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Balancing act

Successful fashion businesses work at integrating all their functions - buying, design, merchandising and retail. How can they best achieve it?

I t is obvious that, when a group of people work together on a single goal, success is that much more likely. Within fashion businesses, creating fully functioning teams that also work well with each other is essential. But it is not always easy to achieve.

New Look group design director Barbara Horspool affirms that the way teams function is vital to the success of the business. “The teams that work are the ones that are absolutely clear about their accountabilities and about what they have to deliver for the business,” she says. “The team has to feel that it owns its responsibility - and so do the individuals within it.”

In retail, people relationships and communication are crucial and generally well-developed across the sector. The role of the manager is key to getting these elements right.

Cornelius Smart, divisional manager for retail at recruitment consultancy Fashion & Retail Personnel, says: “Everything starts with having a clear strategy and a clear vision in terms of what your brand is, or what you want it to be. Then you need to employ people who will help you to get there.”

The right dynamic

That journey begins with the manager of a team, Smart suggests. In his specialism of retail, Smart looks for well-rounded personalities for this role. But a key team member, too, is the deputy manager, who needs to complement the manager both in competence and in personality.

“You have to get the dynamic right in these two roles, so that they can work together with strength in the front of house and back of house functions,” Smart says.

At New Look, Horspool says, there has been a “huge investment in developing managers as team leaders”. There is a common presumption, she says, that if people sit together in open-plan offices, then good communication will naturally taking place.

“There does need to be time made for communicating and developing a good understanding of how colleagues in other disciplines work,” she says. “Knowing exactly what is involved in other roles and what the other teams’ accountabilities are [is vital]. It is impossible to deliver your own accountabilities unless you understand those of colleagues in other teams.”

Design, buying and merchandising teams have to work together to deliver the same strategy, vision and targets, with broadly similar key performance indicators, Horspool says.

“Designers need to know the skills merchandisers have and the terminology that they use,” she explains. “And buyers need to understand, when they see designers looking at magazines, that to create [a collection] you have to do the research.

“Designers may say buyers are difficult to work with, but buyers have to work with the heavy pressure of cost constraints. Everyone has to understand exactly what their colleagues in other teams have to deliver.”

Stay in touch

Team building is an issue very much at the fore for Anne Horton, managing director of independent department store group, Hoopers. She describes the business as “geographically challenged”, with its five stores spread across the country from Torquay to Carlisle.

“Communication is the key for me to make all our separate teams across the country feel part of the whole,” she says.

The buying team, based in Tunbridge Wells, has a crucial central role.

“Buying is an important thread in our communications, one that brings our stores together. Our buying head makes frequent visits to all the stores,” she says.

Horton sees this as particularly important because the smaller stores do not get the depth in collections nor the breadth of brands that the flagships do. This needs to be carefully explained and communicated to the smaller stores, so they know and appreciate exactly how and why their allocations are framed.

With 550 people working for the business, Horton uses a “task force” for planning and marketing that meets at different stores every six weeks and comprises at least three general managers, buyers and herself. In this way, people in the business can see that the senior team takes the contribution made by each store seriously.

It also ensures store-based managers are able to visit other stores in the group regularly and to welcome other managers to their own stores. In this way everyone gets to know each other.

Additionally, Horton tasks individuals from across the business to work on specific projects. “It is important for people to feel challenged and valued,” she says. “When I give a project to someone, it offers them the opportunity to communicate in a different way, with a different hat on.”

At high street fashion chain Oasis, designers, buyers and merchandisers work in teams grouped around garment type, such as tailoring and casualwear. The heads of all functions from across the business recently took part in team-building exercises and looking at different roles in the business forms part of the induction for new Oasis recruits. The retailer appreciates the need for good relationships between staff and is preparing to conduct a special team-working event.

Oasis creative director Nadia Jones works with design, PR, marketing and buying teams. She says good communication across the business helps it work effectively: “The strategy and goals across all the teams is the same, and we work hard to communicate with each other through frequent discussions and meetings. We also work hard to create trust across the different functions.”.

Trust and mutual respect

Design has a strong voice at Oasis, she says, but there is respect across all the functions. “We instil trust and mutual respect. Design, buying and merchandising work on different time frames, but everyone understands what the other people are doing, and why.”

In individual teams, Jones says, she likes to have a balance of personalities as well as skills and functions. “We like people who are passionate about fashion and about the brand and who have personalities; we also like individuals.” She believes teams interface well at Oasis because it has the feel of a family firm. “We are friendly,” she says. “It is part of the culture.”

The need for good communication at retail and head office is crucial for good team working. As Hoopers’ Horton says: “Creating good working teams across a business has to be personal. Emails, memos and telephone calls alone are not enough.”

Team building

Ten tips from Cornelius Smart, divisional manager, retail, Fashion & Retail Personnel

  • Have a clear vision, strategy and goals
  • Recruit the right leaders to deliver the strategy
  • Ensure the management team is fully rounded, with a balanced skill set
  • Communicate to the team to get ‘buy-in’
  • Recruit people who are confident
  • Recruit team players, possibly involved in team sports outside of work
  • Give and encourage people to take responsibility
  • Allow people to give ideas and make suggestions
  • Let them know how they are performing through updates
  • Be honest and approachable

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