From architect to accountant, Roksanda CEO Jamie Gill’s resilient career
From architect to accountant to steering British luxury brand Roksanda, Jamie Gill has had an extraordinary career. Lysanne Currie meets him at the fashion house’s flagship store
It’s a grey January day. But step into luxury fashion house Roksanda’s flagship store on London’s Mount Street and the gloom lifts: bright, tropical colours pop, flowing structural dresses command the room and bags and shoes sit proudly on the floating concrete shelves. The 2,500 sqft store, designed by leading architect Sir David Adjaye, makes CEO Jamie Gill grin.
“It’s amazing isn’t it?” he smiles, beckoning me in. “I was so eager when I saw this – I’d finally found where I wanted to be, a company that speaks the same language as me.”
The enthusiasm doesn’t just come from a personal passion for buildings. Gill graduated in architecture from the University of Nottingham before, unusually, moving to Deloitte London’s graduate programme and qualifying as a chartered accountant. He says this background is a crucial part of the success that led to him becoming Roksanda’s CEO (with customers such as the Duchess of Cambridge and Michelle Obama) at just 30.
“It’s been an unusual journey,” he says. “But I’m the biggest advocate for doing what I’ve done. Architecture touches on so many subjects from art to physics. Then you have to think about the socioeconomics of your creation, how it fits into society and the environment, as well as, of course, the financials of budgeting and funding, the sustainability and sourcing of the materials and the building’s messaging. You learn a multi-stakeholder discipline early on.”
Gill grew up in Derbyshire, the son of second-generation immigrants. His dad ran a takeaway business and his mother worked part time for the police. “It was a humble but comfortable upbringing, with a strong work ethic,” he says. A curious, creative child, architecture intrigued him from an early age, encouraged by his mum.
“She said: ‘Be creative in education, because that is the time when you can really be free and expressive,’” he recalls. “I was drawn to architecture because it was almost an umbrella of design. And the star architects inspired me: Norman Foster, Richard Rogers. As a child concealing being gay, I wanted to do something creative. This was a way of fuelling my passion but not announcing myself.”
However, on graduating, the reality of working in architecture disappointed. It was 2009 and the UK was still reeling from the crash. “I jumped around different architecture practices but I wasn’t enjoying it at all,” he says.
A friend on Deloitte’s graduate programme suggested Gill apply. He went through the rigorous, multi-interview vetting process. “One partner saw the merits of the transferable skillset,” he says, “and advised me to start reading the Economist!”
Gill then worked in the advisory department at the Big Four firm, curating a client portfolio that was a mixture of real estate and luxury fashion. Clients included the Canary Wharf Group, Brookfield Multiplex and LVMH.
“I was fascinated by luxury and started to really see the power of the brand,” says Gill. “Why people were buying Louis Vuitton over another company, what that brand is standing for and how it touched their heart. I understood why people would pay the premium. It’s the emotion, the connection.”
Gill could have stayed in the sector but instead moved to Mumbai with a designer friend to found their luxury wedding dress company. “There was just this feeling inside that I couldn’t shake – I wanted to do my own creative thing. It was almost arrogant when I look back on it,” he laughs. “To think that I was going to start my own fashion brand aged 25!”
Life as an entrepreneur was another piece in the leadership jigsaw. Gill had seen fashion from a consumer’s and financial adviser’s view. Now he was at the coalface: “We sourced factories, worked with embroiderers, raised funds and sampled the collection. And we sold some pieces! I look back at this start-up as my real-life MBA in the business of fashion.”
The lessons were multiple – not just on the business side. Gill’s resilience was tested. “That time taught me about relentless determination and I try to keep that with me to this day,” he says. “Sheer determination and self-belief is infectious.”
His other lesson was in mental health: “I learned by doing it the wrong way. I worked way too hard, I ate really bad food or didn’t eat at all, I socialised and drank too much. I was so burnt out I lost my hair. I just thought, ‘I’m never doing that again.’”
The pair wound the company down when a round of funding didn’t come through, and Gill returned to the UK. “I came home skinny, sad and in debt,” he says. “I moved back in with my parents and had to pick up the pieces. It was very hard. At the time it felt like rock bottom. Now I see it was a great thing to do and it accelerated my journey to where I am now.”
It’s hard to believe the man sitting in Roksanda’s VIP room could once have felt so dejected. Gill picked himself up within months of moving home. He became Investment Director of family office fund, Eiesha Ltd, which had taken a stake in Roksanda in 2014. In December 2017, the fashion house’s founder, Serbian designer Roksanda Illincic, asked Gill to become CEO. Revenue has grown from £3m in 2014 to just shy of £10m today.
“I was consulting at that time with the British Fashion Council [Gill now sits on its board] and I used to mentor with Caroline Rush [its CEO]. I realised I had an innate merchandising skillset, as well as the strategic and financial,” he says. “Marrying all my experiences together – brand, product, investment, marketing – meant I could grasp situations quickly. Design was left with design, but as soon as there was an inspiration or intention for the collection, I’d get involved and take it on: building it, selling it, producing it, shipping it, marketing it, then building a budget and making a plan.”
Far from stalling or staying still during a global pandemic, Gill has flexed his agile leadership style. Roksanda was one of the first fashion houses to merge its seasons, there’s been a collaboration with sportswear brand Lululemon and an interiors project: the Roksanda Penthouse in the Gasholders complex in Kings Cross.
The pandemic hasn’t been without its challenges, however. “It’s been fire-fighting, but at the same time we’ve managed to retain everybody [Roksanda has 40 employees],” says Gill. “We just had to pivot – we even introduced joggers to our collection! And it’s tricky – as a fashion brand we always have to be one step ahead and feel the pulse of the next season.”
Gill’s financial background has been essential: “I could not be a CEO without my accountancy training. Being able to look at an ever-evolving situation calmly and work out the different scenarios depending on which lever you pull has been invaluable. All of my training has been so relevant and come into play: business planning, accounting, tax, ROI. I don’t know how you could commercially appraise a business decision without it.”
There are challenges ahead, says Gill. He cites the lack of tourism as the biggest, hoping that the Middle Eastern, American and Asian markets return to London in 2022. But, ever the optimist, Gill sees the positives that have come from putting the world on hold.
“The reflection period has been so useful in that we have taken the time to flesh out all of these policies and manifestos, predominantly on sustainability,” he explains. “We’ve really looked hard at where we are sourcing from and why. There is a greater sense of purpose in business now – but this has always been part of our DNA, Roksanda has always existed to empower women. Our clothes are very modest, but they’re bold. If you walk into a room wearing Roksanda, you are visible and you’re saying something about art. Roksanda [Illincic]’s clothes are powerful and intense – everything she designs has a point of view and a sense of purpose. Like an architect, I suppose.”
Catch up on the ICAS Insights webinar, “Five key strategies to build a resilient mindset”.