Sun, Sep 16, 2007 - Page 18 News List

Stuart Rose, boss of Marks & Spencer

As the company's Taipei branch opens for business, Stuart Rose, the savior of British retail giant Marks & Spencer, talks about skinny models, the rise of British design and ethical shopping

By Jess Cartner-Morley  /  The Guardian , LONDON

A pedestrian carries a Marks & Spencer shopping bag in central London.


One wall of Stuart Rose's office, a chief executive-sized cube of steel and glass suspended nine stories above a tangle of London's Paddington railway station's tracks, is entirely covered with framed newspaper cartoons. All are about Marks & Spencer (M&S), and all have been published during the three years Rose has been running the company. The sheer number of them reflects both the unique position that M&S occupies in the British national consciousness, and the astounding story of those years, during which it has made a dramatic recovery from a seemingly terminal decline. Shares in the company were at US$7 when he took over; they now stand at US$12.50.

Yet, Rose's focus shifted, as it does for a week, twice a year, from the high street to the catwalk. As chairman of the British Fashion Council (BFC) since 2004, he is a front-row fixture at London fashion week. For the past two seasons, the London catwalk shows have been overshadowed by the media furor about skinny models. Today, the day before the first models take to the runway, the Model Health Inquiry, headed by Baroness Kingsmill, will announce its recommendations on how the fashion industry should tackle the problem.

And tackle the problem it must, says Rose. He has no truck with the culture of the fashion industry that prioritizes the creative freedom of designers over the physical and mental health of young women. "We have to be grown-up about this. I am sure the recommendations will be sensible - Baroness Kingsmill is a sensible woman. And we in the fashion industry will have to take the recommendations on board, and take seriously our responsibilities to those who work in the industry."

"Growing up" is a phrase Rose uses often in relation to London fashion week. Early last year, he appointed Hilary Riva, previously managing director of high-street giant Rubicon Retail, as chief executive of the BFC. Riva, who amassed a personal fortune of over US$80 million during her career in retail, understands that catwalk fashion is one element of a broad and complex industry, and not an ivory tower that can stand alone. With what Rose calls "a proper team," headed by Riva, the BFC is on the way to becoming a more muscular body which "is in a position to talk authoritatively about British fashion," says Rose.

"The difference between London fashion week and how things are done in France or Italy is that the French and Italians understand that fashion is serious - it's an industry. In London there is the air of fashion being something for gifted amateurs. I fully respect the creative freedom of designers, but" - and he delivers this final phrase in the painstakingly slow tones of a man who has been trying for some time to get a simple point across without success - "fashion is a business."

For Rose, as for many in the British fashion industry, the frustration of the "size zero debate" is that it has overshadowed what is a resurgent time for London fashion week. This season, Anna Wintour, the hugely powerful editor of American Vogue, will attend London and skip the Paris shows, a move unthinkable three years ago. Matthew Williamson and Luella Bartley, successful and influential young British designers who moved their catwalk shows from London to New York several years ago, will both return to the London fashion week fold next week. British Designer of the Year, Giles Deacon, and the white-hot Scottish designer Christopher Kane are generating a buzz the like of which has not been seen since the early days of Alexander McQueen.

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