Interview: Professor Brian Duffy, fashion and business consultant

Brian Duffy, chief operating officer of Polo Ralph Lauren Europe. Picture: Robert Perry
Brian Duffy, chief operating officer of Polo Ralph Lauren Europe. Picture: Robert Perry
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BRIAN Duffy, Ralph Lauren’s top man in Europe, is turning his attention to Scotland’s fashion heritage

Being in the right place at the right time. That's what Professor Brian Duffy, president and chief operating officer of Polo Ralph Lauren Europe and a non-executive director of Celtic FC, says is the key to his success, the explanation as to how a working-class boy from Castlemilk ended up at the pinnacle of a global luxury brand.

Duffy will step down from his role at Ralph Lauren. Picture: Robert Perry

Duffy will step down from his role at Ralph Lauren. Picture: Robert Perry

Whether it was Castlemilk in the 1960s, Paris in the 1980s, Geneva, New York, London or points in between from Russia to the Middle East, China and North Africa, Duffy has always been right there.

If there was a time and a place to be a young Celtic fan, for a boy who spent every waking moment playing soccer in the street with his pals, it was Glasgow in 1967, when Celtic's Lisbon Lions were the best team in Europe. “I was 13. I remember it as if it was yesterday. For a period, Celtic were the best in the world. They were my team."

These days they're still his team but he's more likely to watch them from the director's box and use his sartorial connections to dress the team head to toe in slim-fitting Ralph Lauren Black Label suits off the pitch. “It was my fortunate situation to be able to bring these two loves of my life together," he says proudly.

However, being in the right place at the right time only takes you so far, and Duffy is no stranger to hard graft, having inherited a work ethic from his parents – the fabulously monikered Mary and Joseph, a teacher and a firefighter. Mindful of their son's welfare (his future boss Ralph Lauren was famously bullied by being saddled with the unfortunate surname of Lifshitz), they resisted the temptation to go for the obvious biblical choice and named him after his grandfather Hugh. “It's Hugh Brian, but I was always called Brian."

The life of Brian has followed an upward trajectory, with Castlemilk and Balornock being the crucible that set Duffy on his globetrotting path. An ambitious child, he trained as a chartered accountant with KPMG after leaving school in the 1970s. “I wanted to be a success. I was always confident and loved the thought of chartered accountancy because it seemed established and was a means by which you could travel," says the 57-year-old.

Accountancy led into fashion via a stint at Playtex as the UK CEO (spearheading the launch of the Wonderbra and its phenomenally successful ‘Hello Boys’ advertising campaign), which was bought by the Sarah Lee Corporation, a supplier of M&S and BHS. Duffy left in 2002 in a move that may have stunned a less understanding wife than Helen, mother of his four children, when he announced he was going back to college to study guitar. “Oh, she was OK with that," he says blithely.

“I was in my mid-40s and went to the Academy of Contemporary music in Guildford. The course taught all the genres – classical, rock, blues, jazz. I loved it because I've always been in bands and it's great therapy. When you're playing music you can't think about anything else."

It wasn't all hanging out at the student union, though, because, ever the businessman, Duffy was constantly working on investment opportunities. “It was surreal because part of the day was with 20-year-olds with metal through their ears and the rest of the day was sitting with bankers."

Then Ralph Lauren came calling, head-hunting Duffy in 2003, and the college dropout became European head of one of the world's largest luxury brands. “I had no hesitation. I had always loved the brand. It's the world's pre-eminent lifestyle brand, the club everybody wants to join."

Duffy's time at Ralph Lauren has seen him amass the wealth of global luxury brand know-how he is about to share with Scotland's young fashion talent, through his inaugural professorial lecture at Glasgow Caledonian University. “I know the market, the brands, the players, but I have an unusual perspective on it because I come from a working-class background in Glasgow. We really detest pretension, although I work in the most pretentious industry there is. I meet people who have great style and it's fantastic, but at the same time, the cliché of fashionista behaviour is a reality. Coming from my background, I can figure out which is which and I can be real," he says.

According to Duffy, the fashion market is dominated by huge players managed by high-profile business people and Scotland is missing out by not exploiting its wealth of natural resources, skills and talent. “Paris and Milan produce 90 per cent of the world's fashion and accessory luxury branding. The other ten per cent is US and UK. There is Louis Vuitton, PPR (Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Stella McCartney) and Richmond (Dunhill, Chloé, Net-a-Porter), the big three. They're all European and all lead the market," he says.

So where does Scotland fit into this? “It doesn't fit into it enough. What develops the luxury market is heritage, craftmanship and imagery, and we have it but don't make enough of it."

Duffy plans to help the process along when he steps down from Ralph Lauren next month, turning his focus to investing in his homeland's heritage and culture, as well as the young talent with which he thinks the country also abounds. “I'm likely to get involved in private equity and use what I know in international marketing of brands. I'm interested in looking for opportunities in Scotland for emotional and rational reasons. Look at what we have in the way of textiles, tweeds, Shetland wool, Fair Isle patterns, the hunting, shooting and fishing traditions. They're all a great fashion inspiration," he says.

“I see cool things around, like Bebaroque, with their energy and creativity, and I'm impressed by what we see at the Scottish Fashion Awards, where I'm on the panel. It's such a shame the talent often has to leave to express itself; the Graeme Blacks, Christopher Kanes and Holly Fultons."

If the market wants heritage and culture, Scotland has it bursting from its tartan breeks, says Duffy. “We have the talent and the heritage, and government and institutional support. Now we need the business leadership. We should use our national identity to promote our brands. Look at Swiss watches and English brands that promote their Englishness, from Jack Wills to Burberry, while in Italy there's Prada, and in France Dior and Chanel exploit their Frenchness. We need to do the same: promote Scottishness as an image."

And when he's not out promoting the fashion industry or lecturing? Well, I have 14 or 15 guitars, and a new banjo that's looking at me like a neglected lover right now."

• Brian Duffy gives his lecture, Managing in the Global Luxury Market – A Castlemilk Perspective, at Glasgow Caledonian University, 9 February, 5.30pm, and at GCU London, 20 February, 6.30pm. Tickets are free (