“If you are not in fashion, you are nobody.” An extreme view on social order perhaps, but when British statesman and diplomat Lord Chesterfield spoke these words in the 17th century it was indicative of the allure fashion holds for society, an allure that is yet to fade three centuries later. The fashion industry is big business. From chain stores via small independent designers to the venerable old fashion houses of Italy and France, there is a wealth of options on the market to suit all budgets and tastes. But no prizes for guessing where the real cachet is. While fashion names like Chanel, Armani, Versace and Yves Saint Laurent may command a relatively small portion of the market, it is an affluent segment that is willing to pay top dollar for that exclusivity, and the trends that strut the catwalks of Paris and Milan exert an influence that ripples down to chain stores worldwide.

One such premier fashion house is Milan’s Prada. Established in 1913 by Mario Prada as a leather goods business, the label really took off once granddaughter Miuccia Prada stepped in as head designer in 1978. Expanding the label into couture, she quickly became known for the clean, simple lines and distinctly bohemian feel that set her apart from some of the more elaborate designers – her garments being described by fashion critics as “a uniform for the slightly disenfranchised”. Now, with her label considered to be one of the most desirable in the market, and sub-brands including the hugely successful Miu Miu, the Prada name inspires lust worldwide among models, celebrities, socialites and the fashion-conscious.

In December 2006, Melinda O’Rourke was appointed country manager of Prada Australia and New Zealand, taking charge of the growth and expansion of the brand in the local region. This is not surprising; in a business sense Melinda comes with a sterling fashion industry pedigree. This latest appointment is but the next step for someone who has spent the last 17 years honing her management and marketing skills in a variety of roles, within both Australian and international prestige brands. In a résumé that reads like a dream come true for someone who, in her own words, “just loves fashion”, she has spent time as a divisional manager at Lovable lingerie, followed by a stint as manager at Yves Saint Laurent Couture in Australia, and finally as general manager of Chanel’s Fashion Division in Australia and New Zealand (during her tenure, the company achieved phenomenal growth of over 200 percent). Now, as one of the youngest luxury brand managers in the country, she is turning her attention to Prada.

This is no small task in a highly competitive market, and the country manager’s role at Prada is fairly all-encompassing, covering finance to retail operations to product advertising and marketing. As O’Rourke explains her duties: “I am ultimately responsible for the running of the business, the profit of the business, making sure we actually have the right staff in the stores to service our clients, which are absolutely number one, and making sure we have the right product.” She also sees public relations as a crucial element in doing her job successfully. “Public relations is extremely important, so developing relationships with press, making sure we can send out products for photographic shooting to ultimately have exposure in magazines and newspapers, that’s been very successful in the last few months.”

This management of the brand at a local level must always be kept in line with the globally defined and recognised image of the Prada brand – a very different approach from marketing a more commercial brand. Having spent time as divisional manager at local brand Lovable, O’Rourke appreciates the distinction as much as anyone. She explains that while working with the broader audiences inherent in a more commercial brand gives you a lot more scope for flexibility, and allows for the implementation of broader marketing strategies, at an international prestige brand such as Prada it is important to implement plans for growth and expansion within the explicit guidelines of the global image. “In terms of advertising and marketing it is extremely important with any brand that you are with that you uphold the core principles and the core advertising campaign, because that is where you get global strength.”

So what is the global image of Prada, as far as O’Rourke is concerned? How does it distinguish itself from the other brands she has worked with? “It’s a very clever brand. Miuccia Prada, the designer, I guess she’s an intelligent women. It has more of a contemporary, slightly architectural feel to the product.” O’Rourke describes the family-owned and run company, its products, in fact everything about it, as brimming over with “that wonderful Italian passion”. The Pradas are very hands-on in the business. “They don’t put a collection together unless they absolutely believe in it and Mrs Prada is very big on innovative fabrics, and innovative silhouettes and designs, so that is probably a very strong trademark of hers,” explains O’Rourke.

The collections are released every six months and, while the global image of the company remains steady, among individual collections “there is a very big change from season to season”. Although there will always be what are known as ‘continuative items’ – Prada staples – each new season sees such a huge range of products that even for a major outlet like one of the Milan flagship stores it can be very difficult to carry the whole collection at any one time. This means that, while predicting fashion trends is the domain of the designer, predicting what will work best for individual stores falls to Prada management.

