Interview: Abigail Wilmore, founder of People Flow

Wilmore: "In a way, having that genius figurehead makes it easier."
“The role is about making the inside experience of the brand just as luxurious as the outside,” said Wilmore

Abigail Wilmore, founder of a HR community called People Flow, has compiled a CV full of iconic fashion brands, as Millicent Machell discovers.

Abigail Wilmore is the queen of the ‘full circle moment’. At 19 years old, her first job out of school was on the shop floor of Estée Lauder. This year, as chief people officer of Estée Lauder-owned Tom Ford, she found herself taking meetings in its New York HQ.

She says: “I love people’s original stories of how they got into HR, because we all say: ‘I fell into it’. I’m just the same.”

Wilmore’s ‘fall’ might look a little more graceful than the average person’s. After getting her start in real estate company Knight Frank, she got a call from Gucci Group, now part of French multinational Kering, in 2006, which is when “things really took off”.

“It was a dream job,” she says, “I was overseeing Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen which were two growing British brands at the time. As they grew, my role grew. And as they became global, so did my role’s reach.”

She spent a total of 16 years working at Gucci Group, with seven years focused on the Stella McCartney marque.

As someone who is passionate about sustainability and the environment, working with McCartney was an opportunity Wilmore felt was “too good to pass up”.

However, working for a founder has its complexities, as Wilmore soon discovered. She recalls having to tell Alexander McQueen in her first month that smoking was banned in the office, admitting that his reply was “too rude to say”.

However, in general, Wilmore believes that HR can enhance the power of a founder’s passion.

“If the energy from a founder is around creating positive change, then all potentially difficult areas can be easily blended in. “For example,” she says, “at Stella McCartney, people were coming in to change the way fashion worked so everyone had that energy.

"In fact, my most challenging role was filtering a million ideas into what we were actually going to do and how we were going to make it happen.

“In a way, having that genius figurehead makes it easier. There’s this story that’s being told and you can harness that.”

To deal with the more challenging sides of geniuses like McQueen and McCartney, Wilmore says building trust was essential.

“Filtering the behavioural side of founders is about the trust I have had to build and getting to the point where you can say: ‘That is not okay’ or, ‘If you do that, this is how you will be perceived’.”

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At the end of 2021, Wilmore left Stella for a short stint at skincare brand Dr Barbara Sturm, before the opportunity to work for her current company, Tom Ford, presented itself.

“This is such a rare opportunity because the perception of the brand is so high and the social following is the same as Dior and Chanel, but it is not actually that big.”

“The role is about making the inside experience of the brand just as luxurious as the outside.”

Wilmore joined Tom Ford about a year after its sale to Estée Lauder in 2022, meaning that “everything felt new”, despite the brand’s 17 years in business. Following the sale, the brand hired new people to senior-level positions, including CEO Guillaume Jesel.

Wilmore says: “At the top there’s a lot of complexity in terms of how Tom Ford will operate after the acquisition. A big part of my role is designing fit-for-purpose HR services and creating a leadership culture. I’d say everyone is quite new on the leadership team, so we’re thinking about what to focus on first.”

She hopes to use the energy of the moment to push for inclusion.

“There are so many beautiful things about the brand. As a luxury brand it’s very exclusive, but how do we also make it inclusive for the people that work there?

“Even though 99% of people who work here aren’t the audience that buy the products we sell, we want people to really believe in the brand and to bring everyone together with the same vision.”

As she continues to settle into her role at Tom Ford, Wilmore says she is getting stuck into operational, transactional and strategic tasks. Her core focus, however, will remain on connecting with the workforce.

“You can be fantastic at talent management or data analytics but I think it’s more about how you can see into the health of the organisation, and that requires some real relationship building.

“Vulnerability is the superpower to connect, ultimately. It took me so long to realise that being myself – being someone who might get things wrong, or is awkward sometimes – is the best tool I have to connect with people. That is not taught early enough.”


This article was published in the May/June 2024 edition of HR magazine.

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