Justin Cooke

As a teenager, Justin Cooke was the post-runner for Tom Ford, when Ford was at the helm at Gucci. At eighteen, Cooke had the title of PR & Marketing at Stella McCartney whilst at twenty five, he was named the Global Vice President of Public Relations at Burberry. His stint with Christopher Bailey and Angela Ahrendts lasted seven years before taking on the role of Chief Marketing Officer for Topshop.

His appetite for innovation and creativity within the fashion domain has been well-documented particularly with projects such as Burberry’s ‘Art of the Trench’ and Topshop’s ‘Shop the Show’ campaigns. However, after almost fifteen years enveloped by the fashion domain, Cooke’s thirst for disruptive innovation was no longer quenched by the industry.

Inspired by his mentor, Sir Philip Green, Cooke departed Topshop to lay the foundations for his own digital consultancy, Innovate 7. Their first product, Tunepics, is similar to Instagram in format but with the addition of an ability to link images to music via iTunes and the possibility of denoting the emotional experience which that inspires.

At this year’s Web Summit in Dublin, Justin Cooke spoke about ‘What Millennials Want’ on the Marketing Stage alongside Philippe von Burries of Refinery29, Brian Lovell of Red Agency and Jane McDaid of Thinkhouse. I was fascinated by the discussion and feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to interview Justin after the session.

Justin Cooke

How would you describe yourself both personally and professionally?

I’m a highly emotional person that likes to understand and connect with other people and how they’re feeling – it’s a Piscean trait. I like knowing the things that people aren’t going to say or don’t want to say and having an understanding on how to communicate with them and help them to express the things that they don’t find easy. That’s a really important part of my personality in both a personal and professional context. 

You are currently the CEO and founder of Tunepics but before establishing this new platform you have had a prolific career within the fashion domain. 

I’ve been lucky!

Is it not the result of opportunity and hard work?

I think it’s a mix of the two, the luck for me is that I have been in the right place at the right time but the intelligence has been knowing that and working really hard when you realise that you are in that position. When I give talks, if I give them, I always begin with a quote from Sir Francis Bacon, ‘A wise man creates many more opportunities than he finds’ and in a sense, that’s how I live my life. 

Could your ascension within the fashion industry be defined by that opportunism combined with hard-work ethic? 

Yes, definitely. My first job was working in a very small shop in Richmond, where I grew up. After that, I began working on the shop floor in Gucci. Whilst there I learned some very important lessons about treating every customer with the same respect and courtesy, regardless of how much they are spending or what we assume they can or cannot afford. From the shop floor, I was given the post-runners job in Tom Ford’s office. I spent my days speaking with Tom, Christopher Bailey, Alexander McQueen, Yves Saint Laurent and Stella McCartney who would just happen to be in the building. I knew that it was a special place and for the most part, no one knew what Christopher or Stella would achieve within the next decade or two but I could tell that something special was happening. Even as a post-runner, people would ask my opinion or ask me to do something – for example, if someone says, ‘Go get ten coffees and my dry cleaning’, if you mess that up, people will remember that but if you do a great job, they ask you to do something else and your responsibility grows. That’s what continued to happen for me and by the time I left the Gucci office, I was the worldwide PR manager for Stella McCartney. 

The fashion domain can be quite specific but a lot of the skills are the transferable and offer insights into various other industries. What did you take from working at Gucci, Stella and Burberry and how did that inform what you are currently working at? 

Fashion taught me something very powerful, I learned that it’s about the newest ‘thing’ but it’s also about timing because if you do something too early, people are not ready for it. For example, you have a very cool hat on today – if someone had seen that twenty years ago they would probably question if you could pull that off and wonder if it was a new ‘thing’ or not and today I’m wearing skinny black jeans which five years ago, I never would have paid attention to them and instead wanted to wear baggy blue Levi’s. So yeah, I learned about moments – how to execute them and when is the right time to do so. It also taught to me to understand different cultures, different races and different people. Fashion transcends geographical and cultural boundaries. 

After working with Stella McCartney, you moved to Burberry. What was that transition and role like?

When I arrived at Burberry, there was a huge conversation about what Burberry was and what it stood for, particularly in relation to the check and the stereotype of the ‘Chav’. My job and that of the team was to formulate a different conversation around Burberry and the check.

One of my biggest interests in fashion is analysing questioning the branding of various fashion houses or labels. The two that I am most fascinated by are Burberry and Victoria Beckham. 

I think Victoria is an amazing women and I really don’t think that she gets the credit that she deserves because of where she’s come from. 

Is that not just the public’s persona of her and the brand, would you not agree the fashion’s industry professionals have enveloped her?

I think they have to a point but if she were someone else, I guess you could argue that she wouldn’t be as successful, but I think she would have got more credit for her work rather than her public persona. Last week, I was at dinner with the Managing Director of 19 and we had a very similar conversation. I was expressing how I think she is a remarkable woman, she went away and she battened down the hatches and sought to make an amazing collection for women that she is the poster child of. The clothes are beautifully designed and made. 

I also think it’s important to note how clever she was from the outset. That first collection mirrored designs by Elsa Schiaparelli which industry aficionado’s were enamoured by and worked with incredible talented such as Roland Mouret. She surrounded herself with a brilliant team.  

