Angela Ahrendts DBE is the senior vice president of retail and online stores for Apple Inc and former chief executive officer of Burberry, where she was credited for transforming the brand into a digitally-savvy, international powerhouse. She is also one of the world’s most high-profile businesswomen and in 2013 she was named the highest paid chief executive at a FTSE company.
Ahrendts was born in the small town of New Palestine, Indiana, in 1960. She was one of six children and her family home was so crowded that she would often seek sanctuary in the cupboard under the stairs for a little peace and quiet.
Always committed to a career in fashion, she initially wanted to become a designer. She studied at Indiana’s Ball State University and quickly realised that she was more interested in the business side of the industry, completing a marketing and merchandising degree.
The day after her graduation in 1981, she moved to New York. There she started her first fashion job at Donna Karan, where she met the man who would later become Burberry chief creative officer – Christopher Bailey.
She went on to work briefly for Henri Bendel, before joining Liz Claiborne Inc in 1998 as vice-president of merchandising and design – a role which involved overseeing 22 brands, including Juicy Couture which she helped turn into a worldwide-known label.
In 2005, she was contacted by Rose Marie Bravo, who asked her to take on the British brand – an offer that she originally turned down. “I finally had my life under control – I finally had the country home, the three kids, the dog,” she said on US talk show Charlie Rose. “I didn’t even meet her after the first call. I had the greatest job on Seventh Avenue. I honestly didn’t think life could ever be any better. It was just peace and happiness.”
Bravo persevered and eventually Ahrendts agreed to a meeting with Christopher Bailey. “We had lunch that day for three and a half hours and, on the back of a napkin, put our dreams on paper,” she once said. “I love him. I have such respect for him. He’s a very special person.” Bailey still remembers the meeting clearly, explaining how “it’s sort of weird how much Angela and I connect. I knew that [meeting] was going to be a big moment in my life, and it was.”
Upon her arrival in London, she discovered that there weren’t many high-level Burberry executives who shared her enthusiasm for the label. Within a year, she sacked the entire Hong Kong design team and closed factories in New Jersey and the Rhondda Valley, south Wales, to centralise manufacturing in Castleford, West Yorkshire.
The label was in need of a dramatic overhaul, its famous plaid having become diluted by wide-spread, cheap copies. Ahrendts pinpointed the brand’s downfall to the patronage of television actress Danniella Westbrook – who had lost her septum due to cocaine use, and dressed herself and her family in head-to-toe Burberry. “Burberry had become so associated with a downmarket image,” fashion writer and author Justine Picardie told the Guardian. “That iconic plaid had become – I’m not going to use the word chav – but that incredible legacy had become associated with the cheapest form of disposable rip-off fashion. Ahrendts and Christopher Bailey have taken it back to its pure heritage.”
Ahrendts bought back 23 licenses that Burberry had sold to another companies, which had meant other firms could use its signature check on products such as disposable nappies for dogs. “I feel like I spent my first few years here buying back the company – not the most pleasant or creative task,” she said. “But we had to do it. If you can’t control everything, you can’t control anything, not really.”
She spearheaded a new brand image, casting British stars – both established and emerging – in Burberry campaigns, from Kate Moss and Agyness Deyn to Emma Watson and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. The adverts gave the brand a fresh and modern appeal, offering a new perspective to its lengthy history.
In September 2009, Ahrendts brought Burberry back to London – after having traditionally shown in Milan – a move that enticed the international press to attend London Fashion Week in a larger capacity than ever before. “The very first time I went to meet her when she had just taken over I was so nervous it felt like my first job interview, because it was so important to get her to bring the shows back,” said former British Fashion Council chairman Harold Tillman. “She sat there and listened to everything I had to say, and six months later Burberry [womenswear] came back and put on the best possible show.”
Ahrendts’ working day starts early – she begins checking emails and social media platforms before 5am. “She is the antithesis of the hot air, flashy, empty, hollow man. She has substance,” Justine Picardie told the Guardian in 2013.
In June 2013, she was one of just three women named on the FTSE 100 list. Her earnings (£16.9 million in 2012), make her the highest-paid person in British business.
She isn’t influenced by the activities of other leading luxury fashion houses. “If I look to any company as a model, it’s Apple,” she told The Wall Street Journal in 2010. “They’re a brilliant design company working to create a lifestyle, and that’s the way I see us.” In light of this, it was a natural move for Ahrendts to join the Apple team mid-2014 as the company’s new head of retail, leaving Burberry’s Christopher Bailey to fill her role at the brand. The same year, she collected her DBE alongside fellow businesswoman Melinda Gates and was also presented with a Medal of Excellence at the Walpole awards in late 2013.
Trivia on Angela Ahrendts? She is friends with Black Eye Peas singer Will.i.am and loves drinking Diet Coke – often five to six glasses a day. “My blood runs brown,” she joked to The Wall Street Journal in 2010.