Interview

Sophie Holt, Creative Director – Country Road

by Lucy Feagins, Editor
Friday 19th October 2012
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

by Lucy Feagins, Editor
Friday 19th October 2012

43 comments

  • Mary Anne P 2 years ago

    I do love a bit of CR! Sophie Holt has definitely put CR back up there! I’ve grown up with CR through the years and I remember wearing lots of Elle B in my early 20s! I even did work experience in high school at their head office in Abbotsford years ago. Sophie always seems to be a very down to earth lady despite all her success! Thanks for the great interview Lucy!

  • feyza 2 years ago

    Great interview and great Australian brand!

  • pen 2 years ago

    I have to say when I worked as a consultant at CR one of my favourite things was the colour library racks!

  • Al 2 years ago

    Wow, what a great insight into such a well renowned fashion guru! Thanks for sharing, Lucy!

  • Katie B 2 years ago

    Thanks Lucy for this fabulous interview – and to Sophie for giving us her time. I am completely inspired by Sophie’s attitude and work ethic. I love that she speaks about her work life balance and that her experiences on the job and creative instinct ( and hard work!!) have lead her to her dream job. I will be forwarding this link to sisters and girlfriends far and wide.
    PS. Love the CR looks for summer 2012 too.

  • Christie 2 years ago

    Great interview! I love Country Road and I have always wondered who the people were behind the brand. Every season there is something my friends and I always fight over… we want the whole store, but we know we’d all end up looking the same :) Although we end up doing it anyway and because there are so many combinations and colour stories we all look amazing! Thanks Country Road for making beautiful affordable clothes for the modern women, and thank you Design Files for bringing us this interview.

  • corrie 2 years ago

    THANK YOU! Long time CR fan – we dress head to toe in it and I loved this behind the scenes look! I’ve never been able to read anything as indepth before and for big fans like me this was just fabulous!!!!!! thank you!

    I have 5 kids and just adore CR for it’s classic looks with a modern touch and I know that whatever I buy from there will look fab and be in style while still lasting me many years. And I love the direction their homewares are going!
    thank you, this was just fabulous and just shared on my fb page for all my readers!
    Corrie:)

  • Gemma 2 years ago

    Thank you so much for this article. It’s so reassuring as a young designer to hear about successful creatives who have achieved their goals by starting the bottom and working their way up. A great reminder to just stick at it when sometimes I begin to question if I’m getting any closer to reaching my goals. Thanks Lucy!

  • Marc 2 years ago

    They have an overtly perky receptionist named Elizabeth!

  • The Yellow Dance Spot 2 years ago

    Excellent interview, I love Sophie’s attitude with the changing retail landscape. No wonder they continue to deliver gorgeous product season in, season out.

  • Catherine Heraghty 2 years ago

    Love the brand, love the interview. Thank you!

  • Camilla Stirling 2 years ago

    Such an inspiring interview for a design student. Thanks Lucy.

  • jas 2 years ago

    With saving for a wedding I must admit that I’m not spending money on clothes and things this year, expect at Country Road to keep my status up to date for their offers. Such a classic Aussie brand and it’s great to see a bit of their behind the scenes and know who, creatively, has got the team running in such an orderly, gorgeous way to create these fab clothes and homewares.

  • And the best thing Sophie did was overhaul the homewares division. I always look forward to a new season drop of CR pieces in store – they’re always editing designer fashion looks from the runway for Australian customers in mind. And who doesn’t love the kidswear? The dilemma now for me is spend on my 3year old or spend on myself? YIKES… (Hubby might get a look in too sometimes:)) Loved this interview – it would be definitely be my dream job to work at CR design office one day !

  • Chris Chun 2 years ago

    Thank you for the sneak peek into the design offices and fab interview with Sophie.

  • Kathy Joyce 2 years ago

    Very inspiring lady! I love it when any women nails the work/ life balance particularly with such a multi-faceted role. Well done Sophie you are an inspiration.

  • Annette 2 years ago

    How refreshing to find someone in fashion who works 9-6. More fashion companies should take a cue from CR and bring back the work/life balance!

  • Barbara 2 years ago

    Watch out Sophie, I’ve got my eye on your job. It sounds perfect!

  • Pauline 2 years ago

    Sophie is quite the inspiration! An extrodinary women that successfully manages to juggle her family time and a super successful career. She seems to have a heatlhy balance in her life and this is reflected in the CR branding xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

  • Margie 2 years ago

    what a fantastic work ethic for someone in that position. An inspiration.

