Visionary Leadership: Learning from Exemplary Organizations

Visionary Leadership: Learning from Exemplary Organizations

Karen Miller (University of Cambridge, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0110-7.ch001


By nature, fashion is constantly metamorphosing, producing unstable environments for retail organizations. Rivalry has also increased in consolidated markets. In response, firms have adopted own-brand strategies and internalized design, providing levers to differentiate, control costs and quality. Leverage is manifest throughout these firms' propositions, yet little is known about how leaders steer these brands. This chapter offers rich insights from a 3-year empirical study of twenty design leaders in seven large exemplary UK-based fashion retailers: specifically, of what they ‘do' to navigate fashion retail markets. The results reveal that visionary design leaders are formally design-trained, enabling them to remain intensely ‘hands-on' through a wide portfolio of interconnected roles. This expertise, modus operandi and breadth of activity enable them to envision and deliver unique and compelling brand propositions to the exacting standards demanded by this volatile industry.
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Fashion has been formally defined as ‘the mode of dress… adopted… for the time being’ (Fashion, n.d). Kawamura (2006), however, offers a nuanced definition which distinguishes between material artefacts (clothing), which provide modesty and warmth from fashion as an intangible element created and embodied by designers. Fashion designers use knowledge gained through hands-on experience (Bye, 2010) to compose, through unique combinations of social, aesthetic and craft/technical constituents (Cappetta, Cillo, & Ponti, 2006), the symbolic meaning that generates desire. Barthes (2006) depicts fashion as a language subliminally decoded by the wearer/viewer. Yet by nature fashionable items are temporarily adopted, diffused and discarded (Sproles, 1979) and the rate of this cycle is quickening in contemporary contexts (Cachon & Swinney, 2011; Christopher, Lowson, & Peck, 2004). Fashion thus provides the backdrop for the precarious nature of the fashion retail industry, with estimated sales of clothing and footwear in the UK alone totaling £54.8 billion and a forecast growth rate for 2016 of 3.7% (, 2015).

“Fifty years ago [UK] retailing was a fragmented industry” (Fernie, Fernie, & Moore, 2015, p.10) with many small players and a few giants such as Marks and Spencer. However, the emergence of Next in 1982, the launch of George at Asda in 1989 (the first supermarket foray into fashion), the arrival of Zara in 1998 and ASOS in 2000, and the expansion of Primark in 2005 (amongst others) changed the landscape (Clark, 2014). Mintel (2012) cited in Clark (2014, p.7) estimated that the top ten clothing and footwear retailers’ sales accounted for 51% of all 2011 UK sales, therefore the UK is the most concentrated retail market globally (PWC, 2015). Contemporary fashion retailing is also intensely volatile (McCarthy, Lawrence, Wixted, & Gordon, 2010), with shorter lifecycles (Fernie & Perry, 2011), more capricious customers (Caro & Martínez-de-Albéniz, 2015), and multiple channels to market (Dawson & Lord, 2013). These factors have precipitated many retailers into responding with own-brand/private label strategies (McColl & Moore, 2011, 2012). Own brands are defining and increasingly prevalent elements for retailers as they provide powerful mechanisms for expressing identity (Kapferer, 2012), generating loyalty (Kumar & Steenkamp, 2007) and increasing margins (Sethuraman & Raju, 2012). Pioneers such as Marks and Spencer had however established its own brand in 1928, and by 1950 all its goods were sold under the label (Worth, 2006). Interestingly, this position altered in 2000.

In order to develop credible own brands (OB), retailers typically internalize expertise including design (Abecassis-Moedas, 2006; Khan, 2013; Khan, Christopher, & Creazza, 2012) in order to differentiate and control costs and quality (McColl & Moore, 2011). As a consequence, active leadership of design is required (Miller, 2014; Miller & Moultrie, 2013); yet few empirical studies have investigated what design leaders do in order to create compelling and commercially relevant OB fashion propositions. By way of explanation, leadership is positioned as being distinct from management (Zaleznik, 1977), and the major differences will be outlined in this chapter.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Leadership: A position focused on catalysing useful change by actively engaging with and motivating followers.

Fashion Retail: A consumer goods market focused particularly on clothing, footwear and accessories, which is characterised by short lifecycles, intensive competition and fickle consumers.

Creativity: The ability to transcend traditional approaches or ideas in order to generate meaningful novel or new propositions.

Risk: A situation of potential exposure to harm, which may lead to a loss of value in an organization, or a negative impact upon an individual.

Visionary: An ability to imagine something that does not currently exist.

Fashion: A transient culturally endorsed entity, which is embodied within material artefacts such as clothing, in a form that is subliminally deciphered by the wearer or viewer.

Brand Identity: An aspirational image of what an organization wishes their brand to represent as seen by customers, employees and wider stakeholders.

Own Brands/Private Labels: A brand that is owned and controlled exclusively by a retailer in order to offer non-comparable products or services to customers.

Design: A capacity to create an artefact that is either tangible as a product or intangible as a service that fulfils a functional and symbolic purpose for users.

Roles: The activities, or what individuals ‘do’ in organizations in order to achieve an overall function.

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