Ever since Sarah Rutson took a part-time job in retail as a teenager, she's been a self-proclaimed shopgirl at heart. "I became obsessed with the customer and the ability to communicate with people has always been my love," admitted Rutson at FashionistaCon 2017 in New York City on Friday. It's this type of mentality and work ethic that has resulted in a three-decade career in fashion for Rutson, proving that she knows exactly how to get people excited about shopping and new brands.
After climbing the ranks at Marks & Spencer in London through her 20s, she turned down a job interview (midway through said job interview) at a major retailer and booked a one-way ticket to Hong Kong, which led to a job at Lane Crawford, where she worked for over 20 years. Rutson can be credited for transforming the establishment into an award-winning, globally renowned retailer. "I needed to rebrand a dinosaur that was irrelevant. It had no reputation whatsoever other than 'my grandma shopped there,'" recalled Rutson. "To make something irrelevant cool is the hardest thing, and we achieved the impossible."
Her accomplishments at Lane Crawford caught the attention of Natalie Massenet, who brought Rutson over to Net-A-Porter. "The world was about digital, online shopping and Net-A-Porter was the place to go," said Rutson. "For me to come into such an incredible brand, what I wanted to bring was a newer point of view." At the time, Rutson recalls Net-A-Porter's offerings as "very ladylike" and not "about new discoveries" — the latter being Rutson's expertise. She spent the next two years building the e-commerce site's contemporary offerings with new, fashion-forward brands like Off-White and Vetements.
Rutson also made sure that the site was authoritative in championing its designers. "Buy with conviction — I think that's super important for any retailer, for any brand," she told the audience. "Don't try to and do a little bit of everything because there is no authority. There's no true understanding of integrity of the brand and the customer sees it." Rutson's inner shopgirl started to come out: "The customer absolutely is not stupid. Never talk down to a customer, never assume you know more. We're in an age where everything is connected and everyone's living in the same moment. I think that is what separates good retailers and bad retailers."
Rutson provided similar advice for new brands building their businesses as well. "Bring everything back to your core. As a brand, understand who you are and focus from there," she said, using the term "matchstick effect" as an example, which is what young designers experience during a successful first and second season. "By the third season, it's not so great. Why?" asked Rutson. "Because there's someone else behind you — I think therein lies those challenges to understand not to get too carried away but understand how to build those roots."
At The Collected Group, where Rutson is chief brand officer, there's no doubt that her fashion and business know-how will result in a thriving portfolio of brands. But first, she's making sure to grow and maximize The Collected Group's current roster of brands, which includes Equipment, Current/Elliott and Joie, for a new consumer in a new era. "It sounds boring, but these are the things that make a business work," said Rutson.
Over the past four months, she's revamped the company from the ground up, starting with its supply chain in order to design, produce and deliver the best product — and on time. "I feel like there's a lot of brand value that we can build and draw from Equipment and Current/Elliott and that for me is really important," said Rutson. "I'm going to shine and polish the diamonds that are there, and then we'll look to the future."