  • Kath W 2 years ago

    Do we get to see the renovated house that caused so much heartache? Hope so :-)

  • Lucy Mora 2 years ago

    You are a star Soph! No doubt about it.

  • Barbara Fisher 2 years ago

    What Sophie has done for CR has been nothing short of amazing. I look forward to seeing the new homewares range in particular every season. I just want it all!

    I also loved reading that Sophie doesn’t work past 6pm. What a breath of fresh air!

  • Elle 2 years ago

    Adore you for featuring this … Country Road is no doubt my new obsession …. xx

  • AmandaNz 2 years ago

    Lucy you’re so right, Sophie is spot on with her design direction. Who can’t resist CR and Trenery for classic style, fresh colour and natural fibres? It’s the perfect recipe for all disciplines. Fabulous talent, wonderful insight. Thank you!

  • lin parups 2 years ago

    sophie holt. what an uncomplicated , unpretentious, inspirational, insightful woman.

  • Ingrid 2 years ago

    I once read that the Chinese word for crisis is composed of two characters; danger and opportunity. Inspiring to see Sophie Holt energized by current retail landscape & it’s showing in the work.

  • Sandra 2 years ago

    Really inspiring interview. What an amazing lady. Thank you

  • Rachel 2 years ago

    Thanks so much for sharing; those offices look AMAZING! I love country road home wares, so on trend but timeless at the same time!

  • Sharon O. 2 years ago

    I remember how excited I was when Sophie Holt was appointed to Country Road. She has since become a role model and an inspiration to women and designers like myself.
    Her S/S2004 range which featured a Kelly green trench coat signaled the start of a new era for CR.
    At the time I couldn’t afford to buy that trench coat but to this day I still think about it and wish I had.
    Thank you Lucy for this great interview!

  • Marc 2 years ago

    Great interview! I’ve always been a fan! Except for the small fact that this Australian company has mostly everything made in China and is South African owned…

  • Michael 2 years ago

    I want to say the interview is a commendable effort but the truthful reality of the brand and company is its inconsistent with what it is trying to communicate to consumers. As customers, you may not be aware of what happens internally in-store, but if Holt wants to design a consistent collection, then her design team should be critically aware of what it means to edit. Personally, I don’t understand how a men’s collection can become literally a bazaar with a maelstrom of coloured shorts in perpetual choices?

    There always seems to be a fractured semblance in the way that how the campaigns and lookbooks are art-directed and composed (with extremely talented photographers like Wetherell), and yet, we you hear customers attempt to try them on, the fit isn’t great or particularly the women’s tailoring of jackets with the sleeves too long.

    At the crucible of this brand is if they want to stay relevant and be a great Australian brand? Because I don’t believe they are and they are complacent to think having that Australian heritage is meant to carry you forward. Whilst it is a major national fashion brand, atleast what Holt could look into is where and how things are made. I see the brand use materials for an entire dress for example, when the fabric itself is suppose to be used for interlinings. By using the full weight of fabrics and not blends, Country Road would educate its customers better and understand real quality.

    I think it’s a major fault that Country Road makes everything off-shore and the results come back with their shoes still having visible glue, and so much more numerous issues that disdain it.

  • Fashion Grad 2 years ago

    Sheesh. I can’t believe she goes home at 6! If my design assistant job wasn’t 80 hours a week at $15 I probably would have stayed in the game a bit longer! Nice insight into the head office, thanks Lucy!

  • Wendy Keller-Pisterman 2 years ago

    Dear Sophie, Was a very close friend of your mum and the Holts – I live in Switzerland and
    Umbria – would love to get into contact with you if you have any interest. Lots of happy memories
    of travelling with Caroline round the world…….such a long time ago now.

  • Precious Mzimande 2 years ago

    Hello Sophie, I respect u a lot. U r doing such a great job for Country Road and Trenery.
    I sell the products with pride knowing that u dedicate your time and effort making Country Road and Trenery what it is today. I’m an Embassodor for the brand, I’m a south African citizen, I work in the Brooklyn Standalone 3037 in Pretoria, Gauteng. Keep up the good work.

  • Mel 2 years ago

    Great interview with a very inspirational Mum, l love that she is home by 6 for her kids with such an amazing job and that she doesn’t think about work until she is there again the next day. I can totally relate to that being a mother of a 2 year old with another due in 2 weeks. Love love love everything about Country Road – my husband, son and l all wear CR, our home has many CR homewares and my family and friends receive many presents that l have bought from CR. Thanks for the great article

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  • Yani 1 year ago

    Great interview Sophie you look great!

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