Meribeth Parker has built a career out of crossing different sectors.
For 14 years, her role as publishing director at Hearst saw her bridging the gap between luxury brands and the media. Now a consultant, she is still acting as the go-between, helping magazines to understand what advertisers want and vice versa.
The advancement of technology has radically changed what she does over the past decade, but it has not changed the core tenets of what constitutes luxury.
“I go to so many conferences where we discuss – what’s the ultimate luxury?” she tells me in the sumptuous surroundings of The Fumoir at Claridge’s. “Is it more time? Is it something that’s bespoke? I think what all those things speak to is a sense of specialness.”
Consumer behaviour may be changing as shoppers shift to online, but the traditional offering of good customer service and a high-quality product remains important. It does not, Parker explains, have to be expensive. It just needs to make one’s life more convenient and enjoyable: “Luxury might be a Sunday afternoon with no children, reading a book on the sofa.”
Since 2015, she has sat on the board of three iconic luxury brands: Jimmy Choo, Belstaff, and Bally. Majority-owned by JAB Holdings, these all went up for sale earlier this year, with Jimmy Choo swiftly selling to Michael Kors and Belstaff later going to Jim Ratcliffe’s Ineos. Belstaff, Parker says, is still in the sales process. But she does not expect to be on its board for much longer. “In the space of a few months I’ll go from three non-executive director positions to none.”
The Jimmy Choo deal, as the first sale she had been involved with as a non-executive director, was an exciting experience.
“It was clearly a very lucrative sale,” she says, “but it was also a good strategic move for Michael Kors and also for JAB. I’m very proud of the role I was able to play in getting the brand to the point where it was such a successful deal.” The quick disposal of these
companies is a sign of how fast luxury is changing. A number of M&A deals have swept the sector as single brands begin to build themselves up as portfolio companies. Traditionally this has been the role of major players such as LVMH and Richemont. But now the likes of Coach (which recently rebranded its parent company as Tapestry to emphasise its multi-brand status) and Michael Kors have made it clear that the future of the industry lies firmly in consolidation.
Can that be a good thing? Parker is positive that it can be.
“I think it’s important. The world is moving fast and being able to consolidate talent and skills and costs is a good thing.”
But this combination of brands does not necessarily mean they will lose the individual identity that attracts consumers. Parker is well aware of the importance of the personal touch which drives compelling brands.
Usually, this comes from the creative director.
Like the rest of the industry, she is waiting to see who will take over from Christopher Bailey at Burberry. “Christopher has done so well to lead the brand for such a long time,” she says. “The demands on creative directors in this changing world are difficult.”
Parker will not be drawn to speculate on who she thinks might make a good replacement, but she does concede that she has heard the same rumours that have now been floating for weeks that Phoebe Philo, currently the creative lead at French brand Celine, will take over from Bailey.
“When there’s a rumour in fashion it’s usually true. But not always,” she says. Gossiping about Philo’s possible move leads us to talk about one of Parker’s biggest passions: women in business. Very few fashion houses, she says, are led by women. “Luxury powerhouses tend to move around the world,” she says. “I guess historically that’s been slightly easier for men.”
It is not a problem consigned to the luxury industry alone, but neither is it something which Parker feels despondent about. As a judge of the Veuve Clicquot Awards for the past eight years, she has seen successive cohorts of female CEOs and entrepreneurs pass through the competition.
“It creates more role models for young women,” she says. She hopes that the awards play some part in the changing landscape for professional women, and has seen positive shifts in employer attitudes since she began. “Businesses are trying to attract and retain female talent, because we know that women drop out at that point when they have children.”
One of the most encouraging signs of progress, she says, is the fact that more women now nominate themselves for the awards. The introduction of a new generation category five years ago has accelerated this trend, pointing to a promising boom in confidence among younger women.
“We now tend to celebrate women who are achieving things personally as much as they are professionally. Younger women are making different choices and they’re happy to throw themselves out there.”