Apple Ups Its Fashion Cred, Names Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts As SVP Of Retail And Online Stores

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If you had any second thoughts about how Apple sees itself as a high-end fashion brand in the consumer electronics world, doubt no more: today the company announced that it is appointing Angela Ahrendts, currently the CEO of Burberry, as its SVP of retail and online stores. This is a new position at the company that will report directly to Tim Cook, and it takes effect in the Spring of 2014. At the UK-based fashion house, she is getting succeeded by designer Christopher Bailey.

Apple says Ahrendts will be in charge of “the strategic direction, expansion and operation” of both Apple retail and online stores. Apple’s direct sales operations have been a juggernaut that has redefined how consumer electronics are marketed and sold, with many like Microsoft, Samsung and Nokia trying to replicate the formula (less successfully). However, in the most recent quarter, the numbers were less stellar, with sales of $4 billion, flat on one year ago, and down 22% sequentially. That’s something that needs fixing.

“I am profoundly honored to join Apple in this newly created position next year, and very much look forward to working with the global teams to further enrich the consumer experience on and offline,” said Ahrendts in a statement. “I have always admired the innovation and impact Apple products and services have on people’s lives and hope in some small way I can help contribute to the company’s continued success and leadership in changing the world.”

“World” is the operative word here: the company has been pushing hard into new markets like China with a huge retail presence there, as well as breaking ground in other emerging countries like Russia. (Coincidentally, both are hits with Burberry; Ahrendts knows how to sell high-end product there.)

Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, meanwhile noted that Ahrendts “shares our values and our focus on innovation, and she places the same strong emphasis as we do on the customer experience.”

The connection between Burberry and Apple is an interesting one. As Apple was gearing up for a big sales push with its new generations of the iPhone in September, the fashion house used the device prominently during its Spring/Summer 2014 fashion show — a big enough deal that Apple press released the event. Little did we know at the time that this was something of a foreshadowing wink towards today’s news. (Hell, even that champagne color on the iPhone 5s is, frankly, a metallic version of Burberry beige.)

Of course, it goes beyond simply one fashion label using the latest handsets from a phone maker in a one-off cross-promotional opportunity. “This collaboration celebrates our relationship and shared foundation in design and craftsmanship. We have a mutual passion for creating beautiful products and unlocking emotive experiences through technology, which has made it intensely exciting to explore the capabilities of iPhone 5s,” said Christopher Bailey, Burberry Chief Creative Officer at the time. “We’re inspired by what this could mean for the future as we continue to explore the merging of physical and digital experiences.” This could be a reference to how Apple may be moving even deeper into the world of aesthetics and fashion in a wearables move. In any case, the physical and digital experience will likely be a modish one, also underscored by the appointment of YSL’s CEO Paul Deneve as the new head of still-unspecified “special projects.”

More generally, Apple has long cultivated itself as no ordinary garden variety consumer electronics brand. It’s apparent in its design (always high end), its pricing (premium), and its general comportment as a special, unique thing.

No, not a pedestrian Red Delicious apple (not even my favorite, Macintosh) but a rare variety from an orchard possibly once belonging to a noble family. In that regard, Apple is actually very close in ethos to how many high-end fashion brands, including Burberry (except for its “chav” stumble), have positioned themselves for years.

There is also an ironic riposte here to what precedes Ahrendts. Other retail heads (under different titles, another mark of how Apple is breaking a bit with things it doesn’t like from its past) have included Ron Johnson, who left to run JC Penney, and John Browett, who had headed up UK mid-range electronics chain Dixons. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but JC Penney and Dixons are a very far cry from Burberry and Apple.

On the other hand, as Apple does move into more segmentation in its iPhone devices, you can see where the experience of someone like Ahrendts, who has successfully navigated Burberry into a position of regaining its stature with high-end customers but also continuing to further its name and products to a wider audience, would fit in perfectly.

Before Burberry, Ahrendts cut her teeth at a number of other fashion houses, including Liz Claiborne and Donna Karan.