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How to Build Confidence in the Fashion Workplace

BoF spoke to fashion professionals, creatives and the founder of a self-promotion platform to understand how to overcome feelings of self-doubt, from leaning on your professional communities to experimenting outside of your comfort zone.
Fashion professionals stand to discuss a topic while colleagues in the background work before a pinboard.
Confidence takes time to develop and typically improves with the more experience one has at work. (Pexels)

The Insider Advice series offers advice from leading fashion professionals, HR leaders and academics, to answer topical careers questions for today’s fashion employees and help inform and guide you in your career. Discover the latest job opportunities with 2,700+ roles on BoF Careers today.

As a highly competitive, creatively challenging work environment, adhering to consumer demands for newness season after season, the fashion industry demands a lot from its employees. As a result, room for error or self-doubt can feel limited.

“It’s an industry where it’s easy to compare yourself to other people,” says Sanaz Dizaj, brand director and founding employee of Axel Arigato and a Forbes 30 Under 30 recipient for media and marketing. “When you’re in the fashion industry, you have to be mindful that we’re all on our own path and everyone’s career is different.”

Confidence, however, is not an inherent personality trait but a skill that can be learnt and acquired through practice. What’s more, improving one’s self-confidence will have a positive impact on your soft skills and the impressions you leave at work. Psychology Today explains that: “Projecting confidence helps people gain credibility, make a strong first impression, deal with pressure and tackle personal and professional challenges.”

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Confidence also takes time to develop and typically improves with the more experience one has at work — arguably a reason why it disproportionately affects the youngest generation in the workplace. People aged 18 to 24 are reportedly the least confident compared to other generations, with only 43 percent feeling confident in their workplace position compared to 59 percent of Millennials, Gen X and Baby Boomers, according to the BBC.

Still, struggling with confidence is not unique to Gen-Z. One third of Millennials suffer from imposter syndrome — a term that denotes the feeling of being unworthy of your achievements, impacting self-confidence as well as one’s mental health. Boomers (roughly aged 59 to 77 years old) are also often neglected by employers for upskilling opportunities, affecting workplace confidence. Workers between the ages of 25 and 34 receive an average of 37 hours of training per year, while those over the age of 55 receive only 9 hours, according to a report issued by the Department of Labor Taskforce.

Now, BoF shares advice from fashion professionals, creatives and the founder of a self-promotion platform to gather their advice on how to improve your workplace confidence.

Examine your job description and workplace requirements

Around 50 percent of employees do not know or understand what is expected from them at work, according to research conducted by management consulting company Gallup. Without this knowledge, one’s confidence can falter due to a lack of awareness on how to perform well in your position.

In order to feel better prepared for what is expected of you in the workplace, Stefanie Sword-Williams, author and founder of consulting agency F*ck Being Humble, which aims to change the way we self-promote, recommends regularly referring back to your job description. This way, you will have a clearer understanding of how to meet your workplace’s expectations — and how to exceed them.

Sword-Williams, whose work includes hosting motivational talks, events and employee training, also suggests asking for the job description of your immediate senior. “That way, you know when you are performing at a higher level, which can open up conversations around responsibility, rewards and progression.”

When going into meetings as a junior, conversations can move quickly across topics. Without prior experience, it can be hard to keep up. Making notes, or taking in pre-prepared notes, can be helpful.

“[This practice] does not look like you are unable to do your job or are inexperienced. For me, I’d be more impressed that you’d taken the time to make those notes so that you can communicate your views in the right way,” Sword-Williams says.

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Do not be afraid to ask

If you feel under-prepared to meet expectations in the workplace or to build upon existing skill sets, consider asking for additional training if learning and development resources are available.

The majority of employees report to have expectations around training for workplace satisfaction — a Gallup 2021 survey of more than 15,000 US workers found that 61 percent of employees said upskilling opportunities are an important reason to stay at their job. Despite this, fundamental training is still lacking in key areas like managing a team. For example, 58 percent of managers said they hadn’t received any management training in a study by jobs platform Career Builder.

Confidence is knowing there are things you could never have known coming into that workplace situation — it’s more important that you stay committed to learning.

Asking questions is also key to better understanding your role and a company’s expectations of you. If you are nervous about asking a question, imagine the worst case scenario of the outcome, says Jeaniq Amihyia, founder of Starting Seven, a community-based production studio in London who has worked with the likes of Selfridges and Adidas and fosters young creative talent.

“You might as well ask the question [...] because the worst thing someone can say is that actually, they don’t know either,” he says.

Asking questions also demonstrates proactivity. Research conducted by Harvard University suggests that asking more follow-up questions increases people’s positive impression of you. It also implies a desire to grow and develop in your role.

“You have to realise that you’re never going to have all of the answers,” says Dizaj. “Own the awkwardness, because confidence is knowing there are things you could never have known coming into that workplace situation — it’s more important that you stay committed to learning and believing in yourself and your ability to get there eventually.”

Learn from the behaviour and skill sets of others

Observe those around you whose professional approach or leadership technique you admire. Analyse how they communicate with their team; how they handle disagreements; the body language they use. This approach can help managers learn how to emulate leadership skills or entry-level employees discover tricks on how to making a good impression in a meeting.

The practice can also help you better develop creative skill sets — and feeling more prepared and confident at work will come down to researching and practising your profession.

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“You’ve got Youtube and so many other means available to build on your craft. The more you practise, the more you’re going to get out,” says Amihyia. “You can be the most talented person in the room but if you have no hard work or research behind it, then you’re not setting yourself apart.”

