Rose Marie Bravo, former chief executive officer of Burberry, credits the Bronx High School of Science with laying the groundwork for her success in business.
A 1969 graduate of the school, Bravo will be among the honorees Thursday night at the public high school’s 85th Anniversary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History. She will be recognized alongside Bronx Science alums Leonard Lauder, chairman emeritus of The Estée Lauder Cos.; Ronald Lauder, businessman, philanthropist and president of World Jewish Congress, and Stanley Manne, a businessman, investor and philanthropist.
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They are all joining the Principal’s Circle, the school’s highest recognition society for those alumni who have been philanthropic leaders and given back to Bronx Science.
“Whatever I’ve been able to accomplish in my life is because of my parents and Bronx Science,” said the 72-year-old Bravo in a telephone interview Tuesday from her home in East Moriches, New York.
Bravo had been a student at a Catholic grammar school in the Bronx, where her father owned a hair salon and many of his clients’ children went to Science. “I never heard of Science but I took the test, and I was thinking I was going to go on to St. Catharine’s, but [her father] said, ‘No, you got into Science, you passed the test and that’s where you’re going,’ much to my dismay. It was formative to me. It was a little bit of a culture shock.”
Years later, when she took on the role as CEO of Burberry, after years of American retail, that was another culture shock. “To all of a sudden go to a brand, to go to a foreign country, we think they speak the same language.…I remember that shock of disorientation, and I remembered, ‘I’ve been here before,'” said Bravo, who was CEO of Burberry from 1997 to 2006, after having been president and chief merchant of Saks Fifth Avenue.
When she got to Bronx Science she found that many of the kids had skipped grades and started at 12 years old, while she was 14, “and they were brilliant, and they were competitive, and they knew they wanted Science and knew they wanted Harvard. These were people who were schooled in education, which I had with my dad pushing me where I was going to go.”
The diverse student body was also eye-opening to Bravo. “It was much more diverse than I would have experienced elsewhere. It helped me a lot in life. As you become part of a global company and you see how important culture is, and everyone’s backgrounds and the sensitivities in that. Those formative years, I read those years from 14 to 18, are so important in somebody’s life,” Bravo said.
One of her favorite instructors at Bronx Science was her French teacher who taught her about French culture, which came in handy in her future when she was attending fashion weeks in Paris. “We didn’t learn how to speak French, but we learned about culture and life and art and history. She was amazing. The teachers there were amazing. They always pushed you to the extreme,” she said.
She recalled after first year algebra she was put into honors geometry. “I remember the first six weeks I was absolutely lost, and went to the dean and said ‘This was a mistake. I really have to go into the regular class.’ And he said, ‘No, you’re going to get through it,’ and you know what, I figured it out and it became my favorite subject,” Bravo said. “In the end, it was the tenacity and the stick-to-it [nature] and not being defeated, and I think I got that from those years. Everybody was so bright, and everybody was so curious. We had the city at our fingertips.”
Even though it was a science school, she said the arts were equally important. “I think they trained left-brand-right brain. Of course, in our business that we’re in, the importance of that and people is so important,” Bravo said.
Another class that proved to be an important stepping stone was mechanical drawing. “I am doing architectural plans, and I never thought that would be so important in my future where I have to read maps and retail shops and make floor plans and all the things I did in the cosmetic business with space and locations, and looking at a map and within seconds figuring out where I was,” she said.
Bravo recalled in 1968 there was a public school strike, and she was going into senior year and the school was closed until November. She didn’t know what she would do without school. She got a job in retail and was worried that the strike could go on all semester. She used to take two buses to get to Bronx Science and would pass by Fordham University every day. So she called the college and asked if she could enroll, and she sent a transcript over and they said, “Sure, you can start in January.” She began at Fordham and then went back to Bronx Science in June to take the Regents tests and graduate.
At Fordham, Bravo majored in English. “I was burnt out on science. I pushed at such an extreme, I couldn’t wait to get into liberal arts. I became equally as fascinated in literature,” she said.
Bravo’s early retail career took her to Abraham & Straus, Macy’s and I. Magnin before landing at Saks.
Asked if she feels young people today are as interested in entering retail, she said, “I’m not that exposed to it…I hear from friends how hard is it to get staff in general. The work ethic is very different today.” She feels many people in Generation Z want quality time and don’t want to push themselves that much. They like to chill. “Our generation, maybe it’s the immigrant generation, there’s this drive to excel and be the best you can be,” she said.
If she were 40 years younger, Bravo was asked what career she would pursue today. “Exactly the one I chose. I always look back and say, ‘Wow,'” she said.
