Executive Spotlight: Debra Margles (President of Michael Kors Canada)

Editor’s Note: Debra Margles has served as the President of Michael Kors Canada since 2004. A Montreal native, she relocated to New York City in her teens to pursue an education at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), a move that she claims changed her life. There, she landed her first job working for designer Perry Ellis. In 2001, she became President of Kasper and Anne Klein Canada, a position she resigned from when she accepted her current position. 2018 marks her thirty-fifth year working in the fashion industry.

This past winter, Debra was a judge in the Small&Medium Enterprise Track in the final round of the McGill Dobson Cup. 

How did you start up Michael Kors in Canada?

I’ve been doing this for a long time. We first started in Canada thirteen years ago, with maybe three to five people. Today, we have over a thousand employees. We started very, very small with the idea that we would perhaps own a few stores in Canada; we now have forty stores in Canada. We never thought we would grow the company this big.

We started off as a luxury brand. I’ve been in the fashion industry for thirty-five years. I’m fifty-six. I live in Montreal and I was born in Montreal, but I left to go to FIT in New York City for four years, where I stayed to work for a luxury brand called Perry Ellis. My whole career, I’ve worked for real designers and that’s why I love what I do. Michael [Kors] is a real designer who’s very involved, very passionate, very in love with what he does, and it’s contagious. So, I consider myself a very fortunate leader because I absolutely love what I do.


What does your day-to-day look like as President of Michael Kors Canada?

Day-to-day, we have a certain routine.

We review the numbers of all of our stores on Monday. We get all the planners, the allocators, and the buyers together and look over what happened last week. What were our best-sellers? Our slow-sellers? What is our action plan? What is our competition doing? What are on the sale banners? We’re learning so much because the pace of the fashion industry, of retail in general, has changed tremendously with e-commerce. More and more, we’re studying the data, the analytics, and the statistic of who our consumer is. When is she shopping? What percentage of customers are coming from Alberta, from British Columbia, from Toronto, from Montreal? If we have a spike in sales, where are we getting it from? We have certain stores that have more of a certain population, so that is how we feed the inventory during certain times. If we’re going to celebrate Chinese New Year in January, where does that affect us most?

Tuesday, we talk about what we can do to affect change for the week. All the leaders of the company get together as a group and talk about what we’re doing for direct marketing, e-mails, e-commerce, transfers, allocations, and such. So, a lot of Mondays and Tuesdays is strategy.

Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, depending on our markets, I’m looking at real estate or having meetings with people outside the company. That’s when I usually plan things.

The company is a lifestyle brand, so there’s a lot of things we’re constantly doing. Menswear, ladies’ wear, handbags, footwear, eyewear, fragrance, jewellery, and the list goes on. My day is never the same. Ever, ever, ever.

Debra, alongside the rest of the McGill Dobson Cup judges from the finals of the Small & Medium Enterprise, joined by Dean Isabelle Bajeux from the Desautels Faculty of Management.

When you took the helm of the company, how were you able to look forward and project what consumers would want and how the climate would change?

We made a lot of mistakes. We thought the world needed another apparel company, but it didn’t. There were so many strong players thirteen years ago: Jones, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, and all those Tommy Hilfiger brands were known for apparel. What we realized was that there was a void for great, accessible luxury handbags. The only real player in the market was Coach. Michael loves beautiful leathers, so we did things a little bit more upscale, a little more fashion. That’s what happened to us. Michael said, “I want to build lifestyle stores. I don’t want it to be just handbags. I want a woman to walk in and be able to buy shoes and a bag and a sweater and a watch” and that’s what he created.

There were not a lot of places like that that were for really sexy women, with powerful looking clothes, great price points, and high fashion. When you think about that today, you think Zara, Michael Kors, and only a handful of others who do it really well. But we do it with a brand.


How do you keep your employees empowered?

I give them clear, defined goals so that they know what the result will be if they put in the extra hours, work really hard, and do what they need to do. Some people can run a marathon not knowing where they are going and still be motivated, but most people need to know that at the end of the marathon, for example, we’ll go to Starbucks and have a coffee. I could run knowing I’m going to get to Starbucks, but if someone tells me to just run until they say it’s over, I can’t do it. People today generally want goals. Younger people especially want to know, “what’s in it for me? If I do this, what will my results be? How will I advance?” I think my generation didn’t grow up thinking like that. My generation grew up thinking, “if I come in early, stay late, and work really hard, that would be enough.”

We’re very clear that we bring people into this organization that want a career and not a job. We want to motivate people to rise to the highest level that they can rise to.

Today, however, people want work-life balance. In this organization, we are working harder at being in the moment when we’re in the moment and being able to turn off when we’re not, because in fashion, it never ends. There’s always another story you could add and another magazine to read. There’s always something happening out there that influences fashion. Look at Gucci, look what happened to them overnight. Lululemon was, at one point, the only place to buy active wear. Now look at how many new Lululemon stores are out there. So, you can’t just sit back in fashion, you have to always be looking forward because there’s a lot of innovation everywhere and because of e-commerce, there’s a lot more competition and opportunity from the world. Before, you couldn’t buy Fiorucci if you didn’t fly to New York. Today, you could buy Fiorucci online and you could buy Vetements online. You could buy anything in essence. You could get on Net-a-Porter and go shopping internationally. Amazon is changing the scene too. All of a sudden, the competition has free delivery, even same-day delivery. What do you do with all that information?

Today, our team needs to be able to turn off and on. Otherwise, we’re on all the time.

