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How I Became… Director of Men’s and Womenswear Buying at Browns

With a buying career that spans Net-a-Porter, Harvey Nichols and now Farfetch-backed Browns, Ida Petersson talks about taking pride in your work, the significance of workplace psychology and what not to do at fashion week.
Ida Petersson, director of men's and womenswear buying at Browns | Source: Shutterstock
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LONDON, United Kingdom — Ida Petersson's buying career began as an intern at the luxury London department store Harvey Nichols, "standing in a long line of buying admin assistants with Excel copies, still faxing orders and phone calling," as she describes it. Petersson stayed at Harvey Nichols for 10 years before leaving for Net-a-Porter "without knowing anything about online," to become a senior buyer at the company during its period of exponential growth.

At Net-a-Porter, Petersson worked under then-buying director Sarah Rutson, and alongside Holli Rogers — Net-a-Porter's fashion director — who is today Browns CEO and Farfetch's chief brand officer. When Petersson left Net-a-Porter in 2016, a year after it merged with Yoox, the company's sales were up 12 percent year-over-year, while the group's sites registered 716 million online visitors and 8.4 million orders.

In her current role, Petersson oversees the men’s and women’s buys at Browns, the London concept store acquired by Farfetch in May 2015. Since that year, the Browns business has quadrupled in size, rebooting its branding and e-commerce site as well as opening Browns East — a high-tech Shoreditch store, originally dubbed the “Store of the Future.”

Petersson also plays a key role in a number of the experiential, cultural and purpose driven initiatives that helped reimagine the legacy of the store's founder Joan Burnstein. Known affectionately in the industry as Mrs B, she built a global reputation by introducing brands like Jil Sander and Comme des Garçons to London, and famously buying John Galliano's graduate collection in its entirety. Today, through a consistent and impressive programme of retail exclusives and in-store events, Petersson and her colleagues have successfully engaged a streetwear-focused, digitally-driven younger generation of consumers.

But creativity and unique product remain Petersson’s primary focus. “When you see a young designer being incredibly creative and then getting that exclusive buy, that's the reason why I do what I do,” says Petersson. Here, the director of men’s and womenswear buying at Browns shares her career advice.

What principles did you learn at the beginning of your career that are still valuable to you today?

My first experience was as an intern at Harvey Nichols. I was offered a job a few months after I graduated and, during that period when I was a buying administration assistant (BAA) and then an assistant buyer (AB), we were still faxing orders and phone calling. You'd stand in a long line of BAAs, and we’d all stand there with Excel copies.

I think one of the biggest things I learnt was being patient and open and willing to roll your sleeves up. That is as relevant today as it was then. The first 18 months to two years of your career can be very repetitive, but be proud of what you’re doing, even if it's not the most exciting role. You've got to do it and if you're not proud at that level, then I wouldn’t trust you to be good further down the line.

How did you differentiate yourself for a promotion?

I would do the task under my remit really well but also continuously ask questions and volunteer myself. When you have an opportunity to step up, like if someone is on maternity leave or there is a gap before somebody new was coming in, you have opportunity to step up yourself and do new things. That is something I look for in my team — that they’re willing to go above and beyond.

Being prepared and informed is so important, that puts you in a position to trust your gut.

As you gain those extra skills and then a new role comes up, you then have the skills already — perhaps not perfectly, but you’ve had some kind of experience of doing it. That then makes you more attractive for the next role step up. Today, there’s so many more companies than when I started out, but there's still a pyramid structure with more people at the bottom than the top. If you are not seeing opportunities to go above and beyond, that is an issue.

What advice do you have for people starting out today?

My biggest advice is to speak up. If you have an idea, don’t be scared to share it. I've been really lucky in my career to have been in an environment where that was encouraged, but there are different ways of approaching that. It is about finding the right moment and part of that is about psychology — it’s understanding the person who is managing you, how they operate, how they do business and how they operate in a business environment.

You also can’t do this job unless you like maths. We use Excel a lot and if you're lucky, you'll be in a company that has advanced tools that helps you do deeper analysis. But you have to have half a maths brain and half a creative brain. If you don't have that, this is not a career for you. You need to be able to understand analysis, read financial reports and make decisions based on the numbers in those reports. Then, you have to be able to build a multifaceted budget as well as report and discuss it in an informed manner.

What advice do you have for those going to fashion and market week for the first time in their career?

When you are out, you are representing the company. There is a lot of temptation to go to parties and you will see others let all their inhibitions go, but don't do that. I was lucky at the time I started my career, as there was no Instagram and no social media. I did learn lessons and that's why I can actually say this — you need to be really careful. The people I choose to have that night out with are people I trust and will not then go and do business with the next day.

Organisation is absolutely key too. In the golden old days, you submitted it all about a month later, now, some orders are due within 48 hours or 72 hours after you’ve attended the meeting. And when you're in market, we are on the road for weeks on end, with meetings from 9am to 9pm — and then you often have a supplier dinner or event to attend.

We almost have production lines where, as soon as the buyer has left the showroom, someone in the UK emails for the buyer’s sheets and will have already planned then meetings they have to, whether they need to write the order down and which stores they are going.

How do you balance data analysis and gut instinct?

I want every buyer on my team — whether a junior buyer or an assistant buyer — to have done their homework so they are ready to answer any question on our current buy. Being prepared and informed is so important because that puts you in a position to trust your gut when special moments happen.

The most recent example for us was Bottega Veneta. We used to only buy Bottega accessories in a very small way because the collection wasn’t right for Browns’ customers. Then, when we saw Daniel [Lee]’s first collection, we said we’ve got to do this and we have to do menswear, which we hadn’t done before. We decided to spend as much money as they will allow us to spend, because we knew it was going to be the biggest thing.

It was like Alessandro at Gucci, which back in the day was still a big risk. At that time, I had Sarah Rutson as my buying director and she said, "This is going to be it," so what we planned went out the window and it was double the budget, triple the budget. Those are the best moments.

What keeps you passionate about your role?

When you see a young designer being incredibly creative — the energy there, then getting that exclusivity, that face-to-face that you don't with a big company. They have so much passion and enthusiasm. When it’s the first time you see a new designer and they are that extra bit talented — that's the reason why I do what I do, and I think the reason why most of the people on my team do what they do.

I’m also a people person. You have to be. If you don't like people, you do not want to have this career because you spend so much time with other people. You have to enjoy the personal touch because negotiation is a big part of this job. If you work for a big company, you can be a cold person and still get what you want. But if you go somewhere for a buy, and all of a sudden your budgets are reduced and you need them to do your favour, if you're not good at relationships, you’re going to find it tough.

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