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Angela Ahrendts: The Burberry CEO who reinvented a heritage brand for the digital age

By Sheena McKenzie, for CNN
updated 1:07 PM EDT, Tue October 15, 2013
Burberry chief executive Angela Ahrendts will leave the luxury goods firm next year to join technology giant Apple.
Burberry chief executive Angela Ahrendts will leave the luxury goods firm next year to join technology giant Apple.
  • Who is Angela Ahrendts, new Apple vice president of retail and online?
  • Mother-of-three snubbed the Oscars to spend time with family
  • Grew up one of six siblings in Indiana and dreamed of working in fashion
  • Helped turn around Burberry, fashion know-how may be used in new Apple iWatch

Editor's note: Leading Women connects you to extraordinary women of our time -- remarkable professionals who have made it to the top in all areas of business, the arts, sport, culture, science and more.

(CNN) -- The Oscars. Perhaps the most sought-after red carpet invitation in the world. And Angela Ahrendts turned it down.

It says a lot about the 53-year-old chief executive of Burberry, who today announced she would be leaving the British clothing firm to join technology giant Apple as its new vice president for retail and online stores.

Read: Apple poaches Burberry CEO

This is a woman who prioritizes family above all -- and that includes rubbing shoulders with the crème de la crème of Hollywood at lavish gala events.

The same mother-of-three who married her childhood sweetheart Gregg, and reportedly tries to limit herself to one night out a week.

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And the same woman who this year became the first female to top Britain's executive pay league, taking home a total £16.9 million ($27 million). Unsurprisingly, "balance" is a big word in Ahrendts' life.

She turned down an invite to the Academy Awards because: "It's not more important than my husband. It's not more important than my kids. It's not more important than Burberry," she said in an interview with British newspaper The Sunday Times.

"I don't want to be a great executive without being a great mom and a great wife. I don't want to look back and say I wish I had done things differently."

Fashion forward

Growing up as one of six siblings in the small town of New Palestine in Indiana, Ahrendts gained a merchandise and marketing degree from Ball State University before rising up the ranks of fashion houses Donna Karan International, Henri Bendal, and Liz Claiborne.

In 2006 she headed to Britain, joining Burberry as its CEO, and revitalizing the century-old company which had seen its iconic check pattern become the favored print of minor celebrities and rip-off merchants.

Indeed, Ahrendts has been credited with rescuing the Burberry brand from the clutches of the masses and placing it on the top shelf of luxury living.

Thanks to Ahrendts, Burberry is now not only cool but synonymous with glamor. Revenues have nearly tripled to more than $3 billion and Ahrendt herself was catapulted to 53 on the Forbes 100 Most Powerful Women list this year.

Watch: Angela Ahrendts -- 'profits are up'

"Burberry is in brilliant shape," said Ahrendt in a statement today.

"Having built the industry's most powerful management team, converted the business to a dynamic digital global retailer, created a world class supply chain, state of the art technology infrastructure, sensational brand momentum and one of the most closely connected creative cultures in the world today."

She will be replaced by chief creative officer Christopher Bailey, who has been in the role for six years, and her departure means there are now just two female chief executives in the FTSE 100 -- Imperial Tobacco chief Alison Cooper and EasyJet's Carolyn McCall.

Facebook generation

Burberry is a company that's been around 155 years. Nothing's short term. Everything is for the long term
Angela Ahrendts

What's the secret to Ahrendts' enormous success? A seemingly indefatigable work ethic appears to be one. This, after all, is the woman who reportedly rises at 4.35am and has a reliance on Diet Coke.

But there's also been her ability to tap into a new generation of digital consumers relying on social media for fashion trends, and increasingly buying online.

Burberry's Spring/Summer 2013 campaign video gained over one million YouTube views in just 48 hours. And the luxury brand now has 16 million fans on Facebook and more than two million followers on Twitter.

Wander around Burberry's London flagship store on Regent Street and you'll find sales assistants armed with iPads. Meanwhile mirrors transform into screens displaying catwalk images thanks to special technology sewn into some clothing and accessories.

What's more is that the actual store has been redesigned to recreate an experience that reflects the company's website, Burberry World Live.

"Burberry is a company that's been around 155 years. Nothing's short term. Everything is for the long term," she told CNN of her marketing plan in 2011.

After her seven years at Burberry, what Ahrendts will be most remembered for is her digital first approach that helped revitalize the century old fashion house into an upmarket luxury brand.

iWatch this space?

Ahrendts' fashion credentials helped her breathe new life into a British clothing institution. But with rumors that Apple is now keen to use her expertise on its new iWatch, could they also boost a sector increasingly delving into wearable technology?

After all, Apple's decision to hire Ahrendts comes just three months after it recruited Paul Deneve, the former chief executive of French luxury group Yves Saint Laurent.

And if anybody's up to the job of keeping up with cool kids of fashion, it's Ahrendts.

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