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How to Negotiate a Higher Salary in Fashion

With the cost of living crisis affecting both businesses and individuals, discussions about pay are a delicate but critical hurdle for employees to navigate today. BoF spoke to negotiation and compensation consultants, as well as industry professionals, on how to approach and prepare for these conversations.
Two individuals face each other, seated at a table. The figure to the left gesticulates while the figure to the right makes notes on a notepad.
An employee in a salary negotiation meeting with their senior. (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.

Conversations about pay and asking for a salary raise will occur throughout every employee’s career — during job interviews, at promotions or in annual reviews. But the subject of remuneration can be hard to navigate, especially with a challenging and unstable macro-economic climate affecting global businesses.

Money also remains a taboo subject. In the US, 33 percent of Americans don’t feel comfortable asking for a pay raise, yet 56 percent wish discussing salaries wasn’t taboo, according to a 2023 survey of 2,000+ American adults conducted by financial services company Empower. Whereas 55 percent of employees in the UK are unwilling to ask for a raise, according to a recent survey of 3,000 professionals by online recruitment service Reed Recruitment. Respondents cited reasons such as not knowing what to say (16 percent), anxiety about appearing greedy (15 percent) or simply lacking confidence (12 percent), according to the Harvard Business Review.

Redundancy is also increasingly widespread across industries and can make jobs, and discussions around increasing pay, feel more precarious. Indeed, the job market’s growth has slowed in starting salaries, dipping to a three-year low in January, according to a survey published by KPMG and the Recruitment & Employment Confederation.

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While all levels of seniority will have to navigate the topic of remuneration, negotiating pay acutely affects young people with less job security and lower salaries at entry-level positions. In the US, the Empower survey also found that 49 percent of survey respondents, and 69 percent of Millennials and 71 percent of Gen-Z, believe discussing salaries can lead to better career opportunities. Indeed, almost 50 percent of Gen-Zs and Millennials based in the UK are concerned that their monthly income will not be able to cover their expenses, according to professional services firm Deloitte, with many young people subsidising their income with extra work alongside their existing full-time jobs.

The on-going cost of living crisis is stretching employees and households financially. However, despite the challenging macroeconomics, employees still need to address when they are due an increase in financial compensation to match their output and performance.

Now, BoF shares advice from negotiation and compensation experts, as well as fashion professionals, to gather their insights and advice on how to prepare for and manage discussions surrounding pay.

Understand your value and leverage your skill sets

Before you enter into conversations with stakeholders about pay and remuneration, you should first consider the value you bring to the business and how your skills help the company achieve its financial goals.

“If you’re asking for a raise, you need to know [the answer to:] ‘Why am I asking for a raise?’ Is it because you feel underpaid? If that’s the case, what evidence do you have that you are underpaid in the role that you are asking about?” says Amy Stewart, associate director of content and editorial at compensation software and data company Payscale, whose clients include the likes of Ebay and Target.

“It is common to think, if I do a good job, [...] I will be granted that pay raise based on the good job that I did. But largely, employers expect employees to do a good job in the position that they were hired into.”

Understand how pay rises are managed in the organisation you work for. Some base it on the calendar year; on date of hire; some don’t have a process.

As a result, employees should build out a clear case about how you have contributed to the business, using data-driven examples and analysis that will make your argument more compelling. Consider examples over an extended period of time to show longevity of results by building a log of work achievements, such as positive feedback from colleagues or examples when you have met or exceeded critical KPIs and business metrics.

“Negotiation in this part becomes personal,” says Angelique Hathaway, founder of New Beginnings Negotiation Consultancy. “You have to talk to your manager about your self worth and what you’re doing in the business, in order for them to understand where you’re coming from.”

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Understanding the business’ needs and how you can contribute towards them can also help boost confidence in approaching conversations. “It all starts with believing in what you can do for the company and getting over that social barrier. If you are able to add more value to the company, then there’s always something more to be laid on the table,” adds An Moisson, founder and CEO of Spanish consultancy and coaching platform Nexpertos.