Here in Australia O’Rourke would estimate we see approximately 60 percent of what is originally offered. As such, it is essential to identify which of the trends put forward by Miuccia Prada each season will work well in the Australian and New Zealand market, and once that decision has been made to leverage it as best as possible. O’Rourke stresses how important it is that her team communicates the new look or the key look of the season to her clients: “If we’re going to have the ‘it’ bag or the ‘it’ look, we [have to] make a decision on what that is going to be for our market and we really then follow that up with advertising, editorial and in-store visual merchandising, so it becomes a story.

“You always look at your own market and you need to localise your buying to suit that market because obviously as a general rule Australia is a more casual market. So, it would be crazy for us to have 50 percent of our offer as evening wear, but for Hong Kong or New York or a lot of other markets in Europe, they will have a lot of evening wear. The same thing goes for spring/summer. Because we have such wonderful weather in this country spring/summer is a much bigger season for us in this country than it is in the northern hemisphere. Their big thing there is fall/winter, with the coats and the skiing.”

So does the difference in seasons mean Australian consumers are always six fashion months behind their northern hemisphere counterparts? In fact, Prada, like other luxury brands, sells seasons universally on what is termed ‘northern hemisphere’, meaning to fit in with the northern seasons. Some may think selling winter clothes in the sweltering Australian heat, or vice versa, would present a significant challenge to even the savviest of marketers. Not so, says O’Rourke. “Clients are so aware of what is happening in fashion and how dynamic it is, they want it now. So it would be crazy for us to hold off on the collection. It is important for us to be global.”

Between the combined pressures of successfully maintaining such a well-known global brand and making it work in a local market, staying in touch with her particular industry both abroad and in her own backyard, and the frequent travel incumbent in her position, you could forgive O’Rourke for feeling slightly besieged. But while she admits the position can be extremely demanding, this is something that she views as all part of the experience. “Yes, you can have stressful and challenging moments but… I love that,” she enthuses. “I like to challenge myself and not everything is going to be great, but then it would become a bit boring, so you’ve got to go in with a very open mind, be flexible. It’s a dynamic business that we are in; fashion is totally dynamic, so you’ve got to be very prepared to be flexible and proactive. Anticipate as much as possible, but then if you do need to react, react in the best possible way.”

In fact, far from being beset, O’Rourke identifies one of her main concerns at Prada simply as trying to refrain from doing too much, too quickly. “Probably my biggest challenge is making sure that I hold myself back and really make sure that I am focusing on one thing at a time because there are a lot of things I know that I want to do, and I don’t want to do things half-baked. I want to make sure that every single thing we do is done absolutely perfectly. So I guess with the excitement the challenge is to hold myself back from doing it all, because you could honestly work seven days a week, 24 hours a day. We don’t want to do that, just at the moment,” she laughs.

The advantages of working for Prada, for O’Rourke, far outweigh any difficulties. The number one benefit? The products of course. “Personally I’ve loved it and been acquiring it over a number of years even when I wasn’t with the brand, so for me to be much closer to it is wonderful,” she says. O’Rourke also has a soft spot for her company’s owners. “I have to say I do have a penchant for the Italians in general, they are the most passionate, divine people. Being from an Irish background there is often a correlation between the Irish and the Italian, so I certainly appreciate their sense of passion and devotion, so it’s a good fit for me.”

And what does the future hold for Prada in Australia and New Zealand under O’Rourke’s leadership? According to the woman herself, there is still a huge opportunity for growth in the local market, something that she is very excited about approaching. “The brand is very strong globally and the great thing for me is that we have not grown as much as we could have. So the plan for me in the next few years is really more than double growth of the business.” O’Rourke aims to achieve this for her main brand, Prada, and also Miu Miu. “[In terms of Prada] that is a combination of opening new stores, not 10, but we are looking at probably another two to three openings in the next three years, and that’s a very big investment for Italy, so they are very interested in this market. Miu Miu is our other brand that is under the Prada group and that’s certainly doing very well internationally. We have a small wholesale business of Miu Miu in Australia and we are looking at rolling that out with a couple of flagship stores. There is a lot of activity and a lot of business to be done, and I think it is extremely exciting for the brand and actually for clients on the market. The public are going to see a lot more of our brand and of the product.”

Something I am sure fashion lovers Australia-wide could not be happier about.