Fashion guru talks business

When Glen Senk is picking out a dress, he eschews the approaches of most seasoned retailers. He doesn’t focus on profits. He doesn’t bow to trends. Instead, he imagines he is a woman.

At a Calhoun College Masters Tea on Wednesday, Senk — the president of women’s clothing store Anthropologie and executive vice-president of Urban Outfitters Inc. — showed that, like the clothes he sells, he is atypical. Since becoming president of Anthropologie in 1994, Senk has turned the brand from a single store into a chain taking in about $700 million a year. At the tea, Senk introduced students to a world that blends fashion and business and offered advice on how to get there.

Glen Senk, president of Anthropologie, gives industry advice to fashionista wannabees at a Master’s Tea in Calhoun on Wednesday.
Blair Benham-Pyle
Glen Senk, president of Anthropologie, gives industry advice to fashionista wannabees at a Master’s Tea in Calhoun on Wednesday.

With an MBA from the University of Chicago, Senk said, he went against the norm when he entered retail directly after graduation. While most of his classmates were sitting at desks in investment banks, Senk spent his first days out of school peeling tags off ceramics as he prepared a display for Bloomingdale’s.

“I’ve always been a little odd, but have had the confidence to follow my oddity,” Senk said. “There have been times when I’ve thought to myself, ‘I must be out of my mind.’ But I’ve always just done what I love.”

After working at Bloomingdale’s and Williams-Sonoma, Senk accepted a job at Anthropologie because he was told he could run the start-up store as if it were his own company.

Senk, who still spends about 20 percent of his time in his stores, said he remains very involved in selecting merchandise. But he views both Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters as retailers of shopping experiences rather than of products, he said.

“We’re customer experts rather than category experts,” he said. “People always want to pigeonhole us and say we’re a bohemian retailer, but we’re really not. We define ourselves by our customer, not by our product, so [our product] changes a lot.”

Senk believes that the ambiance of a store is as important in attracting customers as the product being sold, as a shopping spree should be like a “mini vacation.” He said that while most retailers try to simplify their store set-ups and make all their stores look the same, he believes that complexity is a good thing. No two Anthropologie or Urban Outfitter stores are alike, he said.

“We drive our business by offering fashion that is unique,” Senk said. “We’d rather be early and wrong than become stagnant.” He added that spring will bring lots of shorts and a brighter color palette, as well more prints.

Senk wrapped up the tea by offering any students who were interested in fashion an opportunity to intern with Urban Outfitters. Students in the audience, who ranged from those simply interested in the clothing brand to those who are considering careers in the fashion industry, said they were impressed with Senk’s ideas and point of view.

“It was nice to have a new perspective of how corporate life can mix with fashion,” Danielle Lespinasse ’07 said. “I’m thinking about going into business, and seeing how something that is accessible to everyone like retail can mix with something specific like business is really different.”

Margaret Tung ’10, a fan of Anthropologie, said she went into the Master’s Tea hoping simply to meet Senk. But she left with a possible internship opportunity with the company.

“I came out with maybe a career path in mind about how I can combine the fashion industry, which I love as an interest and hobby, with something I can go into seriously like business,” said Tung. “It was cool to see [Senk’s] vision for Anthropologie, and that he thinks of the customer and what he or she wants rather than innovation on the product.”

Senk said Urban Outfitters Inc. will unveil a fourth brand this year to add onto their three current brands — Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters and Free People.

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