The Interview: Catherine Palmer

7 Sep 2018 , 1:50am

Catherine Palmer, general counsel of luxury fashion brand and retailer Joseph, has a number of strings to her bow. Not only is she a member of the board and head of human resources, she is also the French voice at the Eurostar terminal. She shares her thoughts on law, luxury and Brexit.

LLA: What lead you to becoming a lawyer, and what was the appeal of working in the luxury sector?

Catherine Palmer: Working in-house at the fashion house Joseph is my third (or fourth) career; I have taught in inner-city comprehensives, spent ten years writing French-English dictionaries and worked in several commercial law firms. The overt connecting thread is the Franco-British connection. My whole working life since graduating from the Sorbonne, and then from Oxford, has had a great deal to do with France, even down to the dinner-party detail of my voice being used since 1994 as the French announcement at the Eurostar terminal. Eternally young…The more material connection is my consuming interest in mastering a set of fresh problems, assembling the elements and constructing a tailor-made solution; from finding ways to get unwilling children to learn a foreign language, through writing a precise definition of a sometimes imprecise word, to defending commercial rights worldwide. 

LLA: What issues are the Joseph legal team dealing with? What size is your department and how is it structured? Do you work with external counsel, and if you have a panel, which firms are on it? What do you expect from an outside firm?

CP: My team at Joseph works, worldwide, on an extremely wide range of legal matters; commercial, corporate, employment, property, intellectual property, etc. There is a great deal of negotiation with partners in the UK, France and further afield, such as  China and the Middle East. I have responsibilities at board level for HR and payroll, as well as legal. On the legal side, I work with two outstanding lawyers, who both have a strong knowledge of French and English law. We rely on external counsel to support us, specifically in jurisdictions we do not know or for new issues. For example, in the past months, we have developed our knowledge of immigration law,  Middle Eastern franchises and US  litigation.  As regards outside counsel, it is our intention to do as much as possible in-house, of course, from a point of view of  business consistency and cost. However, we have a network of excellent law firms who support us and understand our business. Their advice is invaluable. An external perspective  is always  helpful and a corrective to a fashion world always in search a newness and change

 LLA: What does ‘luxury’ mean to you?

CP: The word luxury is in danger of being diluted; in our circle we are happy with the word applied to a Swiss watch movement or a magnum of Roederer Cristal; perhaps less so with a brand of breakfast muesli with more currants than usual. At Joseph, we prefer beautiful fabrics and perfect cuts to speak for themselves. What is luxury? It is a crucial question for retailers in the luxury sector. No doubt it is a question debated by the Luxury Law Alliance. To try to get to the bottom of it, Alain Harfouche and I, as co-chair of the Retail Forum of the French Chamber of Commerce of Great Britain, are organising a breakfast for members of the Chamber in the autumn to have a chance to debate this and come up with an answer, or ask more questions.
LLA: Is there a particular issue that keeps you up at night – whether specific to Joseph or to the luxury sector as a whole?
CP: I sleep very well. Brexit will have a negative effect on business, including supply chain,  recruitment,  employment and compliance. Over forty per cent of our staff in the UK are EU nationals and I really sympathize with what they are going through.