Belinda Earl: The former Deb with designs on staging another retail recovery

A day in the life of the chief executive of Jaeger
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The Independent Online

There is a chicly dressed woman sitting on the train from Oxted into London. In her black-and-white striped V-neck top, black suit and à la mode wedge-heeled shoes, the 44-year-old executive is a walking advertisement for the fashion retailer she heads. Belinda Earl is 18 months into her role as chief executive of Jaeger, the upmarket chain that is fighting to put itself back on the fashion map.

For her, today marks an important milestone in the journey to brush up Jaeger's image, which took a battering under its old owners, the threads group Coats.

Her ultimate destination is the company's Brompton Road store where she will host its autumn/winter press show; her aim to persuade the fickle fashion press that Jaeger is a label worth noticing once more.


For retail watchers, there is no small irony that over on the other side of town, a retailer with very strong links to Ms Earl is having a big day all of its own. Debenhams, the company where the Jaeger boss cut her retail teeth and ended up running, is on a unique sales rack all of its own: shares in the department store group are being priced ahead of their initial public offering to the City.

If her life had taken a different turn, Ms Earl could have spent Wednesday in back-to-back meetings with men in suits, quibbling about how much Debs was worth and preparing to bank a cheque for tens of millions of pounds from cashing in her stake as part-owner of the UK's second biggest stores group. For, nearly three years ago, Ms Earl was working on a takeover bid for Debenhams with Permira, the private equity group. Had a rival venture capital consortium not trumped Permira's offer, her life could have turned out very differently. As it was, she left with a £3.6m pay-off.

But back to Jaeger, which Ms Earl joined at the behest of its owner, Harold Tillman, the multi-millionaire entrepreneur she knew from way back as one of Debenhams' key menswear suppliers. He wooed her with multiple cups of tea as she sat mulling her options during her gardening leave at the start of 2004.

Well, tea, and the offer of a decent slug of equity in Jaeger, which will doubtless end up back on the stock market itself in the not too distant future. "Jaeger really struck a chord with me. It was at an interesting turning point, not making any money," she says, casting her mind back to why she turned down job offers from Marks & Spencer (as director of clothing) and other private equity firms.

En route to Brompton Road, Ms Earl calls into her office on Soho's Broadwick Street, a short stroll from Jaeger's flagship store on Regent Street. There is just time to run through the previous day's sales figures, deal with her e-mails and post, and have a quick chat with Graham Edgerton, the finance director.


With an hour before the doors open to the press, Ms Earl and Mr Tillman have time to browse the autumn/winter lines for themselves. Although the hands-on chief executive, who is a self-confessed fashion junkie, signs off on every garment Jaeger sells, today is the first time she will see the complete collection. Luckily they like it.

Most of the racks are filled with clothes from the company's new Jaeger London line. A far cry from the sort of pleated skirts and tweed jackets the group used to churn out for the well-off countrywomen who had become its core clientele by the 1990s, Jaeger London offers a sassier, more contemporary look that is aimed at slightly younger customers.

The new line will be stocked in 30 outlets this autumn, twice as many as at its launch a year ago. Ultimately Ms Earl sees the collection as the "hook" to lure some of the biggest names in international retail as she seeks to recreate Jaeger's global franchise. She has her eyes on a store in uptown New York and regrets the decision taken by one of her predecessors to pull out of its Madison Avenue site. She is hoping that Jaeger London will feed Manhattan's current appetite for all things British that is being fuelled by this summer's AngloMania show at the Museum of Metropolitan Art.


As she's in Knightsbridge, home to the sort of luxury brands Jaeger aspires to mimic, Ms Earl pops next door to Burberry's Scotch House store for a quick reccie. When it comes to giving tired old British brands - Jaeger was founded 122 years ago - a new lease of life, Burberry wrote the textbook. But because Jaeger's roots go deeper than the First World War trenches that formed such a crucial part of Burberry's heritage, Ms Earl believes its "opportunities are, if anything, broader".

(Jaeger's origins date back to the thesis espoused by a mid-19th century German scientist who wrote that people would be healthier if they avoided clothes made of vegetable fibres and dressed only in natural materials, such as wool. An Englishman, Lewis Tomalin, took up Gustave Jaeger's idea and the Tomalin family ran the business until selling out to Coats Patons in 1967.)


Now Ms Earl's day begins in earnest, as the first of the fashion hacks troop through the doors. Some 200-odd journalists will turn up today, and she finds their initial reaction a useful guide to what pieces will turn out to be big-sellers. For this autumn, the Jaeger London line is all about bold 1960s shapes and colours. It's all rather Edie Sedgwick, with its shift dresses and bold, graphic colours.


The day is not just about the press; at midday Ms Earl has an important meeting with some buying agencies that represent international department stores, such as Neiman Marcus in the US and Lane Crawford, the Harrods of Hong Kong. Canada's Holt Renfrew is also on her list, although she already has an "in" there seeing as it's part of Galen Weston's empire along with Selfridges, where Jaeger made retail history in the 1930s when it became the first company to open a concession in someone else's store.

She skips lunch, snacking instead on the canapes that are being handed round by suave waiters. It's handy that the food is going down well, because the same caterers will be in charge of the new café that is set to open in the Regent Street store as part of its £2m-plus makeover.


Now it's the turn of Jaeger's head office team to drop by. Everyone turns up, from the sample machinists and pattern cutters to branch managers and the guys in charge of quality assurance. Later on, after a trip back to her office to meet some key suppliers, some of Jaeger's partners turn up. As well as 47 stores, the group has 49 concessions in the more well-heeled department stores such as John Lewis and Selfridges. Debenhams, however, is not on that list.


Just as Debenhams' bankers sit down to make the tough call on where to price the shares - at the very bottom of their range as it turns out - Ms Earl is pausing for breath to take stock of the day with Mr Tillman.

The pair, who cut quite a dash a deux, relax over a glass of wine at the Mandarin Oriental. Her thoughts, she insist, do not stray to Debenhams.

"I was totally focused on Jaeger all day. The first I heard about it [the flotation] was when I picked up the newspapers the next day." With the day deemed a success, she catches the train back home.

It's gone 8.30pm by the time she gets back, which means she's missed that evening's bedtime story duty with her two young sons. A firm believer in the importance of "balance", she'll no doubt manage to make it up to them.