I believe that as a leader, my job is to be a good coach. I have to motivate the team and cheer them on, on the sidelines. If they make a mistake, miss the ball, and strike out, I make sure that they regain the confidence to get back out on the field again. Some people in this organization have been with us for a long time and they’re great players. Now, they’re teaching their skills to another round of players. We’re very clear that we bring people into this organization that want a career and not a job. We want to motivate people to rise to the highest level that they can rise to.

What is the biggest challenge that you have faced, and how did you overcome it?

The biggest challenge for the company would be e-commerce, and I didn’t overcome it. I’m learning it. We’re embracing it. It is a work in progress that all of us around the world are embracing at a fast page: how to do it efficiently, how to do it while making money, and how to do it so that’s it’s adaptable.

Some stores, like Holt Renfrew, don’t even have e-commerce yet. The Bay is okay at it, but there are certain stores that are doing really well. Aritzia’s great at it, and Sephora, with their loyalty program, is fabulous at it. My greatest challenge right now is becoming very well-verse in e-commerce. Now more than ever, it’s incredibly important because of the number of American retailers, like Uniqlo, Zadig & Voltaire, and Maje, coming to Canada. There’s simply more competition.


How do you stay on top of the competition?

I’m frequently online seeing what they’re doing. I subscribe to all of my competition and I have people within the organization that do the same so we’re all on the same page. One person went out on Black Friday to shop the competition. I also read a lot. I read a lot of trade magazine, I subscribe to many footwear magazines, I stay up to date on different materials that teach me what different designers and stores are doing. You have to stay on top of the trends, so you have to do your due diligence. You also have to network. Networking is extremely important.

If you’re going to spend a fortune on beautiful marketing and beautiful stores, you better have the right product in those stores.

When you first started out, your area of expertise was merchandising and marketing. What is most important aspect of that department?

Product, product, product. No matter what.

You can go into the best, most beautiful store or you can go into a shitty store and buy the best running stores. You can have the best sales associates, the best loyalty program, and the best packaging, but if you go into Sephora and they don’t carry the brand you want, you’re going to go anywhere else to get it because if you love AMOREPACIFIC or a certain Stila, you’re going to go find it no matter what, even if it’s at a pharmacy. Today, it’s all about underground places, so you better have product. People can use e-commerce to buy whatever they want. If you’re going to spend a fortune on beautiful marketing and beautiful stores, you better have the right product in those stores. A really great marketing campaign is very important, but at the end of the day, if your pant doesn’t fit right, customers aren’t going to buy it even if you have all the rest around it. Product always comes first.

From over thirty years working in the fashion industry, what is your best advice for entrepreneurs looking to start their own fashion label?

It’s okay to take risks, but definitely go work for somebody for a few years. Make mistakes on their behalf. There’s a lot to learn every single day and it could cost you a lot of money.

I believe that internships are essential. It’s a great way to see different companies without making long term commitments, almost like dating. You can meet different people and see what fits for you. From that, as a leader later in life, you can reflect back and think about what companies you want to be like and which companies you don’t. I think bigger companies are great at the beginning of your career because there are certain disciplines that you learn. If you want to break into cosmetics, go work for L’Oréal. Structure is very important.

Some people argue that when you work for a smaller company, you get to do many things. I like that idea too. When you work for a big shoe company like Aldo, you’re going to learn a lot about one thing because they have a lot of people. If you go work for a smaller company, you might be doing forty tasks instead of ten. It just depends on the type of person you are, but going to work for a company before opening your own is very good advice. I would never tell my kids to do something until they’ve worked in the field.


What’s a company that you look up to today? If you weren’t going to be the President of Michael Kors Canada, which company would you want to lead?

If it doesn’t have to be a fashion company, I would tell you right now that I would like to be more involved, after this, in cosmetics or health and wellness. I think it would be exciting, at my age, to change and do what I don’t know. I love fashion and if I had to stay in fashion and pick another company that I would love to work for, it would definitely be a company that is up-and-coming and not established already, because that’s what’s fun about it. I could go work for another brand that I could watch grow and evolve as opposed to going to work for Burberry or Gucci or Valentino, which is established. I wouldn’t think of that as much fun.

I’ve been offered to lead companies, but I haven’t accepted any of the jobs. Why? Because this is a great company and I haven’t finished what I’m here to do.

My ultimate goal is to feel that I could take a two-week vacation and this place would run smoothly.”

When will you have finished? What is your ultimate goal for Michael Kors?

My ultimate goal is to feel that I could take a two-week vacation and this place would run smoothly. We’re almost there in the sense that a lot more people are rising up in the ranks. We have more managers and more leaders. There’s a lot of strength in the organization. The organizational chart is very healthy and the people leading their terms are very, very good. Very strong. That’s when you know that you’ve done a good job.

As parents, when your kids are off to college, they’re happy, maybe married, you can relax a little. It never ends as parents and it never ends as leaders either, but there’s a time where you reflect back and know that your daughter is in a good place. She’s happy at school, she has nice friends, and she’s doing well. Then I can go to sleep. I feel good.

For me, running a company is the same. I think I’ll know when my time is over, when I don’t wake up as passionate and motivated. But until that day comes, I’m still running around doing Black Friday, visiting my stores, and being a cheerleader. As much as I’m a coach, I’m also the cheerleader on the side and I have a lot of fun. I love to make everybody in this organization feel as passionate as I do. I think it becomes contagious as a leader, so my goal ultimately is to see other people being the cheerleaders now. When the team knows the cheer, that’s when you know you’ve done a good job as a coach. When you don’t have to get on the field and yell at everybody, you can sit down at the game and watch the game.