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Topshop CMO Justin Cooke Raises Digital Bar in the Fashion World

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Justin Cooke
Justin Cooke

Earlier this month, Topshop unveiled one of its most digitally ambitious fashion shows to date, "The Future of the Fashion Show." The fast-fashion retailer partnered with Google on a multiplatform experience that promised consumers a seat at the catwalk to rival Anna Wintour's. Online viewers could take in the London Fashion Week show from various points of view, from that of the model on the runway -- or the handbag on her arm. They could buy featured products instantly and even chat with the show's stars on Google+. And a "Be the Buyer" app let fans create a mood board using the show's looks.

The man behind the cutting-edge show was 31-year-old Chief Marketing Officer Justin Cooke, who is just coming off a six-year stint at Burberry, where he rose to the role of worldwide VP-PR/VIP/events. There, alongside Chief Creative Officer Christopher Bailey and CEO Angela Ahrendts, he helped propel Burberry's resurrection from a stodgy brand gone to the "chavs"-- a derogatory slang for working-class youths in the U.K. who sport designer brands and bling -- to respected luxury retailer and fashion-industry digital darling.

Mr. Cooke's first fashion gig was on the sales floor at Gucci. "It was like being in the Gucci Army; you're given standard issue of three amazing black, three-button suits, five white shirts, two black ties," he said. "I'm getting paid to wear this? That was the beginning of the bug for me."

A fortuitous encounter with one shopper who turned out to be then Gucci Group Exec-VP James McArthur led to Mr. Cooke's job as a messenger in the corporate office. From there he moved quickly up the ranks, eventually becoming worldwide PR manager at Gucci Group's Stella McCartney label, his last gig before Burberry called. Mr. Cooke landed at Topshop last September, recruited by Sir Philip Green of Arcadia Group, the U.K.'s largest privately owned clothing retailer.

At Topshop Mr. Cooke found a thriving brand poised for global expansion. It is still largely U.K. based, with 319 shops there, flagship stores in N.Y., Chicago, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, as well as 137 international franchises.

"People already have an affection for Topshop, celebrities wear it, and in the U.K. they're making really good money," said Mr. Cooke. "All we need to do is scale that behavior, because it's not a global brand by proxy of the fact that we don't have the stores. So the biggest opportunity is how do we take it to a wider audience? Digital becomes key to that."

It helps that the Topshop consumer is already digitally inclined. "They're all on their mobile phones, taking pictures of the product, using QR codes," said Mr. Cooke. "If I were at Louis Vuitton and put a QR code on something, maybe one person in 1,000 would scan it. This is digital dynamite because you've got these kids that are super-engaged. You're bringing innovation in product, in experience, so it should be exactly the same in our communications."



On his third official day on the job, Mr. Cooke was already entrenched in his first big digital campaign -- he conceived the idea while on vacation before his official start date. "Shoot the Runway," centered on the brand's Fall 2012 London Fashion Week show, and involved a partnership with Facebook, allowing consumers watching the show online to "customize the catwalk." Consumers could change characteristics of items they saw on the models as they appeared. And the models' looks -- from their outfits to lipstick -- could be purchased on the spot.

The event drew 2.1 million viewers from 100 countries. Although Mr. Cooke didn't disclose sales figures, he noted, "it was phenomenal for makeup sales, and we sold out of some of the "customize the catwalk" looks before the show even ended, so it absolutely drove high engagement."

Importantly, the effort yielded precious data that will help inform how the brand should talk to consumers going forward. "You can learn all those things about behavior, what things customers like," he said. But while data can be a starting point, "you should use your instincts" as well, he added. "I always refer to the great Henry Ford quote -- 'If I had asked people what they want, they would have said faster horses.'"

It helps that Mr. Cooke is as comfortable consorting with fashion icons as he is with tech entrepreneurs. He has regular get-togethers with the team at Google, for example. But he's just as eager to partner with up-and-comers. "If somebody sends me something saying, "Hey, I've invented this thing,' I never turn them down, because one of them is going to be the next Mark Zuckerberg. And nine out of 10 of them come in, and they make me think about things differently."

You can follow Justin Cooke on Twitter @JC7777.

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