Sophie Holt, Country Road’s creative director, in her Richmond office.  Photo - Sean Fennessy.

Country Road Womenswear 2012.  Photo - Paul Wetherell

Country Road homewares, summer 2012.  Photos – Lisa Cohen

Country Road homewares, summer 2012.  Photos – Lisa Cohen

Moodboards at Country Road Head Office. Photo - Sean Fennessy
Country Road Head Office. Photo - Sean Fennessy
Country Road Head Office. Photo - Sean Fennessy

Today’s interview has been a long time in coming!  I’ve had my sights set on interviewing Melbourne retail guru Sophie Holt for a long time, but getting a meeting with Country Road‘s inimitable Creative Director is kind of like booking a table at MoVida – you phone up in July and are swiftly informed that the next available timeslot is like, October.  Nevertheless, as with a booking at any of Melbourne’s best restaurants, this was one appointment worth waiting for!

It is no secret that I am a huge fan of Country Road.  No one does classic Australian style quite like CR – they’re just so infuriatingly consistent!   From womenswear to menswear, accessories, kids and homewares, right through to campaign imagery, windows and visual merchandising, Country Road just nail it, time after time.  In fact, the creative output at Country Road is so perfectly polished, it’s easy to forget that every item you see instore has been designed and developed from scratch, right here in Melbourne.  And, amazingly, every product which bears the Country Road label has been signed off by one person, and that person is Sophie Holt.

I was weirdly excited to visit Country Road’s head office in Richmond recently.  I was interested to meet the real people behind this behemoth of a brand, and curious to get my head around how a company of this size, with 71 outlets and 93 concession stores across the country, really gets things done!  It’s truly a mind boggling operation.

Sophie Holt joined Country Road in 2003, having previously held the role of Head Designer at Witchery for six years.  She’d always imagined she’d like to work at Country Road, but with this opportunity came an immense challenge – the brand was in need of a major overhaul.  In the nine years that have passed since Holt took up the reigns, it’s clear the impact she has made.  Her intuitive understanding of the Country Road ethos and market, and her notoriously perfectionist streak have turned this iconic Australian brand around – and that’s no mean feat, especially in the current climate.  Country Road’s prices have fallen, their marketshare has grown, and the quality remains as consistent as ever.  I know I used this phrase yesterday (!!) but once again, today’s story really is about the art getting things done properly, and driving an uncompromising vision from concept to completion.

We’re thrilled to share today’s interview with one of Australia’s most inspiring creative businesswomen!  Sophie Holt was a Melbourne uni arts student who literally worked her way from the shop floor (at Sportsgirl), to the top job at one of Australia’s most revered retail giants.  She’s also a Mum of three.

Massive thanks to Sophie and her team for facilitating this interview!

Sophie Holt. I think we can safely say you are an unrivalled authority in the Australian retail industry – having spent your career across four of Australia’s most respected retail brands – Sportsgirl, Witchery, Seed and now Country Road and Trenery. Can you tell us a little about your background before starting your career, and what path led you to what you’re doing now?

I grew up in a family that was always quite fashion orientated. My grandmother had this amazing shop in Toorak in the 50’s and 60’s called Magg.  It was before clothes were imported from overseas, so there was a beautiful big room out the back full of seamstresses in white coats. Everyone used to get their wedding dresses made there, and I remember being little and running around there, having my fringe cut with enormous dress making shears, and being surrounded by all of that.

My mother also worked at Magg as a head designer, and I suppose my career has been heavily influenced by her – she had the most incredible style. I grew up exposed to her most incredible wardrobe filled with Armani, YSL, Gaultier and Yohji Yamamoto. I was the youngest subscriber to Vogue Bambini and used to stay up late at night reading the magazine rather than doing my homework.

I started out studying an arts degree at University of Melbourne, but after a couple of years working on the floor at Sportsgirl I realised that fashion was where I wanted to be, and was lucky to get a job as an assistant buyer at David Lawrence.

I worked there for a while before I recognized a gap in the market for people of my age, who didn’t necessarily want the young fashionable styles of Sportsgirl, or the more conservative styles of David Lawrence.  I went out on the street and found people of my age who looked great and photographed them (original street fashion photographer!) and used these images to pitch a new brand to the business. I launched the Elle B brand, which was implemented across 12 Sportsgirl Stores.

I worked on Elle B for a number of years before I had my first child. I then got a call from Witchery and went there to help the team make the brand more fashionable and relevant to their customer. I stayed at Witchery for six years, mid way through which I started Seed. After being at Witchery and Seed for 6 years I got the call from Country Road, to once again bring the brand up to speed and create a new handwriting.

Country Road Womenswear, Summer 2012. Photo – Simon Lekias
It’s such an amazing career trajectory – to really start from working on the floor in retail to being where you are now. Do you think it still happens like that?

I definitely think you still can do that. I don’t have a degree, I didn’t finish uni… I just knew I really wanted to work in fashion.

Experience is more valuable that anything. Not that I want to discourage people from finishing a degree(!), but I think if you’re really into it and determined and have talent, it’s possible to build a career on that.

Your role at Country Road / Trenery is Creative Director, across all divisions including womenswear, menswear, accessories, kids and home. What challenges did you face making the transition from being a designer to a Creative Director, and moving from an exclusively fashion/apparel focus to homewares also?

