As CEO of the British Fashion Council, Caroline Rush is credited with placing UK fashion on the world stage. Yet it all began when, as a young girl, her mum taught her how to run up outfits on an old sewing machine
Journalists often meet celebrities and business leaders and, while we’d prefer not to admit it, we do tend to show off about our connections. My writer husband Peter is no different. He’s knocked back beers with Guy Ritchie, had a few nights out with Liam Gallagher and recently presented a TV programme with Philip Schofield.
But his proudest boast is that he is pals with Caroline Rush, Chief Executive Officer of the British Fashion Council. Meeting at her central London office, I see immediately why. The epitome of a stylish industry leader, Rush, 46, is savvy, funny and down-to-earth. She was a classmate and friend of Peter’s at Parklands High School in Chorley and she is undoubtedly one of the city’s most successful exports.
Given her achievements – she’s credited with shaping global fashion and was given a CBE for her dedication – Rush is modest and unpretentious. She is also very, very busy. Which is how we come to be chatting in a black cab as she heads to Heathrow, to the counterpoint of her constantly beeping phone.
She’s on her way to New York Fashion Week – and a whirl of meetings – but just for the moment, her mind is on her younger days. Pushing aside a curtain of glossy chestnut hair, she recalls with a grin: “We had a great class at school, there were some fantastic characters, some who I’m still in contact with. My background is very important to me. I was born in Scotland but went to school in Chorley. As a teenager I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to be – who really does at that age? But I loved art and making things. I was already passionate about fashion and forever altering my school uniform. The careers advisor told me I should work in retail.
“If I could go back now and counsel my 16-year-old self, I’d tell her that everything you do in life is a learning curve. I’d say embrace change, be bold and go for the things you really want.”
Rush was clearly a driven young woman and fired-up with an iron will to succeed from the start. Since becoming CEO in 2009, she has put London fashion on the global map. Her efforts have clearly helped deliver profits for British brands and created countless jobs in the industry. London Fashion Week is now a major player in the ‘big four’ fashion weeks alongside Paris, Milan and New York. She has also helped shape the industry known for its hotbed of emerging design talent propelled by rising stars like Erdem, Christopher Kane, Mary Katrantzou and J.W. Anderson. She is further credited with encouraging giants like Burberry, Mulberry and Temperley to show their collections in London.
Her little black book is to die for and she is often seen with Vogue editor Anna Wintour, Samantha Cameron and Net-a-Porter founder Dame Natalie Massanet, as well as countless celebrities and supermodels. Indeed, just days after we meet, Rush hits worldwide headlines again as she is seated next to the Queen on a catwalk front row to watch designer Richard Quinn’s runway show.
It was the first time the Queen had attended London Fashion Week and Rush had earlier also hosted her on a tour of the designer showrooms on London’s Strand. It was quite a coup and yet Rush is proudest that London Fashion Week is able to promote our nation’s home-grown talent: “The UK has a very specific place in the fashion world. We are known for our creativity and innovation and that is an enviable reputation. Our collections are sold all around the world. It is great to see designers from Erdem to Palmer Harding to Halpern sitting in stores alongside giants like Celine and Prada.”
Rush is at pains not to take the lion’s share of the credit, adding: “I didn’t and couldn’t do it on my own of course. I have an incredible team and we have a brilliant industry that is equally very supportive of what we do at the British Fashion Council. I know that some of our international counterparts admire how much the British fashion industry collaborates to achieve common goals.”
Home for Rush is west London with PE teacher husband Matt, 46 and 21-year-old daughter Lana. Her own mum was a domestic science teacher, then deputy headmistress, and Caroline has many happy memories of them sitting together in front of a sewing machine and running up outfits at the dining room table in Chorley.
She says with a smile: “It was my mum who got me interested in fashion. Once I started poring over magazines, looking at the collections and hearing stories about the designers, I knew I wanted to be part of that industry.”
After studying art, she entered the PR world and her third job was working for creative and marketing consultant Annette Worsley-Taylor. Her late boss and mentor was a founder and driving force behind the original London Fashion Week, so as a rookie, she learned from the best. Rush set up her own public relations agency with close friend Vanessa Bond called Crush Communications in 2002, and the British Fashion Council appointed it as the press office for all BFC initiatives, including London Fashion Week and the British Fashion Awards. In 2009, she became BFC Joint CEO and took on the role solely three years later.
Juggling a hectic diary was never going to be a doddle. She explains: “I travel a lot. It’s not easy, but it is a privilege and I love it. We never had a nanny as my husband teaches and so was able to do the school runs. But I always made sure Lana and I had quality time at weekends. When she was smaller, I’d be home for dinner and bedtime stories whenever I could. We made it work.”
Lana is skilled at sports and played tennis on the international junior circuit including Junior Wimbledon. Caroline laughs: “I don’t know what we would we do without Skype and FaceTime.”
Under her tenure, the British Fashion Council has become one of the UK’s most impressive organisations and continues to lead conversations that she is rightly proud of. “This year we are promoting diversity in the industry, focusing on ‘Models First’ – an initiative to safeguard models and give them a voice. It’s a privilege to work in the most inclusive city in the world, in one of the most inclusive industries. Yet there is more to be done. I think London and the UK can lead the way.”
And says the British Fashion Council has a part to play on issues affecting the industry from size to sustainability. “We should have a voice, but one that sparks intelligent debate which will lead to long-term culture change,” she says firmly.
So what does the force behind the British Fashion Council actually wear? Rush won’t admit to being a fashion icon in her own right and admits that, like most women, she wishes she had more time to spend on her own wardrobe. And she says: “I think many women look to Audrey Hepburn, and if we had the ability, we’d like to look like her every day.
“I’m pretty lucky in that I spend a lot of time around incredible and inspirational designers. But there are only a few, like Roksanda, which suit my body shape best.”