Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts Moves To Apple

Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts will be the head of retail and online stores at Apple—and the company’s only female executive. Isabel Wilkinson on the smart blonde heading to Silicon Valley.

10.15.13 5:55 PM ET

It’s not every day that Apple hires someone within the fashion industry—or a woman.

On Tuesday, the company did both. Angela Ahrendts, chief executive officer of Burberry, will become Apple’s new senior vice president of retail and online stores—a brand new position that oversees the “strategic direction” of both its brick-and-mortar stores and online retail—that reports directly to Tim Cook. Apple—a highly successful retailer—has faced steep competition recently. And, since styles in tech change nearly as fast as they do in fashion, it’s no wonder they sought out someone with that type of experience.

At Burberry, Ahrendts will be succeeded as CEO by the brand’s chief creative officer, Christopher Bailey, who has spent twelve years at the company. Bailey, 43, is considered a design star within the industry; a skilled creative with a strong point of view—but he comes from a background in design, and doesn’t have former experience in the role of CEO. As creative officer, a role that he will keep, he has overseen consumer-facing activities, overseen design and product, and been the brand’s custodian for innovation. (News of Ahrendts’s departure had an immediate effect on Burberry’s stock prices, which fell as much as 8.79 percent on Tuesday morning.)

Ahrendts fills a big gap on Apple’s team: Ron Johnson, its senior vice president of retail, left the company in 2011 to join JC Penney, and his replacement, John Browett, left last year. (Incidentally, Burberry has 71 stores in China, whereas Apple has less than a dozen.) The appointment also marks the company’s second big hire from within the fashion world: Paul Deneve, former Yves Saint Laurent CEO, joined as Apple as VP of special projects in July.

Ahrendts, 53, has long blonde hair and dimples, and wears angular black glasses and perfectly-cut Burberry clothes. Before joining the brand in 2006, she spent eight years as executive VP at Liz Claiborne. Before that, she had roles at Henri Bendel and Donna Karan International. “Burberry is in brilliant shape, having built the industry’s most powerful management team, converted the business to a dynamic digital global retailer, created a world class supply chain, state of the art technology infrastructure, sensational brand momentum and one of the most closely connected creative cultures in the world today,” she said in a statement. “Today, Burberry is not only a great brand, but a truly great company.”

By the late nineties, Burberry’s iconic checkered plaid had become so ubiquitous that it was on bikinis and scarves, mittens and even $100 dog collars. It had, in a way that many distinctive luxury patterns do, become the go-to status symbol of “chavs,” who, as the Financial Times once put it, are “members of a sub-culture prone to drinking and anti-social behaviour.”

At Burberry, Ahrendts drastically changed all that. She expanded the 157-year-old brand’s presence in the U.S., turning it from a firmly British brand to one with more global appeal. She restructured the company internally, bringing many of its operations in-house, and expanded retail into new markets like Africa and Asia. (Last year, the brand opened flagships in Hong Kong and Taipei as well as on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Next year, it plans to open one in Shanghai.) She raised retail prices, and also expanded the brand’s non-apparel business, such as handbags. During her tenure, she was credited with tripling Burberry’s sales and quadrupling its share price.

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 16: Models walk the runway at the Burberry Prorsum show at London Fashion Week SS14 at Kensington Gardens on September 16, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images)

Ian Gavan/Getty

Models walk the runway at the Burberry Prorsum show at London Fashion Week SS14 at Kensington Gardens on September 16, 2013 in London, England.

In the last few years, the brand been lauded for its digital innovation—introducing a website called “The Art of the Trench,” in 2009, a glossy interactive dedicated to their classic raincoat and the people who wear them on the street. The following year, it launched Burberry Acoustic, a program for which Bailey selected his favorite British artists and promoted their songs—which appeared to be an open effort to engage Burberry consumer’s beyond the traditional click-to-buy online experience, and to wrap them into a larger lifestyle brand.  Last year, the house launched Burberry Bespoke, a made-to-order online service that offers shoppers with 12 million design variations.

Under Bailey and Ahrendts, Burberry became one of the first luxury houses to livestream its runway shows, beginning with its Spring/ Summer 2010 collection. The increased eyeballs from the livestream have surely played their part in ratcheting up the stagecraft of the shows: Burberry is now famous for its larger-than-life finales, which involve things like gold flakes raining from the ceiling. It also became the first brand to livestream its show in 3D (a one-off in 2010), when it hosted lavish 3D screening parties of its fashion show around the world. Soon after the brand’s foray into livestreams, Burberry realized that its global clients wanted to buy the clothes they were watching come down the runway—so it launched an initiative called “runway to retail,” which allowed viewers to pre-purchase items from Burberry’s next collection online as soon as they saw it on the runway, effectively shaking up the traditional model of buyers and stores.

During their tenure at Burberry, as I wrote in 2011, Ahrendts and Bailey made the brand—for lack of a better word—cool. As Vanessa Friedman of the Financial Times described Bailey at the time: “What is Burberry? A trench coat and a check. It’s not a sexy house. But by associating it with this cutting-edge technology and young bands, Christopher has managed to spin it as having an edge.” 

Funny enough, this whole time, if there’s one company Burberry seemed to emulate, in its retail strategy and constant pursuit of innovation, it was Apple. Last month, Apple and Burberry even collaborated in a partnership: all photography and video by the brand of its Spring / Summer 2014 show was recorded on Apple’s as-yet-unreleased iPhone 5s.

In 2011, Bailey told me:  “What Steve Jobs has done is create something much bigger than him.” Of Apple, he said, “they didn’t follow anyone. They broke the rules in their way, but they didn’t need to break the rules. They were focused, and they were enjoying it, and they worked incredibly hard on stimulating people and creating something you know will resonate with people.” In 2010, Ahrendts also told WSJ. Magazine: “If I look to any company as a model, it’s Apple. They’re a brilliant design company working to create a lifestyle, and that’s the way I see us.”