Bermudian Ian Bickley never aspired towards a career in fashion.

He wanted to be a pilot when he was a student at Saltus Grammar School.

Instead, he’s head of the international arm of American luxury brand Coach — a $10 billion company with stores around the world.

“It’s funny, when I think about myself I don’t think my world has changed so much,” the 52-year-old said. “I think the perception from the outside larger community when they look at me and what I’ve accomplished — they think it’s quite amazing. I feel like I’ve worked in the same company for 23 years. Sometimes I don’t appreciate what it would look like to the outside world.

“When I went to Japan [as director of business development for Coach] in 1997, our business there was tough and struggling. It wasn’t really a job that a lot of people were putting their hands up to do, but I saw the possibilities and really felt like if I took on the job I could influence the outcome. It was also a way to move my career more rapidly because I was going to be in a unique situation far away, where I’d be forced to learn things at a faster rate. So I think that’s the balance. I learnt from that situation there’s no reward without risk.”

He credits his accomplishments to hard work and being optimistic and having respect for others — tenets that have guided his career path since day one.

His introduction to the fashion industry came while he was a student at Harvard University.

He and a friend discovered handwoven shorts from Mexico they felt could be designed specifically for the clubs and fraternities on campus.

Mr Bickley handled the sales side; his friend did all the designing and manufacturing — the shorts were an instant hit.

The pair decided to take the business nationwide after graduation; Mr Bickley’s father, Walter, wasn’t too impressed with the plan.

“He had other expectations — for me to go to Wall Street or become a lawyer,” the Coach executive said. “It was difficult, but at the end of the day I told him this is what I want to do and you have to trust me. I trusted myself, even though I wasn’t sure I would be successful.

“Sometimes people are afraid of what other people will think because it’s not popular and doesn’t guarantee success, but at the end of the day you have to do what you believe.”

After two years the partners decided to go their separate ways and, in 1989, Mr Bickley joined a marketer and manufacturer of women’s apparel based in Munich, Germany. He joined Coach in 1993. The brand wasn’t as popular as it is today.

Under Mr Bickley’s leadership, Coach stores have opened in parts of Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Australia and a flagship store will open in India this year.

International business represents about 40 per cent of the company’s total sales.

“When I started working at Coach the sales were less than $300 million and international business was $20 million,” Mr Bickley said. “One of the things I’m proud of is taking an international business from $20 million to almost $2 billion, which is quite an accomplishment in 23 years.

“Having Coach have a global footprint and competing with some of the top European luxury brands from around the world is also great. We have grown now to be one of the top three accessory brands of the world. In China and Japan, our second largest market outside of North America, we have the number two brand in terms of market share. That’s one accomplishment, I would say, on the business side.

“The other thing I’m most proud of is the team and people that I’ve developed and mentored around the world. I’m proud that our current CEO Victor Luis is someone I’ve hired into the organisation and managed for several years. He was actually my successor in Coach Japan.”

Although he knows how to dress for his role as an executive in a leading fashion organisation, Mr Bickley doesn’t consider himself “on the cutting edge” of style.

“I have to balance being dressed for business meetings and different events we might have,” he said. “I have my own sense of style, especially as I travel a lot around the world and will meet different people from different cultures.

“In many parts of the world it’s still common and expected for business meetings you wear a suit and tie, whereas in North America the whole concept of business casual has become more common.”

He’s proud to have been part of the company’s development over the past 23 years.

“I would say Coach’s evolution as a fashion brand has really only been over the last three years since we hired Stuart Vevers as our executive creative director,” he said. “Prior to that we were a lifestyle accessories brand for the most part.

“I don’t think I ever dreamed I would be doing what I am doing today, but when I was growing up in Bermuda I was very fortunate my mother, Elisabeth A Bickley, was German and we would travel every summer. My father was self-employed so we would actually take a four- or six-week vacation in the summer and travel to Europe and abroad.

“I think at the time it seemed normal to me, but now when I look back I think of how much of an incredible opportunity that was. I think that definitely did influence me in terms of embarking on a career in international business. That love of travel was cemented and having the opportunity to go to Harvard exposed me to a whole entire world I didn’t know about before.”

He hasn’t forgotten his roots, and visits family and friends including his sister Elizabeth Schaefer, whenever he can.

“It definitely feels like home still,” he said. “The older I get the more nostalgic I get about Bermuda. When I’m driving around the roads I start to remember when I was younger growing up in Smith’s and walking on the South Shore or riding my bike through the golf course. I have fond memories of these times and Bermuda is a place that always has a special place in my heart.”

The City of Hamilton will present Mr Bickley with a Bermuda Fashion Achievement Award at the Bermuda Fashion Festival this summer. He described it as “a great honour” that he hopes will inspire others to work hard, foster big dreams and follow them.