I suppose when I came to Country Road I’d already done Witchery and Seed, so I had experience in womens and kids, and I think what they wanted was someone who was Australian, someone who understood the brand and the customer, and someone who had experience in womenswear and maybe one other area.

So, I could do kids, and I could do womens, and I knew the brand, knew the customer and understood the Country Road culture sort of quite intrinscally. Menswear was bit of a learning curve, but you know, I have grown up with boys at BBQs wearing the Country Road chambray shirt, and when you know the brand, the lifestyle behind it and the customer, you just sort of ‘get it’.

Homewares was an exciting challenge for me – the aesthetic for the homewares when I came to Country Road was not quite in line with my vision, so I just changed it, tapping into the brand’s core values, like simplicity, natural raw materials, and a real focus on fresh colour.

Colour Library at Country Road Head Office!  Photo - Sean Fennessy
It’s an immense responsibility – being so involved in every facet of Country Road’s creative output, and having to give the final sign off on every single product.

You know, it is a very big operation, but one of the best things about Country Road in particular is that you get to be very involved in the whole process from start to finish.

I work with my teams at the design table level, and then I work with marketing to art direct the campaigns and choose the models, photograph it all, work with the window teams to create the windows to reflect the image we’ve created, and work with visual merchandising to figure out how the customer is going to see it in the stores. How they are going to feel when they walk in, what are they seeing and how the colours flow.

There is the element of consistency and control right through the process, and it works really well, because the customer actually gets the message that you intended them to get right at the beginning. So the message can be really focussed – because there’s a direct line from the design table to the customer. I love that part – then you’re really sort of conveying a vision, and you have a point of view in the market.

Country Road Womenswear, Summer 2012. Photo – Simon Lekias
What have been one or two defining moments in your career?

I think I would probably say I have had three. The first one was when I launched Elle B. That was great. That was like my first brand.

The other defining moment was probaby going to Witchery and being given the opportunity to work on that and update an established brand.  And then the final one would be coming to Country Road.

There is still a sense of doom and gloom in the retail sector at the moment, if you believe what you read in the papers. What’s your take on the ‘retail downturn’? Is it something you feel can be tackled at a design / creative level, or do you feel this points to a wider issue about the changing nature of how people are shopping?

I mean, obviously there are statistics about the market and the spend, and you can’t argue with the figures. But I do feel it’s almost a bit like blaming the bad sales on the weather. I think that if you get the product right for your customer, and I’m not saying that we always do, but if you get it right, and you’ve got the best product in the market, and you’re leading the market, you’ll get the sales.

I actually think it’s a really exciting time, and it’s a time for opportunity. We’ve seen a lot of brands coming in to the Australian market from overseas, and I think it’s going to fuel innovation and make Australian brands want to be better and want to lead the market. It increases creativity. Not that’s it’s going to be easy!

I don’t think I can possibly imagine how busy you must be on a daily basis. What does a typical work day involve for you?

Wake up usually too late – I’m not a very good morning person, but I have to take two of the kids to school. Then I head into the office at 9.00am, and I have back to back meetings all day. But often they’re creative meetings – I might have a two hour design session, and I might meet with the agency about models, and I might have a financial or stategic meeting.

I’m home by 6.00. I never work at night. I walk out of here and I just don’t think about work until the next morning.

Do you often travel for work as well?

I try not to travel too often. I go twice a year. I don’t love leaving my children, so twice is enough. I have a great team of people and they all like to go…so we share the travel around.

Country Road Head Office.  Photo - Sean Fennessy
Can you share with us a few resources across any media which you visit regularly for a bolt of creative inspiration, or just to be kept in the loop?

I’m a regular reader of a lot of magazines – all the main international home and fashion mags. That’s quite big for me.

My design team are very across all the best blogs and I always ask for their recommendations and try to keep up!

We subscribe to WGSN which is a trend forecasting service we use – I should look at it a lot more than I do, but my team use it a lot.

It’s hard for me now, because I’m across all the divisions of the business, reading any fashion or interiors magazine always feels a bit like I‘m working. I can’t relax when I’m reading those magazines anymore… for pure ‘me’ time I’ll read Conde Nast Traveller to research holidays. And I don’t mind the odd gossip magazine!

What are you most proud of professionally?

I would say probably just having been given the opportunity to work here. Country Road is great brand, probably one of Australia’s best brands. We have a really great team and a great culture. I feel really lucky to work here. I always wanted to work for Country Road.

Country Road Head Office.  Photo - Sean Fennessy
What would be your dream creative project?

I think I sort of am doing it already – Country Road is an amazing project.

We also renovated our house recently, which I thought would be a dream creative project, but actually it was a nightmare…!  I’m quite particular, and so it was hard to be my own client.

What are you looking forward to?

Travelling with my children at Christmas. I think we’re going to have Christmas on the Nile.  The kids are really cross about it – they just want to be with their friends!

Country Road beachtowels, Summer 2012

Melbourne Questions –

Your favourite local neighbourhood and why?

I’m probably not very cool. My local spot is that strip in High Street in Prahran East where Spoonful and Torsa are. Then if I have time on weekend I might go further afield, to Fitzroy or the city, and have a poke around and try to find newness. There’s always a lot of newness in Melbourne.

Where /what was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?

We took the kids to the Builders Arms in Gertrude st. We just went to the Bistro part, it was great.

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

In bed reading magazines with a cup of tea.

Country Road Womenswear, Summer 2012. Photo – Simon Lekias