The CEO of Walpole sat with us recently to discuss everything from the true meaning of luxury and office style, to delivering a tricky speech and tips on the perfect way to unwind.

Shot on location at the walpole head office.
helen wears: DAKS GLEN CHECK JACKET & Glen check trousers.
Photography by: FRANCESCO FORONI.

Taking over the reins at the UK’s governing body of luxury is no small feat, how did you feel stepping into the CEO role at Walpole?

I’ve always been passionate about luxury and a career built in media brands like Harper’s Bazaar and Esquire meant I developed a real understanding of the sector. Added to which, I ran my own business for two years before coming to Walpole, so I knew I was coming to the job equipped with a strong knowledge of the brands, and with the skills to take a small organisation to the next level. These businesses are worth £48 billion a year to Britain and they help make the country famous throughout the world so it is a huge privilege to be the public face of such a dynamic part of the UK economy.

How has Walpole grown/developed under your stewardship?

I joined on Walpole’s 25th birthday, which was a great opportunity to set a course for its next 25 years. I always believe the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and if all the British luxury brands come together we can achieve incredible things, so it’s good to see the membership grow from 160 members to 250 over the last two years. We’ve also launched our Luxury in the Making programme in schools, to help encourage the next generation of British luxury talent, developed a Women in Luxury programme with an aim to get women from 30% of the luxury c-suite to 50% in five years, created a Future of British Luxury Summit to help develop the sector’s thought leadership and established an annual trade and media mission to the US, which is our member’s key strategic market for export.

In this “fast fashion” dominated era, how would you describe “luxury”? And, do you think there’s a myth that luxury only equates to a price tag?

Luxury is no place for cynics who, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde — “know the price of everything and the value of nothing”. True luxury – whether it’s a product or an experience – is something that’s beautiful (relatively speaking), carefully crafted, and which comes with a bewitching story. It should evoke a strong emotional connection and be something you love. It should create treasured memories. I also think that true luxury is something that lasts –when it comes to fashion, my mantra is buy less, but buy better. Invest in the right pieces, look after them, repair them (I’m a big fan of what The Restory are doing – one of Walpole’s 2019 Brands of Tomorrow), and enjoy them for as long as you possibly can.

What is the hardest decision you have had to take in business?

I quickly realised when I joined Walpole that the things you say no to are almost more important than the things you say yes to. It’s really important to stay focused, and that means having to turn down some interesting and potentially exciting projects because they’re off-strategy. That can make for tough choices.

Photography by: FRANCESCO FORONI.

Best working memory?

My first Walpole British Luxury Awards, hosted by Catherine Zeta-Jones, is a memory I’ll treasure for a lifetime – being in a room with such exceptional leaders and world-class talent was so inspiring.

How do you deal with stress in the workplace?

It’s important in any leadership role to create headspace, not just for yourself but for the team too: I try to go to the gym or to run most mornings before work, I decompress by reading lots of novels – the London Library is my favourite private members club and go for a full digital detox when on my summer holiday. I also try to make sure that the team also get the space to unwind, relax and recharge. It’s not always easy in an ‘always-on’ world, but it’s so important for mental health.

How does the culture at Walpole differ from other organisations?

I try to create a culture where we have a shared passion for what we’re trying to achieve, and where people feel empowered to own and develop their part of the organisation. I’m just here to set the direction and to steer the ship.

How would you define your style in 3 words?

Bold, Bright, British.

What do you wear to work? /Tips for dressing for the office?

Luxury dress codes are hard to navigate these days. The prevailing trend for workwear is casual-luxe but I don’t find that translates well to the infinite variety of a typical day at Walpole which might see me spending the morning at a Shoreditch tech-hub and the afternoon at Buckingham Palace. I want to look smart and sophisticated but not stuffy so after a process of trial and error, I’ve discovered that a trouser suit is a completely brilliant wardrobe staple. Wear it with sneakers and a t-shirt to the tech-hub, and then in the cab on the way to The Palace, add a chic scarf, swap the trainers for heels, and apply a more sophisticated lipstick – voila, instant outfit upgrade. My four tips for dressing for work are:
1. Invest in jackets. Spend your money on things that are both distinctive and well-cut and save on basics like black trousers and tshirts.
2. A uniform simplifies your life. Mornings became so much less stressful once I’d settled on variations on a trouser/jacket theme.
3. Keep a selection of good accessories and make-up in the office in case you have to dress up the uniform at short notice.
4. Don’t be afraid of colour. Getting noticed is better than being invisible.

Most treasured item in your wardrobe?

My friend’s mum gave me a beautiful, heavily beaded pink dress she had made for her at Zandra Rhodes in the mid-eighties – it’s a work of art and I wore it to host my first Walpole Awards to show that when it comes to luxury, a thing of beauty should be a joy forever.

Where in London do you live, favourite thing about where you live

I’m in West London, not very far from the river – I love going for a head-clearing morning run around Hammersmith and Barnes bridges.

Pub/restaurant recommendation?

Jean–Georges at The Connaught is a revelation. The food is so fresh and inventive and the people watching is great too. It’s my go-to for breakfast with Walpole members (super chic but also affordable) and dinner is a treat worth splashing out on.

Where do you go/what do you do, to unwind?

I love to listen to Podcasts – Backlisted (the podcast that breathes life into old books) feeds my literary interests; Viv Groskop’s ‘How to Own the Room’ is full of brilliant and empowering advice from interesting women and Matt Chorley’s ‘Red Box’ politics podcast for The Times gives me the inside track on Westminster.

What is the one key thing life has taught you?

Enjoy the journey: don’t worry so much about the destination.

3 tips for being happy in life?

Friends, books and Negronis. Sometimes all at once.

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You can find out more about Walpole here.