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Drapers Next Generation: Taking the next step

Getting onto the fashion career ladder is hard enough, but how do you make the leap to managerial or director level?

Many of today’s fashion stars started at the bottom. Arcadia’s David Shepherd worked as a Saturday boy at Topman, WhistlesJane Shepherdson as a warehouse picker for Arcadia (then the Burton Group) and Monsoon’s Peter Simon as a stall owner on Portobello Market.

All have come a long way but they couldn’t have done it without an endless supply of determination and ambition.

Diane Wilkinson, divisional manager of retail at recruitment firm Fashion & Retail Personnel, says the industry’s superstars have reached the zenith of their careers by “making themselves visible within their current company, by volunteering for extra responsibilities, getting involved with project work and showing a willingness to gain experience, often without extra financial compensation”.

Jo Hooper, head of womenswear at John Lewis, agrees, adding that, to become an industry star is to always carry out exceptional work. “As a buyer you are judged constantly - every day, month, year - so the first way to get noticed is to be doing a brilliant job. Also, if you’re seen as having an open and enquiring mind then you will be the person who comes to the forefront of the mind when the next opportunity comes along.”

One way to rise through the ranks, and particularly useful for those aspiring to become a chief executive, is to work across different departments.

David Gillan-Reid, head of finance and personnel at footwear retailer Schuh, says this is particularly pertinent to landing managerial roles. “Having an awareness of all roles in the business and understanding all aspects of product, for example, design, manufacture, quality control, and the retail environment whether online or in store, is important [for reaching the top].”

Even if it’s impossible to work in all departments during your career, spending time in all areas of a company, even if it’s just a day or a week, will help develop your understanding of how the business works, says Liz Jewitt-Cross, HR director for lifestyle brand Joules. “Your knowledge of these areas allows you to more effectively influence, input and be heard when making suggestions on existing and future initiatives,” she says. She also recommends seeking out projects or secondment opportunities in departments to boost skills. “It may take you out of your comfort or experience zone but will reap dividends in the long term.”

Whether your dream job is design director at All Saints, marketing director at Burberry or buying director at Selfridges, there’ll never be a one-size-fits-all approach to securing it. It can take many different job roles and years until you reach your goal.

For instance, to become a buying director, if you’re currently a buying assistant, you could be several roles away - usually including buyer and head of buying - until you’re crowned with the title. Rising through those ranks could take eight to 12 years. So what key attributes does an aspiring buying director need? An open mind and boundless enthusiasm, says Hooper. “For example, at John Lewis, there are lots of opportunities for the buyers to work with the PR team. It does mean going to press shows, speaking to journalists, going to trade shows and it might be on the weekend, but if you love what you do, you never turn off. It goes back to your state of mind.”

Another tip for climbing the competitive buying ladder is to become an expert in both own and branded labels and work across different products.

“If you’ve bought denim, then demonstrate that you can turn your hand to jersey or accessories too,” says Mary Anderson-Ford, director of Bloom Retail. “At director level you’ll oversee the whole piece so need to have a good understanding across the board.”

For those aiming to be head of merchandising, experts say merchandisers can reach that level within five years.

Stephen McDowall, head of merchandising, womenswear at Debenhams, says to reach the career peak in merchandising you need to demonstrate the ability to trade and plan several departments profitably. “But most important is to show that you have sight of the bigger picture and the company strategy. It is important not to always get bogged down in the detail and to be able to make decisions quickly.”

McDowall’s key advice to aspiring merchandisers is to “take a look around your organisation and think about who inspires you, then think about what qualities they have and what you can learn from them.”

Beyond these more traditional roles, the industry is bursting with many other senior positions, often with higher salaries.

Take the job of sourcing or production director, which can pocket a salary between £60,000 and £150,000. Holly Stone, consultant of technical, production and sales at Success Appointments, recommends starting off as a production assistant and “gaining hands-on experience with manufacturers” before climbing the necessary steps - co-ordinator level, production manager and head of production - and then securing a production or sourcing director role. She estimates this could take about 15 years.

For those new to the industry or even for those seeking change, HR directors and recruitment consultants have identified two areas of the industry that will see their importance grow even further.

Online is, of course, one of them. Due to the growth of ecommerce and the constantly changing technology scene, new roles in this part of the industry are always being created. Less than 10 years ago roles such as head of social media, ecommerce director and head of multichannel were pretty much nonexistent; now they’re critical parts of the business.

James Hudson, head of recruitment (global) at Net-A-Porter, says employers are going to be looking for ‘digital natives’ in every area of the business. “The pace of technological change is staggering and will only increase,” he says. “The stars of the future will be completely at home in this changing landscape and working as part of distributed global teams will be second nature. What won’t change is that team working, either as a contributor or leader, will always be about interpersonal relationships, and whether you’re communicating face to face, via video conference or virtual meeting, it will always pay to be nice.”

Mathew Dixon, director at recruitment firm Hudson Walker International, pinpoints senior roles at retail level as increasingly significant posts.

“Luxury brands are putting more focus on retail as they want to be able to control the customer experience of their brand [rather than depend on wholesale]. In this country retail is seen as a stop gap and has a dreadful kudos but internationally it’s different. The amount someone can make in retail can be astonishing, anything from £100,000 and upwards.” To become such a retail leader it’s important to be multi-lingual and to have worked abroad.

However, as much as moving sideways, improving business knowledge and extraordinary talent will be applauded and reap awards, you can only land your dream job by demonstrating unrelenting ambition and determination. As Hooper says, “Your destiny is in your own hands. If you really want to, you can go as far as you want.”

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