Educate yourself on internal remuneration processes

You need to educate yourself on your employer’s approach to salary increases, when pay reviews happen and how they are benchmarked, which can help demystify the process.

The approach will differ in every business. Ideally, your manager would be equipped to answer questions around pay and remuneration. However, nearly 58 percent of organisations do not train managers on payment communications, according to Payscale’s 2023 Compensation Best Practices Report. As a result, you might have to source the information through internal HR systems and company documentation or by asking HR or People team representatives.

“Understand how pay rises are managed in the organisation you work for. Some base it on the calendar year; on date of hire; some don’t have a process,” says Stewart.

Some companies also distribute salaries and raises from a centralised pot, while others will assign different amounts to different teams. Understanding where your salary comes from could have an impact as to how you approach the conversation, different teams may have different funds available to them for salary increases and it may influence how you perceive your competitive field.

Don’t make any exceptions. If a payment is late, you charge late fees [...] If you don’t do that, you’re not going to be taken seriously.

You should enter into a conversation about pay with your manager or a relevant business leader with a rough idea of what salary increase you are after. You might want to ask them, “what is the pay range for my job and how far along the pay range [am I]?” according to Stewart, which can help you benchmark your performance according to the business.

Speak to other employees across the business as well. This can help you benchmark your salary against colleagues with a similar seniority or output to you, although you should consider variations in their income such as if their job is commission-based or if they live in a different country. For instance, the average annual salary in New York is $71,401, but only $44,474 in Copenhagen. However, the latter has a high work-life balance rating of 8.6 out of 10, while New York’s is only 5.2 out of 10, according to research by personal finance site Money Nerd.

“Do some investigation, talk with people who work at that company to try and understand where the salary levels sit. What are the policies around it that will be able to prepare you?” adds Moisson, whose career includes roles in the beauty industry at the likes of Procter & Gamble.

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Be specific with your request

Specificity is an effective means of showcasing your preparation and that your request has been carefully considered. The more specific your ask, the more you have to leverage — and compromise on — in a negotiation setting.

“If you’re not looking at [your salary] as a variable, then you won’t be able to negotiate as effectively,” says Hathaway. For example, you should consider how much it costs to run your life. “Weigh up all the variables — what do you need to pay your mortgage, your car, your bills, your life,” she adds.

For fashion’s extensive network of freelancers, navigating payment terms demands specificity in a similar way — but additional costs will need to be considered. For example, you need to consider early on in a project ideation time or perhaps a travel schedule. Later in the project, you might have numerous rounds of feedback to navigate. External factors should also be considered like income tax and National Insurance contributions or perhaps student loan repayments or agency fees.

All these additional layers should be factored in and laid out in a contractual agreement, including late fees or how many rounds of feedback a client might be limited.

“Don’t make any exceptions. If a payment is late, you charge late fees [...] If you don’t do that, you’re not going to be taken seriously,” says freelance writer Nina Maria, whose work has featured in Dazed, i-D, 1 Granary, NSS magazine and more. Maria recommends sharing information on legal requirements for payment to those who are late to pay.

Sometimes, you want a job so badly you want to start working for the company [right away]. [...] But try to control your answer because it might be that they have something more to give.

“Whenever anyone has questions about paying me on time, I send a link to the government website which details the consequences of not paying someone on time,” says Maria. “You have to email the invoicing department. I just chase — I am the most annoying person ever! You have to be.”

Payment terms vary depending on the jurisdiction. “[In Italy,] there are several clients that pay you after 90 days,” shares Thais Montessori Brandao, a Milan-based freelance stylist who has worked for brands such as Prada, Moncler and Vogue Italia. To avoid disappointment, she suggests specifying payment terms in an initial contract. It is also common practice to be paid after 30 or even 60 days, to which Montessori Brandao advises you specify that you want to be paid within a certain time frame.

