FCN 2012: What you thought you knew about your career path in fashion

By QC

It’s really not about simply following your dreams and passions, but what you’ve discovered along the way.  From this Fashion Campus NYC panel discussion moderated by Simon Collins, a career in fashion is a bit like a sculpted childhood dream.  These passions aren’t tainted by “reality”, but enlightened by possibilities.

The Fashion Campus NYC was a panel discussion with young professionals from the finance, sales, production, merchandising, marketing, and buying areas of the fashion industry.  They elaborated on how they got started, their day-to­-day roles, the key qualifications for their jobs, and how their diverse roles support their fashion firms.

The Panelists:

Nancy Tsuei: Vice President of Merchandising at Williams Sonoma Inc- West Elm
Alexis H: Sr. Production Coordinator- Men’s graphics at American Eagle Outfitters
Carla Isabel: Founder of Freefashioninternships.com
William McGinn: Brooklyn Industries Buyer
Laura Kenkel: Associate Production Manager at J. Crew

Throughout the panel discussion, Collins touched up on each of the panelist’s backgrounds and discussed their journey about how they got to their fashion careers today.  Equally unique and talented in their own right, most of the panelists had surprisingly come a long way from backgrounds unrelated to fashion.

Overview:

1. Build relationships

Exposing yourself to the industry is a well-known tip, but building relationships is key.  All the panelists mentioned how they had gotten their current jobs by making a lasting impression on somebody who knew somebody- with or without a fashion background.  Never be afraid to talk to anyone and be open-minded- the path you think you want to take may take a sudden turn for the better.

“Take advantage of every moment-make an impression” –S. Collins

2. Be well-read

Expand your knowledge beyond your field.  Many of the panelists hopped from design to product development, and like Nancy, went into a lifestyle brand (West Elm).  You don’t know where and how your interests will align, but what you can do is read up on the industry news and keep yourself engaged with the industry by knowing what’s happening in retail, design, and production. You may think there are only a few job titles out there, but if you’re well-read, you may just be lucky enough to create your own.

“You can do anything you want- you can be anyone you want”  –S. Collins

3. Stay creative

You may never know how your skills come into play.  Will, who was originally in landscape architecture, mentioned he was “grudgingly good at math”.  Applying the talents he had gleaned from his education at Notre Dame still benefited his time in his field and at Brooklyn Industries.

Internships can also be tedious, but nothing is ever a dead end.  “If you are asked to make coffee by your supervisor, make it good coffee.  The ones that are really successful are the ones who make the most of whatever situation they are in, ” states Simon Collins.

Additional Q’s asked by the audience:

 photo credit: Jonathan Grassi

What are some qualities that separate those will pure passion and superficial interest and what is a value that you think separated yourself from the others and made who you are today?

Carla: It’s pretty easy to tell who’s in it for a party invitation.  It’s really the ones who don’t complain, are always engaged, ask questions, and bring things to the table.  There’s a preconceived notion that interns are only supposed to get coffee and menial labor.  The ones who stick in my mind are the ones who came up with advice or if they weren’t doing anything, asked how they could help me or didn’t watch the clock.  You’d be surprised how apparent it really is.

Also, you’re bound to do something wrong.   It’s really about taking constructive criticism and finding a solution to the problem.

What advice do you have for students that aren’t studying design? What would you suggest as a starting point for us?

Laura: Internships are the number one important thing and that’s the only way I got any background in fashion.  Connections are also so important.  Don’t look at networking like you’ll get something now, but look at it where you and your connections will help each other along as you both move forward.

Can you tell us the difference between a good and a bad internship and can you tell us some internship horror stories?

I think the internship that allows you to delve into multiple areas of a company is really the best internship to have.
Simon: You want to be the person that they are trying to find a job for.

If you were to start a fashion firm, who is the first person you would choose as a business mentor?

Nancy: There isn’t just one person who has served as the perfect mentor. One person I do admire is Mickey Drexler.  He really recreated J.Crew.  Pat Connolly is also one of my influential mentors today. So to sum it up, I would look for more than one mentor.  There are so many things you can learn from the leaders in our industry.  You shouldn’t limit yourself to just fashion- you should look at other products and other brands

What are your thoughts on graduate school and was it beneficial to your career path?

I went back to business school and it was on a very non-traditional route.  You really have to couple your graduate degree with tangible experience.  I went back to school because I knew that eventually, I wanted to be the leader at the top of the company and I knew I needed to know everything from operations to finance to design.  Going back to graduate school was the opportunity for me to get a broader view.   Between graduate school and retail, there’s really no straight line.

Do you have any advice to give to us about how to take initiative in a tactful way with upper management?

Laura: It’s best to start small.
Simon: It’s good to be humble as well. You have to think about the way you deliver your message or idea (brilliant or not).

What new skills do you see the fashion industry seeking from our generation?

Will: A big one is having a blog- having a blog, running a blog, using social media.  Don’t underestimate how well-versed you are in that than the people you will be working for.  Don’t just know about it- suggest ways that it can help.

Have you ever doubted yourself to the point where you wanted to do something else?

Carla: Yes, I was all over the map. I mean, I interned in a fashion closet, a wholesale market, I did accessories design and I was a terrible drawer, but you’ll find something that you’re really good at.
Simon: It’s best to find your passion and  to incorporate what you’re good at into what you’re dream could be.

Do you have anything to say about interning in an area where you might not necessarily love or be passionate about? Will that prepare you for a director’s job?

I was in the Macy’s Executive program and although I loved retail, I didn’t like buying.  During my time there, I slowly began to realize what I liked and what I didn’t like.  I wanted to work with the product and I wanted to work with the customer, so my next step was to aim for GAP.

I’ve been going from job to job within a few months and I was wondering what advice you have to give for those who are moving around.

Don’t go jumping around all the time.  But if you really aren’t happy and it’s coming out in your work, then don’t stay.  It’s really not worth it.  But don’t every quit a job if you don’t have another one lined up.

What do you see in job opportunities for international students?

Simon: If you want a job at a particular place, you need to go there and pursue it.  This isn’t an industry where you can just fancy something.  If you have to work for free and wash dishes for living, then go do it.  The thing is, it’s really for those who are desperately and passionately devoted to being in it.

What is the most important piece of advice that you want to give to the people here?

Stay curious and explore options.  Look outside the fashion bubble.
Always talk to the people around you.  Do what’s best for you.
Do not be afraid to mess up because you will.  But when you do mess up, go with a solution when you’re delivering that news.
Ask as many questions as you can- understand what the person on the other side of the building is doing.  That will better arm you for a full-time position.
At the end of the day, it’s only fashion.  We’re all passionate for it, but you still have to smile and breathe.
If you find what you love, you won’t feel like you’re working a day in your life.

 

Mai Yang, an attendee in the audience, talks about her positive experience at Fashion Campus NYC 2012. 

Name: Mai Yang
School: University of Minnesota – College of Design
Year of Graduation: Spring 2013
Company and department of your internship: Ampere, Fashion Intern
Website: www.ymaiv.tumblr.com

I was so excited when I had been accepted to attend Fashion Campus NYC 2012 to meet other hopeful interns and industry professionals. One thing I heard time and time again is that taking a lot of liberal arts classes will make you more well-rounded- a trait that professionals are always looking for. Think psychology, communication, and so forth.  Never underestimate the importance of math either!  If anything, getting a design degree from a liberal arts college will give me an edge in the industry- not weigh me down. I was sad when FCN 2012 was over, but I did leave feeling more confident in my ability to make it in this industry.

 

 

written by Tiffany Ouyang, Editor

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