This week I popped up to London for a bit of sightseeing and to catch up with friends from my McKinsey days. A trip to London is also never complete with a visit to my favourite shop – Karen Millen on Oxford Circus. Sadly this will have been my last visit to the store as the store is closing and to all intents and purposes the brand is dead.

I am quite devastated – how did this iconic brand end up sinking so low that this happened? Karen Millen was famous for its tailored, smart business dresses, often using bold colours or patterns. At the same time they always had an element of the classic and of enduring style about them. The quality was also great – I have Karen Millen clothes that are nearly 20 years old that I can still wear (and they do not looked dated either).

The main target market was also clear – it was business women, who wanted to look smart but stylish and elegant with a touch of something different. These were dresses that you could wear to a business meeting or go out in the evening to a posh restaurant in. They made you look, and feel, like a million dollars and yet cost wise the brand with mid-range – not designer end but also not Zara cheap. This was a brand that had insanely loyal customers, who would travel from abroad to stock up on dresses (myself included).

So what happened? First and foremost I believe the new management lost its way and very clearly did not understand the brand’s USP or its target customers. All of a sudden there were less of the iconic dresses in store and more jeans and t-shirts. The style also changed becoming more “trendy” and “edgy” (much of it just plain frumpy and ill fitting). I went from spending 1000s and having dilema’s on which dresses to buy to struggling to find a single item I liked. I was not alone. Every other long standing Karen Millen customer I spoke had the same issue. The brand started to be dropped at foreign retailers such as Globus in Switzerland – a warning signal of things to come.

Employees I spoke with also echoed my thoughts – why would customers pay £90 for a simple t-shirt when you could get the same type thing at Zara for a third of the cost? They complained about having the same conversations with customers time and time again – where was the classic Karen Millen clothing? Why was there a sudden increase in full length evening gowns when smart business dresses were virtually gone?

Karen Millen is a classic business school case study of a brand that had it all and lost it. The brand broke cardinal rules of business – not understanding the business proposition and even more importantly not understanding the customers. They also failed to heed what employees were saying in store – a fantastic source of real world insight and information ignored.  Karen Millen went from serving a particular, and potentially lucrative, segment of the market to trying to serve a totally different, broader market. They went from having their own niche, with few competitors, to taking on the likes of Zara. Not surprisingly they failed. The brand has now been bought by online retailer Boohoo – but given their target market I think it highly unlikely they will take the brand back to what it used to be.

I am devastated – there is no other brand on the market that had what Karen Millen had and there is now a definite gap in the market. I mourn the loss of an iconic brand. RIP Karen Millen.

Vintage Karen Millen dress

Vintage Karen Millen


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