This attitude plays a significant role in Amihyia’s hiring process: “It is something I look for [in] talent. If you don’t know what you’re doing, that’s fine — but if you’re working towards it, that’s nicer for me because at least you’re trying to work towards something.”

Finding a mentor can also allow you to learn from the behaviour and advice of others through a more personal, one-on-one approach. Axel Arigato’s Dizaj is a mentor with the creative mentorship platform Mentoring Matters, which aims to empower the next generation of talent from BIPOC backgrounds.

Being able to have open discussions gives you a sense of reassurance and lets you know you’re not alone in this.

As a second-generation Iranian immigrant living in Sweden, she explains how she had to overcome feeling like an outsider when she started working in fashion and how she “started from a place of very low confidence.”

“Sometimes all you need to do is be seen and heard. I encourage the people that I work with to choose a workplace or career path where you can really shine.”

Indeed, McKinsey reports that younger generations are 3 to 5 times more likely to report that various diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) factors have a major impact on their ability to work effectively, such as an inability to share one’s full self at work, or the creation of a hostile work environment.

If your company does not implement a mentorship scheme, research online people you admire, or platforms that offer mentorship opportunities and reach out to those who might help you grow in your career and build confidence as you do.

Contextualise your professional goals with the business’ own

Another key way to boost your confidence at work is to build your professional goals around business objectives and how your work contributes towards them.

“Speak to the key decision-makers, the finance directors, the managing directors, not only so that you’re on their radar but so that you understand what the company’s overall mission is or what the ambitions might be per quarter or per year,” says Sword-Williams.

“When you are able to understand what the business is looking to achieve, you can then connect your personal successes back to the results that the company wants to make,” she adds. This approach is particularly useful for those working in commercial roles, with sales targets or key performance indicators (KPIs) directly tied to the company’s financial targets.

This approach can also help you better understand where your core competencies, professional interests and niche skill sets lie.

“You should be thinking — ‘this is how I stand out, this is why I’ve been approached.’ But that attitude is not something that’s [adopted] overnight,” says Amihyia.

Indeed, a well-defined niche allows you to fulfil a particular purpose within your company, making your work valuable and thereby growing your confidence in your abilities.

Build a community inside and outside the workplace

Networking can be daunting, but building out a professional community is regularly cited as a crucial component of success in one’s career — colleagues and industry connections can help you platform and champion your work and make critical work connections for future career moves.

Identifying the people within your business who can open doors for you is one way to find security in the workplace. Sword-Williams refers to these individuals as “internal cheerleaders” and recommends taking time to forge connections with them.

“The more you know about other people, the more you can pitch yourself for opportunities, the more chances you have of them saying your name when you’re not in the room,” she says.

Colleagues can also act as sounding boards for upcoming meetings or presentations you might feel nervous about. Sword-Williams advises delivering your pitch or presentation to work friends who are going to be in the meeting, which can help you more confidently enter the situation with their support.

Outside of an office setting, there are other ways you can proactively forge connections with peers. Amihyia references group chats he has with individuals working in the same or adjacent industries. They post various questions pertaining to work, such as advice regarding camera batteries or even insurance or licensing.

“It’s about getting into a space where you’re able to share your experiences with like-minded people — being able to have open discussions gives you a sense of reassurance and lets you know you’re not alone in this,” he says.

Bring a pal with you, so if you are going to feel intimidated in that space, you have somebody who is a support for you.

With the rise in hybrid work culture, making authentic workplace connections in-person can feel more limited. In turn, the less experience you have in an office, the more intimidating the workplace, or external events, can seem.

Psychologists recommend building confidence by experimenting with situations that put you outside of your comfort zone. Setting yourself goals of attending a certain number of work events per month or talking to a certain number of people will gradually make these events feel less daunting and improve your ability to confidently communicate in a semi-professional setting.

“Just observing and looking at the way people move, interact with each other — that for me has been a great part of understanding how to hold myself in a room,” Dan Peters, founder of Fashion Minority Report, previously shared in an article on How to Network as a Fashion Professional.

“And bring a pal with you, so if you are going to feel intimidated in that space, you have somebody who is a support for you. Use them for the ability to start a conversation amongst yourselves and bring somebody else in.”

Consider mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow

Throughout your career, mistakes will be inevitable. But try not to let mistakes affect your confidence, as they are crucial steps during career growth. Psychoanalysts cite self-blaming as a common response to making mistakes, which is a destructive reaction to disappointment and, naturally, fuels insecurity.

“The first time you rode a bike, you were terrible. The first time you did a cartwheel you were terrible. You can’t expect to be perfect at everything you do for the first time.” says Sword-Williams. “The question I like to pose to people is, would you prefer to regret something or not be perfect at it? [...] Personally, I would rather try something than regret never having tried it.”

In order to mitigate making mistakes in your immediate place of work, you can try taking greater risks and explore your craft in other spaces. Find opportunities to indulge your interests or areas that you feel you need to work on.

Sword-Williams launched F*ck Being Humble events outside of her nine to five job in advertising: “I was almost happy to fail outside of work so that I could build up my confidence in this area — so I didn’t immediately tell my business I can and want to run events. Instead, I did it outside of work, tried it, really enjoyed it and had a great response. Then, when I talked about it at work, I became the go-to person to run events and it completely transformed my career.”

Dizaj reiterates that we should “look for opportunities in life where you can be a bit unfamiliar, a bit uncomfortable, because that’s where you’re going to grow the most.” Fundamentally, she adds, “every day is going to involve a screw up, but you have to just get more rights than wrongs.”

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