Bravo believes today’s graduates should follow their passions and seek a career that involves doing what they love so it never feels like work. “Every day in my career, I never worked a day in my life,” Bravo said.
Asked about the biggest risk she ever took in her career, she said, “Definitely going to Burberry. I was going out of my comfort zone. I was not going to a retailer. I was going to a wholesaler and a licensee. That was not what my training was.…When I got to England, I was out of my comfort zone. I couldn’t even understand the language.
“Maybe that’s advice for young people,” she added. “Sometimes to get out of your comfort zone and push yourself into an environment that could be disorienting and then figuring it can be a growth experience for someone, and you can learn about yourself and your own capabilities and competencies, What you lack, you have to learn, or you have to bring somebody in who can do what you don’t know. That’s the other part of the leadership thing that you learn,” she said.
Bravo said it took her 18 months to adjust to the Burberry job. “Until I felt comfortable that I had the plan and had the team and had the vision of what it could be. Not to get it done, there was still many more years of the work, but to feel I could take a breath,” she said. She said she had the support of her husband, which was critical. He ended up retiring while he was there.
Like her father, she said her husband “had the confidence that I would figure it out.”
“It was very nice to have that endorsement. Science brings your confidence up — your self-awareness, who you really are, what you’re good at, and what you’re not good at, where you need work. It really was a fertile graining ground that stayed with me all my life,” Bravo said.
Discussing how she went about turning around Burberry, Bravo explained that it was a British luxury, cross-generational brand. “We saw in the roots of the company the ability to compete on the luxury scale. They were a series of licensees, and some were super profitable and others not so. My question was, ‘Why were France and Italy so competent in creating these luxury brands, and why not England?’
“England had this beautiful facility in making coats,” she said. She questioned why the Burberry trench wasn’t equivalent to the Hermès scarf or the Gucci shoe. “Why shouldn’t it be? We started elevating from that point. If that thesis is correct, what is necessary to get done in order to be in that space? We had several great team members who came from retail experiences. We felt there was a gap between bridge and designer. We felt that even though Burberry was very masculine, and every guy on the Concorde was proud to show his Burberry lining when he came on board, how do we feminize it, and why not women?”
Bravo said the Burberry bikini was the spark. “It was like a lightning rod. It not only feminized the brand but made it 30 years younger. We put Kate Moss in the bikini,” she said.
She said she loves the ads that Burberry is doing now, where they feature the little swim vest in Burberry plaid. “It’s adorable and it’s back to the bikini,” she said.
Bravo said she worked with very creative people at the time, such as Fabien Baron, Mario Testino, Stella Tenant and, of course, Christopher Bailey, whom she brought in as design director and who later became chief creative officer and president and CEO. “It was a fun moment. When you get momentum, you feel this is really working. The team is energized and it keeps going.”
During her tenure, Bravo transformed the brand from a wholesale raincoat business into a world-class luxury player. She revamped the merchandising and design staff, first hiring Roberto Menichetti as creative director to create the Prorsum label and then tapping Bailey as his successor. She pushed Burberry’s sales through the $1 billion barrier, opening major flagships worldwide, and forged a relationship with then-Prince Charles — and his Highgrove polo team — as part of her marketing strategies.
In 2006, Bravo received a CBE, or Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, an honor from Queen Elizabeth II, in recognition for her services to British fashion and retailing.
After almost nine years at the helm, Bravo decided to leave because she felt it was time. She went to London with one grandchild on the way, and then there were seven. “It was a wonderful experience, but it was time for somebody else to come in and another evolution. It’s always good to refresh and I’m excited about what Jonathan [Akeroyd, Burberry’s current CEO] is doing and the team, and I think it’s good,” she said.
As far as what she’s doing these days, she said, “I’m doing nothing. I’m taking care of my husband, and I’m taking care of my life. I stepped down from the Estée Lauder board last November. It was 20 years on the board which was a great moment. I just love the company. I’ve retired from business life and concentrating on family and personal time, and learning Italian.”
When asked which companies she admires today, Bravo cited Estée Lauder off the bat, but noted there are a lot of great companies out there. “I’m admiring Burberry. I’m excited about what’s happening there. I have to say kudos to LVMH, they’ve gone from one strength to another. The whole luxury industry is doing so many correct things. Hermès is another one that I admire greatly and how they proceed with their brand. And retail, my favorite still is Costco. I think they’re great.
“I think it’s more complicated to be a CEO today with all the culture wars and things going on, it’s become a difficult moment, it’s hard to maneuver. With technology, you’re really on 24/7. I had trouble with that too. It was really hard to have any downtime. There were so many elements. Global companies, you’re full-time on. You’re all in,” Bravo said.
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