She hired a brilliant team, you’re right and some people say that the caliber of her team discredits her in a way but I think it shows excellent leadership. I imagine her to be very focused and hard-working, no one is saying that she became a designer over-night but she has constructed a vision for a company based around her own interests and experiences in fashion. 

I agree, she has created a culture for her brand and a community online who are now transferring into the physical realm with her first store on London’s Dover Street. However, as much as we would both like to spend the afternoon fawning over Victoria Beckham, this interview is about you! 

In a sense, it still is about me and my work because we are discussing the principles for an effective and profitable brand which are culture, community and vision which is something I aspired to construct whilst I was at Burberry. We started at the very beginning and questioned what people cared about. For me, I picked out concepts such as the weather, music, emotion and digital. Showing a picture of a trench coat meant nothing but beginning to narrate a story through the model lifting the collar, drops of rain rolling off the coat whilst quoting ‘Watership Down’ with ‘People don’t enjoy the weather, they enjoy feeling proof against it’. All of sudden, there’s an air of magic to it. Those are the moments that you can make a connection with and now it’s the only coat to buy. We created that through emotion, story-telling, excitement and quality content. That’s Burberry’s challenge now to continue that momentum. 

Do you think that other brands are now mirroring what Burberry did?

Certainly within the fashion space, they have attempted to do that. I think now there is a challenge for other brands to question and execute the next layer of incredible interaction. Also, I think that there is a really interesting conversion occurring between the fashion and technology spaces. Five or ten years ago, if you had come up to me and told me that you could listen to all of your cd’s on this tiny device, not only would it have blown my mind but I probably would have told you that you’re fucking crazy. Thus, I don’t think it’s impossible that in five years time, I’ll be looking at you and what you’re wearing but all will not be as it seems. 

Even in terms of digital, fashion came to the online space a little later than other industries. Perhaps it was because they were nervous but do you have any concerns over the possibility that they also might be scared about embracing wearable technology?

The reason why they were initially scared to embraced the internet and social media was because luxury was always assumed to be about the environment, beautiful scenery and locations with exquisite smells and ornate furnishings; it came from a place of opulence and it constructed a filter of what various brands and companies assume to be their standard of beauty and luxury. The internet was born as a place that was free for everyone. The filter no longer existed. When the internet arrived, the challenge for these companies was to ensure that the online environment was correct and some have cultivated that luxury experience through social media and other platforms extremely well. 

However, the question that you have asked me that I have yet to answer… Will they get there? I think they will but the fashion industry will do it in their own way. You will probably see people partnering with Apple or the technology industry will recruit from the fashion industry – much like the way that they employed Angela (Ahrendts – previous CEO of Burberry) who was my old boss. When I look at the colours and materials of the Apple watch, I know that it’s Burberry-inspired and had Apple of tried to execute that design pre-employing people like Angela, it would have looked completely different and perhaps uninspired. 

We were talking there about the filter of the luxury industry and how it has almost evaporated. Throughout the Web Summit, questions have arisen in relation to the future of magazines and publications because this accessibility for financial and emotional investment exists for everyone. Would this be something that you would agree with?

I don’t believe that we are at risk of losing the magazines but I think the power has shifted slightly. However, that too is something which the magazines should be very proud of as they have instilled a certain confidence in women and men in relation to who they are and what they wear. For example, everyone has a certain idea of what style is, expressing themselves and knowing what the feeling comfortable in. People are also getting much better at articulating that – that’s a huge credit to the publications. In a way, they have almost made themselves less relevant because they have done such a good job. 

Is the cost of the audience’s increased self-confidence the de-mystification of fashion?

Yes, but I think the industry itself removed the veil. They have said that it’s ok and understand the need for everyone to feel part of it. Initially that happened when great bloggers like yourself came in and everybody’s opinion was relevant. I think it’s a great thing and something which should be celebrated. You know, who’s to say that the next Vogue isn’t you?

Ha! Let’s not tell Anna… 

I think she’d approve!

Let’s not tell Grace then! My final question for you Justin, what do you imagine is the fashion industry’s next big footprint within the digital space?

I think it’s developing products that are interchangeable. For example, how can my coat change colour? The starting point or pre-technology for that would be heat – if you have a handbag and it changes colour if it is warm or cold – and being able to charge your phone through your coat. 

Who do you imagine will be the leader? 

There’s a company called StudioXO and I’m friends with the founders there. I think they are brilliant and if they get the right funding behind them, which they need, I think they are going to create something incredible. Currently, they are mixing fabrics like rubber and silk along with electronic panelling for a dress – I think they’re going to construct the next iteration of what clothes look like which is transformable and interchangeable. After that, it’s where technology takes us!

Thank you so much to Justin for taking the time to participate in this interview. You can interact with Justin on Twitter via @JC7777 and I would wholly recommend that you download the Tunepics app and follow @justin and @minniemelange.

If you enjoyed this interview, you might like the other interviewees within the ‘Minnie Meets’ series. You can find them here.

Written by

Sinéad Burke is an academic and a writer with an obsessive interest in fashion, education and 'Extraordinary Women'. She is an ambassador for the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the National Women's Council of Ireland.