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Routes to the top in fashion retail

There are myriad ways to get started in fashion retail. Here, some of the industry’s rising stars describe how they got started, and offer advice for those hoping to follow suit.

Drapers Next Generation, now in its ninth year, turns the spotlight on young fashion retail professionals and the industry changes shaping their careers today.

There have never been so many ways into senior fashion retail roles. While working on the shop floor is still a crucial starting point, it is not the only route to success: using determination and imagination, there are multiple ways to reach the top.

Technology is not just changing the way business is done – it is also transforming the way people are rising up the ranks. Some of fashion’s most promising stars are tech entrepreneurs: Snap Fashion founder Jenny Griffiths, Grabble’s Daniel Murray, and Mallzee’s Cally Russell (all Drapers 30 Under 30 alumni) started their businesses straight out of university, at the kitchen table, or after leaving another, less satisfying job.

Griffiths studied computer science at the University of Bristol, where she invented the technology that powers Snap Fashion, a website and app that allow shoppers to match a picture of a garment they’ve seen in a magazine or a photo they’ve taken with a similar product, which they can then buy. Snap Fashion launched in 2012.

“Fashion and technology go hand in hand because they’re so creative,” she argues.

Fashion entrepreneurs

Beyond technology, entrepreneurs are carving out their own paths in fashion retail. For Jessica Neil, founder of online childrenswear retailer The Mini Edit, working in a hairdresser’s salon kindled her passion for retail.

“I had a brief stint in hairdressing straight after school,” she says. “I was surrounded by extremely wealthy customers and their gorgeous designer clothes and bags. I quickly became obsessed with fashion.” Her first role in fashion was on the reception desk in the London offices of footwear manufacturer PBFA. “It wasn’t exactly the glamour I had envisaged, but it was a stone’s throw from Selfridges, it paid significantly more than working in the salon and the showroom walls were lined with designer shoes, so I was in heaven. 

“My role was pretty basic – booking travel, making tea, etc – but it was perfect for me, because it meant I could make myself valuable.” Neil eventually got into buying via a role at flash Sale site BrandAlley.

Be willing to start at the bottom and take any role linked to where you want to get to

Jessica Neil, The Mini Edit

“I knew that, for a non-graduate, getting a role in buying would be impossible if I applied to the biggest retailers, so I took an admin job at BrandAlley. I worked my way up from there, bouncing around at a range of online off-price retailers.” She eventually moved to New Look and then childrenswear brand Alex & Alexa, before joining Selfridges as a childrenswear buyer in 2012.

Neil launched The Mini Edit in 2015. She says: “Be willing to start at the bottom and take any role that might even remotely link to where you want to get to, then get your head down, prove yourself and work your way up.”

Paul Monks, founder of Hertfordshire menswear retailer Purple Menswear, followed the more traditional route of working as a sales assistant at a local menswear independent, before launching his own business. 

“I was lucky enough to gain experience in areas such as buying, which enabled me to open my own store,” he explains. His advice for anyone wanting to do the same is to “try to find someone to mentor you while you are starting out. They have made the mistakes which you can learn from.” 

Shop floor 

For many, the shop floor is still an important way into the industry. Nicholas Lambert was a sales adviser at Topshop Oxford Circus before winning a work placement in the buying team. He eventually became a senior buyer at Topman 10 years later, and is now a menswear buyer at Primark.

Leanne Oddy, international trading manager at Arcadia Group, started with a Saturday job at Dorothy Perkins in 2000. This led her to merchandising, where she has been ever since. “Shop floor experience goes a long way,” she argues. “It not only gives you a way to get started within a company, but can also help you to understand the end result of the decisions you make as a merchandiser.”

Starting on the shop floor was absolutely key to my career

Nigel Oddy, The Range

For some, a career in retail means staying in stores. Hayley Heath began as a store assistant at Peacocks in 2006, and quickly worked her way up to store manager. Now at Matalan in Bedfordshire, she says: “I knew I would gain so many transferable skills, as you deal with everything from customers, visuals, operations, planning, stock control, marketing and HR. Every day you are doing something different.”

Starting on the shop floor gives CEOs the broad training and customer focus they need to rise to the top, argues Nigel Oddy, chief executive of The Range and former House of Fraser boss. He started on the sock counter at Marks & Spencer in 1979. “It was absolutely key to my career,” he says. “It’s where you learn all the basics, such as understanding the importance of interacting with the customer. There’s no better place to start.”

He adds that the opportunities to rise from the shop floor to senior management are there for those who seek them out: “Some of our most senior managers at The Range started as store assistants, and this has been the case in all my roles.”

Internships

Internships and graduate trainee roles are another route into the industry. Maria Greiner, strategic account executive at Nike, started in an internship at Macandi Showrooms. She says the most important lesson she learned was how small the industry is: “I still work with some of the same people that I did 12 years ago, even though jobs, companies and positions have all changed. Do the right thing, and be a good person.”

Icelandic designer Katrin Alda, founder of Kalda Shoes, says the internships she completed after graduating from the London College of Fashion in 2007 helped her work out what she wanted to do. She decided the creative control of running her own business appealed. “I opened a small clothing store in Reykjavik, where I started to make and sell my own clothes,” she explains.

Two years ago, Alda started her footwear brand, which is manufactured in Portugal and sold in Browns in London.

“I wanted to focus on one product category, as I felt I needed to stand out in a very crowded place and shoes seemed the natural choice,” she adds.

Creativity and initiative 

For creative roles, initiative is key. Chirag Patel, art director at premium womenswear knitwear brand Chinti & Parker, says: “I started as Hawes & Curtis’s sole creative designer and for three years threw myself into designing all of their assets, art directed and produced their campaigns, and designed stores and concessions.”

Michael Stephens, global deputy head of creative at Ted Baker, adds: “While I was studying fine art at university I used my developing camera skills to gain access to and photograph international catwalk shows for various websites and fashion blogs.” From there, Stephens got a job at I-D magazine, where he managed external creative and commercial partnerships, before joining London department store Liberty as head of graphic design in 2013. He joined Ted Baker in 2016.

“The competition is incredibly fierce,” he observes. “For any brand or individual to stand a chance, they need to be adaptable.”

For Missguided senior merchandiser Benn Pinkney, an open mind was important. He studied finance and investment management at Newcastle University, but was unsure which direction to take. However, his family nudged him towards fashion, and he started an entry-level buying and merchandising role at Arcadia Group.

“My mother used to work in retail and explained what merchandising was and how she thought it would be a good career path for me,” he explains. “I looked into it, and saw it allowed me to work with numbers, but in a fun environment.”

This is good advice for anyone with ambitions to climb the career ladder, says Sian Smith, head of talent at FitFlop: “Some of the best opportunities are not always the obvious ones. Network and make connections, set yourself goals and make sure everything you spend time on has an impact.”

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