Queer folks growing up in the LGBTQ community typically look to pop culture to seek out representation and out-and-proud heroes. Andrew Clarke, the passionate and innovative CEO of the women’s-wear boutique francesca’s, proves that role models are all around us. Clarke is evidence of what it looks like to simultaneously excel in your career, uplift your community, and fight for a seat at every single table.
Clarke, who hails from the UK and has lived in four different countries, explains that his ability to support struggling retailers set him on a path to become a CEO. “Since I’ve been in the US, I’ve developed a reputation as a bit of a turnaround leader,” he says of his work strategizing and helping retailers succeed. “I came to the US in 2014 and lived in San Francisco before moving to Columbus, Ohio. I worked at Justice, a tween-girl store, before running and overseeing a turnaround of the women’s-wear brand Loft.”
With a reputation that preceded him in helping clothing retailers thrive, the Bayou City came calling. “In late 2019, I received a call about this women’s-wear retailer based in Houston called francesca’s,” Clarke recalls. “I told my husband, Gerhard, and he suggested we visit Houston first since we lived in New York City. We quickly realized that Houston has something for everybody and decided to make it our home right before the lockdown in March 2020.”
As the retail world experienced unprecedented challenges during the pandemic, Clarke made it his mission to survive and thrive in a market where the odds were stacked against him. “I signed up for a turnaround job, and it became a fight for survival. The pandemic was not kind to retail,” he emphasizes. “I spent my first year as CEO growing the business and making sure we would survive. My number-one objective was to save as many jobs as possible. We ended 2020 as a strengthened brand with about 460 stores, down from 700, and we launched franki by francesca’s for tween girls. You know what they say—in the face of adversity, a crisis can be the mother of all ingenuity.
“When I took the francesca’s role, I was a first-time CEO at a public company, and proudly out,” Clarke says. “I inherited a company in trouble, and it was my job to focus on what we do as a business—and how we do it.” He set out to transform how the retailer was perceived by the public, and how internal operations were conducted. “I wanted to create a company of inclusion—one I would have wanted to work for as a younger gay man facing homophobia early in my career. Diversity, equity, and inclusion at our company is a fundamental value that we hold ourselves to. That starts at the top, and that’s me.”
A drive to support his community led to Clarke connecting with Grace Place, a local organization and drop-in program that welcomes and supports youth of all sexualities and gender identities experiencing homelessness. That partnership recently celebrated a major milestone. “We’ve been involved with Grace Place a little over a year now,” the proud dog dad says. “I’ve been struck by how, at a local level, Grace Place steps in to provide a service for the most vulnerable in our LGBTQ community.”
With keen self-awareness and a desire to do more, Clarke rallied his team to complete a major project for the organization. “It’s not lost on me that I’m a privileged member of the LGBTQ community. When we learned the story of Tracy and the circumstances of her murder in 2019, we knew we had to do something,” he says.
Tracy was a Black trans youth who regularly attended Grace Place events. To memorialize her, Grace Place named its clothing distribution project after her. “We knew we could bring new life to Tracy’s Closet, stock it, and organize it with the clothing and hygienic donations Grace Place receives.” Clarke and his crew committed to personally donating items to make sure the closet is always stocked with both masculine and feminine inventory. “I’m so proud of what my team was able to do. Seeing the faces of the youth—we don’t need any more motivation than that.”
Clarke reflects on the impact of his role and purpose as a CEO. “Representation matters, and I think it matters a lot right now,” he says, referencing the current political climate. “I certainly feel a duty in my position to be visible for the LGBTQ community.” Clarke speaks directly to queer folks and encourages them to have the audacity to dream big. “As you rise through your career, try to do something better than you imagined for yourself. I’ve experienced setbacks, but I persevered and continued to advance to senior roles. I hope to continue to make things easier for those following in my footsteps.”
For more information, visit francescas.com.
This article appears in the July 2022 edition of OutSmart magazine.