I've met Kim Winser twice before.
The first time was in 2005 when, as the chief executive of Pringle of Scotland, she was on the verge of relaunching the fusty Hawick-based golfwear label as a global womanswear fashion brand on the Milan catwalk.
The atmosphere was electric. Winser – who was born in Helensburgh – managed to increase sales from £10 million to £100m worldwide and in 2006 was awarded the OBE for services to the textiles industry, as well as being named Europe's third most successful businesswoman by the Wall Street Journal.
The second time I interviewed her was a year later, when she was just days into her new job as president and chief executive of the venerable British trenchcoat label Aquascutum, with a remit to supervise a £47m investment package and make the brand profitable again within three years. Her buzzphrase on both occasions was "the global potential of heritage brands" and she was bursting with plans for the future, speaking like a dynamo about the power of brand DNA, development and global expansion.
As it turned out, her successful three-year tenure at Aquascutum – during which European sales rose 60% and the brand was on track to generate sales of £450m by 2010 – ended with her resignation in 2009 after a management buy-out bid was rejected at the last minute by its Japanese owner Renown.
Since then, Winser has been linked to the lingerie brand Agent Provocateur, where between 2009 and 2011 she steered a rise in profits from £1m to £3.5m and opened a string of shops across the globe, including 12 in the US. She now runs her own consultancy but information on exactly what she is doing, and where, has been maddeningly elusive.
So, when we meet for a third time at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, which awarded her an honorary doctorate for her work in the fashion industry 10 years ago, I'm curious to find out what she's been up to. She is en route to the school of textiles and design at the university's Galashiels campus, where she is due to deliver the keynote speech about her pet subjects: the modern business model, the burgeoning wealth of emerging economies and the opportunities that lie within a company's DNA and archive.
Time is tight: we have precisely 40 minutes. She is due to fly to Milan the next day, to "look at a company there", and then to Turkey, where she spends a lot of her time building business links. Her directorship at the Edrington drinks group in Glasgow ended when she left Pringle but she strives to remain loyal to her Scottish roots.
"I don't like people who accept honorary degrees and then disappear," she begins. "I like to retain my links with Heriot-Watt, where I support design students with global contacts."
Within a week of leaving Aquascutum she had received two telephone calls, one from the private equity giant 3i and one from the online fashion retailer Net-A-Porter. She accepted roles with both. She enthuses about Net-A-Porter, on which she worked on strategic development.
"It's fabulous and what Natalie Massenet did with establishing it as a global brand is phenomenal. Going purely online was an excellent move," she says. She facilitated 3i's client Agent Provocateur launch on Net A Porter.
The 52-year-old divorcee, who has a 14-year-old son and lives in London, once told me she is "far too busy for romance" and says the same remains true today. She is working with a number of small British businesses, helping them to think about their global development at an early stage "before it gets too large and structured", and with private family funds in Brazil and China who want her to find British people to run their online businesses.
She says: "Companies have to embrace e-commerce. Simply tacking on a website to the main operation is not good enough. Online presence is absolutely essential."
Does she mean it's the end of the high street as we know it?
"I don't think it's the end of the high street, but growth won't come through the high street; it will come through online business. I think the two are complementary. Apple stores do extremely well. They're seamless with the online operation. That makes them a good example of true omnichannel retailing."
She feels too many traditional British retailers don't put online experts in charge of their online business, even though 10% of UK trade is done online – the highest figure in the world – and despite predictions digital retailing will inform half of all purchases within three years.
"A lot of the boards of high street retailers still want to operate in the old style, but we've got to mix it up and there must be a blend. I find it fascinating, because the boards of the new companies that have started are made up of people who are passionate about their product and much more in tune with their customer base.
"There needs to be a whole culture change. Retailers need to be saying, 'Hang on a minute – how can we relate to the people who spend their money on our product?'"
She cites as a good example of modern retail marketing the "virtual" mirror at Selfridge's in London, which allows shoppers to try underwear on without getting changed. Instead it scans them, creates an avatar using infrared technology, and shows them the product on the avatar. The mirror is activated by downloading the campaign application on to smartphones or tablets. That, she says, is about putting power in the customers' hands.
I wonder how she'd compare herself with Mary Portas, the self-styled queen of shops. "We're very different. I'm very global, and my passion is helping British businesses go global, whereas Mary is very much a UK retailer," she replies, somewhat sniffily.
She is about to launch a social media-driven PR company with graduate students from London, Manchester and Heriot-Watt. It will be called mediajunkies.com and launches on September 1. With a network into Tokyo, Hong Kong and New York, it's aimed at supporting smaller British designers and brands.
Asked which British brands she admires but which could be doing better in the global marketplace, she cites bicycles and Mackintosh raincoats. She admits to harbouring a soft spot for Scottish cashmere, which she first fell in love with during her time at Pringle, and admires Johnstons of Elgin and the Queene and Belle cashmere label in Hawick.
"I like some brands that have held their manufacturing in Britain with a high level of expertise and engineering, such as Brompton bikes and some of our cloth manufacturers such as Harris Tweed. I'm interested in businesses that are underdeveloped. That's where a lot of British brands can win."
Would she ever wish to return to Pringle? "You can't go backwards, but you can look forwards and be clever. There are businesses that know they've got a really good formula, and people all over the world who'd look to buying into it. There is more opportunity in affordable goods than in luxe."
What about returning to "affordable" M&S, which she joined straight from school as a management trainee, staying for 20 years to become divisional director of womenswear and the first female director to be appointed to its board? She rolls her eyes. "They're good with food, but I see more opportunity with their clothing. They did ask me to go back and we did have meetings. I always got on very well with Stuart Rose [the former executive chairman] but it's very difficult."
Instead, she's planning to launch her own fashion label in 2013, with herself as CEO. Maddeningly, she's coy about divulging any details – because she also has an offer in for another British business which may take precedence if it comes off. Either way, she will once again be directly involved in fashion. She won't have an all-female board but she will ensure it's a well-balanced one. "My last two boards were representative of the customer base: male, female and those that had lived in key overseas markets such as Asia and America."
Her ensemble today seems designed to confound me even more. The coat is Donna Karan, the black knitted top Aquascutum, the tight black trousers Martin Margiela, the bag Bottega Veneta, and the eye-catching strappy stilletos are Dries van Noten.
"Well, how could I give a talk to fashion students and not wear designer heels?" she laughs. If that's a hint of her future plans, she's not about to say so. Before she has to answer any more questions, she teeters off to find her driver who is waiting to whisk her away to the Borders.
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