LONDON, United Kingdom — Breaking into fashion is notoriously difficult; those aspiring to work in competitive fields such as buying and merchandising face even more daunting odds in securing employment. Despite the popularity of specialist education, graduates often emerge without a clear understanding of how to present themselves and their work to prospective employers. The Business of Fashion speaks to buying teams from Barneys New York, Bergdorf Goodman, Matchesfashion.com, Lane Crawford and Ssense to hear what it takes to stand out from the crowd.
1. Balance a macro understanding of the world with strong attention to detail
Jennifer Sunwoo, chief merchandising officer, Barneys New York: “Amidst the ever-evolving retail landscape, we expect our buyers to possess a macro understanding of what is happening in the world around them. Luxury is not only influenced by technology, financial markets, and pop culture but it is also affected by the unpredictable political environment, the mass market and a new generational mindset. If you ask the buyers at Barneys New York what would be critical to someone who doesn't have industry experience, I believe the majority would immediately say [Microsoft] Excel! Being proficient in Excel is a bonus and I would encourage aspiring buyers, if you have the opportunity to take a class in it, do it.”
2. Before your interview, scope the store to understand the customer
JS: “I always ask each candidate why you want to be a buyer at Barneys New York. A thoughtful response that demonstrates your commitment and passion to the journey ahead allows me to meaningfully evaluate if your motivation and goals are a good fit for the company. Come prepared. Read up on the company's latest initiatives, walk the store or the category for which you are interviewing, understand your audience and have a few relevant questions ready. Interviewing basics also make an impression — be on time, print two copies of your resume, dress smartly (even for companies that may seem casual), be confident, smile, and speak eloquently. A common mistake that I see is when candidates are not quite answering the questions posed, which could indicate poor listening skills."
3. Do more than what is asked of you
Linda Fargo, senior vice president of the fashion office, Bergdorf Goodman: "Try to exceed expectation. Don't spend all this time second guessing what everyone else is looking for? Solve it for yourself first, impress yourself and chances are it’s going to resonate with other people as well. I cold-called Bergdorf Goodman because it was a store where I had always pressed my face up against the glass to look in. I was almost afraid to walk in it, but I faced my fear. Dawn Mello was a very famous person in the continuum of fashion, so I cold-called her and lo and behold I ended up being hired! I created a huge proposal saying that if I worked for you, this is what your windows would look like, this is what your shops would look like — sometimes you have to go out of the box for something that you would really want.”
A common mistake I see is candidates not quite answering the questions posed, which could indicate poor listening skills.
4. Show your skills in collaboration
LF: “I don't care what business you’re in, collaboration is key. It is a form of listening, an active and inactive process. The inactive is when you’re listening and absorbing other people’s messages and trying to immediately think if it’s valid. If you work in a creative field like fashion, these are skills that you need to learn. You learn with anything that has a broad reach and resonance, involving teams of people, meetings and brainstorming, that you are not operating in a vacuum.”
5. Demonstrate a global retail mindset
Kelly Wong, director of fashion, Lane Crawford: “You should demonstrate a strong sense of numbers and figures. We need to be cautious with our investment, as well as being agile to cope with the ever-changing world. The online evolution made retail more international and transparent. We no longer benchmark ourselves among other retailers in our region, so our buyers are working harder to curate unique edits for our discerning customers.”
6. Take risks with your portfolio to show your creative instinct
KW: “We always encourage our team to constructively challenge conventions and step outside of their comfort zone. Besides buying signature designs and commercial pieces from a collection, a candidate with a limited portfolio should take the risk of selecting some daring pieces to make a statement curation.”
7. Identify what motivates you and maintain a dialogue
Ruth Chapman, co-founder, Matchesfashion.com: “Buying is a balance between magic and logic. Whilst numerical skills are key, the most important thing for us is that you have a good eye and are very instinctive. They [buyers] need to be good stylists, with their own point of view.”
Heidi Coppin, chief human resources officer, Matchesfashion.com: “We look for people who are hugely passionate and enthusiastic about what they do. That’s the thing that is going to make you very successful. There’s an element of ‘What have you done?’ — but more of ‘What drives you?’ and ‘What motivates you?’ We look for good communication, collaboration and teamwork attributes, which will make you a success. Really it comes down to what you’re able to do and the breadth of your experience. When you do get back in touch after an interview, it opens up a dialogue. If you’re not successful this time, you’re potentially opening avenues for speculative roles in the future. When you do that, you’re inadvertently creating a relationship with the recruiter or the manager and making yourself memorable.”
With the world we live in today is that you have to show you’re happy with change.
8. Prove you can be adaptable
HC: “When you come into an interview, it’s important that you are able to demonstrate how adaptable and flexible you are. If you’re coming in with maybe only one company that you’ve previously worked for, it’s great to understand how you operate and what experience you gained from that company, but then also how you adapt when you move to the next company.
“If you’re quite insular about that one experience that you’ve had, it doesn’t demonstrate huge flexibility. With our industry, especially with e-commerce and online moving so quickly, it’s such a fast-paced environment and you have to move with that. I think a development with the world we live in today is that you have to show you’re happy with change.”
9. Stay up to date with trends and the industry
Federico Barassi, menswear buying director, Ssense: “With the ever-changing fashion industry, the best thing you can do for yourself is to do your research on emerging and established designers, as well as new developments in the industry. Things are constantly shifting and evolving so it’s important to be informed on potential impacts."
Brigitte Chartrand, womenswear buying director, Ssense: “Having a good understanding of the audience that we are speaking to will definitely stand out in an interview. Not looking thoroughly through our editorial content or the brands we carry would definitely be a mistake. Always read industry publications on a daily basis. This is how everyone stays up to date on the fashion and business world. Equally as important is having good communication with peers so you stay on top of new trends. Fashion moves quickly so you need to keep yourself informed. It is important that we understand how influencers and social media work, how they can influence trends, and that they can be strategic business tools, but I tell our buyers that it is also important that you don’t make decisions based on social media hype.”
10. Be prepared to work with data
FB: “At Ssense, one of the top qualities we look for are analytical skills. We are such a data-driven company that selecting the right products is only a portion of the work that we do; analysing data is a greater part of the job. And of course, your sense of style and ability to spot trends is paramount.”
BC: “You need to understand and relate to the Ssense point of view. I’m looking for someone with good business acumen and a strong analytical side. That is the true ethos of the company, demonstrated in every department from the buying team to the engineering team.
We are always looking for the balance of left and right brain. We have a very strong creative side that is balanced by how data driven we are. If you have these qualities, it’s easy to teach you the rest. We don’t mind hiring applicants with little experience because we are invested in seeing you grow in your career.”