In the UK, clients are legally required to pay freelancers within 30 days. In the US, different requirements vary from state to state. Notably, however, a new bill has arisen called the Freelance Worker Protection Act, designed to offer increased protection for freelance workers, including the right to be paid within 30 days of the conclusion of the work, among other requirements.

Conduct your own external research

Online tools can offer benchmarking — Payscale has an online salary survey, where you can fill in your job specification and the platform will offer information of other salaries at similar job levels. For employees in the US, the governmental organisation Bureau of Labor Statistics provides another salary benchmarking resource.

New legislation in the UK, EU and US — such as the The EU Pay Transparency Directive — now stipulates that employers disclose salaries at the point of recruitment and comply with requests for pay data. As a result, 45 percent of employers now include salary ranges in job postings, according to Payscale, making information about pay brackets increasingly accessible, particularly online.

If your research shows discrepancies across your salary and standard pay, consider broaching the subject by asking to “better understand how I can make this at my current job,” says Stewart. However, she adds: “Don’t assume that your employer is [...] intentionally trying to underpay you.” This may well not be the case and can cause unnecessary friction, so having a positive attitude and open mind can help ensure a better outcome.

Eighty-six percent of organisations do give pay raises outside of their annual cycle if they have one. So if you’ve missed that window, that doesn’t mean that you should not ask [...]

For those working contract or freelance in fashion, conversations about pay negotiation is more common, as you will negotiate fees for every job. As an independent agent, you do not have the same HR or legal protection, and you must set your own rates, set up your own payment schedules, chase your own fees — all of which adds additional layers of complexity.

When entering into these negotiations, you need to weigh up key aspects of the job, says Montessori Brandao. She encourages investigating the brand, their previous projects, style and approach. You can then make a more informed decision on how much to charge for that level of work.

When starting out, Montessori Brandao suggests putting forward a proposed fee and adding a disclaimer like, “I am open to discussing this” or “I am open to renegotiate,” to allow for flexibility and dialogue with the company at hand, which can also help you learn more about what they would expect to pay. To cover yourself, any agreed terms around payment, as well as hours, benefits or usage rights should be recorded in a contract.

Consider the timing of your ask

The instability of the current economic climate and its impact on businesses is crucial to consider when approaching these conversations. Indeed, many fashion businesses have had to hike prices to cover mounting costs, so it’s important to understand the broader financial health of the business.

Pay increases do not always directly correlate to performance but instead reflect the financial position that the business is in. “Many employees, especially younger employees, have misconceptions about how pay increases work,” shares Stewart. “Annual pay increases tend to be more about keeping up with the market — both inflation and the cost of labour — than it is about awarding performance.”

While it can help to align your timings with an internal annual salary review, it may also not be a deal-breaker. As Stewart notes: “Eighty-six percent of organisations do give pay raises outside of their annual cycle if they have one. So if you’ve missed that window, that doesn’t mean that you should not ask, but it does help to be aware of that process.”

Moisson suggests considering the optimal times of the fiscal year to broach the topic. “When I think about my own experiences of salary increase conversations in multinationals, the timing would always be just before the new fiscal year because then, no money has already been set for that new fiscal year.”

If you have a job offer on the table, take your time to consider the proposed salary alongside employee benefits: “Don’t say yes too quickly,” suggests Moisson. “Sometimes, you want a job so badly you want to start working for the company [right away]. You get offered a certain amount of money and you just say yes. But try to control your answer because it might be that they have something more to give.”

There are polite ways to take your time in this way, she advises. You can showcase enthusiasm, while still asking for time to make a final decision. This delay will give you the opportunity to evaluate whether the offer feels fair or if you should counteroffer, which may include an indirect financial benefit like shares in the company or a higher premium for health insurance. For freelancers, they can also use a busy schedule and working for other clients as a point of negotiation for pay.

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