived the fortunes of British fashion label Burberry - famous for its tartan rainwear - was hired away by Apple. Or, as one British paper put it: from Mackintoshes to Macs.

Vicki Barker reports from London.

VICKI BARKER, BYLINE: At this Burberry store in Central London, the distinctive camel, black and red Burberry check is barely evident on the racks, but is hinted at discretely in details like the shade of leather hand rails on the staircase.

Unobtrusive sales assistants hover, and a simple dark green wool coat with gold buttons costs... 1,895 pounds.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: One thousand eight hundred and ninety-five pounds.

BARKER: About $3,000. But a Burberry coat is far more likely to be denominated in Chinese yuan, these days. Customers in rising Asia are happy to pay $24,000 for a mink cashmere leopard print interpretation of a traditional Breton fisherman's coat - in that distinctive Burberry camel color.

Under Angela Ahrendts' leadership, Burberry- to misquote Gilbert and Sullivan - has become the very model of a modern global retailer.

Yet when Ahrendts arrived from New York seven years ago, the brand once worn by Victorian polar explorers and British mountaineers had fallen on hard times, with licenses to use that famous Burberry check sold off indiscriminately. It was also widely counterfeited.

Justine Picardie is editor-in-chief of Harpers Bazaar magazine.

JUSTINE PICARDIE: It was the equivalent of the fake Rolex. And it was also worn by football fans - some might also say football hooligans. So the brand had lost its integrity.

BARKER: Ahrendts herself has said that in her first meeting with her management team on a quintessentially wet and chilly English day, not one of her 60 new colleagues was actually wearing Burberry.

What followed was a mix of hard work, buying back licenses, intensive collaboration with Burberry's star designer, Christopher Bailey, and a kind of alchemy Justine Picardie describes as retailing genius.

PICARDIE: What she did was to understand, firstly, what is the essence of Burberry, this Britishness and quality and heritage. And then, having understood that, to be able to move that forward into a contemporary environment.

BARKER: Ahrendts also wore the clothes, six feet tall, blonde, formidable yet unaffected, she was the woman her customers wanted to be. Rahul Sarma is a London-based retail analyst.

RAHUL SARMA: First of all, she elevated this brand significantly, upscaled it in the way that it became aspirational, became desirable once again. Secondly, I think she modernized it by bringing in technology.

BARKER: In fact, Burberry is one of the most technologically advanced luxury goods companies on the Internet.

The Burberry show is one of London Fashion Week's hottest tickets. But if you can't be in the front row with Kate Moss and Emma Watson, no worries -- it's streamed live.

A fashion executive like Ahrendts may not have much to teach Apple about technology. But Andrea Felsted of the Financial Times says it's no accident that Ahrendts is actually the second fashion industry executive Apple has headhunted.

ANDREA FELSTED: Technology is becoming a luxury good in the same way as a high-end handbag. And so you want to bring in talent from those industries to really cement that luxury image.

BARKER: The high-tech, high volume atmospherics of a typical Apple store may seem a world away from the perfumed hush of that Burberry store. But Justine Picardie of Harpers Bazaar thinks both brands marry the virtual and the tactile to create a memorable retail experience, another reason, she says, Ahrendts will be a good fit for Apple.

PICARDIE: What she brought to Burberry, and what Apple are doing already, is to understand that it's not enough to just occupy the digital space: there's still got to be human contact, human experience, the luxury experience.

BARKER: Apple's gain could be Burberry's loss: the company's stock fell more than 2 percent on word of Ahrendts' departure.

For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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