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Continental drift

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Europe’s maturing fashion industry is demanding experienced and skilled staff. And those who have trained and worked in the UK are seen as must hires.

Relocating to Europe can appeal to those looking to progress their careers. There is the excitement of travelling to
new countries, experiencing different cultures and learning new languages. What’s more, demand for fashion executives from the UK is high.

The resounding message from both industry insiders and recruitment specialists is that British workers are sought after. Nicola Wensley, manager of recruitment specialist Michael Page Buying & Merchandising, says: “The view of many European retailers is that UK merchandisers are the most experienced and qualified in the industry.”

Care needs to be taken though, as job descriptions and titles can differ overseas. Many merchandisers are called ‘planners’, buyers ‘product managers’ and designers ‘stylists’, says Wensley.

Mary Anderson-Ford, director of recruitment company Bloom Retail, says UK-based buyers and merchandisers are considered the “cream of the crop” globally. She adds: “The talent in London is second to none. They’ve been trained in a very competitive environment and have superior skills as a result. In particular, UK-trained merchandisers use the latest, most sophisticated systems in the international market.”

International experience

For many European fashion businesses, international expansion is key. People who’ve worked in the mature UK market, especially within businesses that have successfully expanded abroad, are therefore highly regarded.

Wensley adds: “Working in international markets can be highly enjoyable, satisfying and lucrative. Ultimately, in terms of long-term career progression, if you want to get to the top in an international business you have to truly understand the international market.

“In Belgium, for instance, the fashion retail market is dominated by C&A, H&M, and Inditex, owner of Zara. For C&A, which has a head office in Brussels as well as Düsseldorf, the Belgian city poses a challenge. Charles Traylen, the retailer’s head of HR, explains: “Belgium has a very small market for retail talent. Our recruitment demands cannot be met by Belgium alone. There are limited areas we can recruit from, so we have to hire from overseas as well.”

Out of the 400 employees in the Brussels office and the 1,100 in Düsseldorf, there are 23 different nationalities. “We love the international flavour at C&A,” says Traylen.

C&A is one of the leading European fashion retailers with about 1,400 branches in Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Spain and France. It has recently opened stores in Italy, Romania and Croatia.

LC Waikiki, a Turkish clothing manufacturer and fashion retailer, is another example of a company looking for experienced fashion operators to help it build up an international presence. Zeynep Serpen, HR specialist at the business, says she will often look to the UK talent pool. “We need to see a global perspective, in buying, merchandising and design,” she explains.
Originally a French brand, LC Waikiki was bought by Turkish clothing manufacturer Tema Group in 1997. It withdrew from the French market in order to restructure both its collection and merchandising approach. Now international expansion is planned.

The business has 330 stores in Turkey and LC Waikiki recently started opening shops in Romania. It also has plans to expand to Bulgaria, Russia, Germany, Portugal and France.

While British fashion executives are clearly highly regarded, many businesses are conscious of making sure prospective employees understand what it will be like to live and work in the country before hiring them.

At LC Waikiki, for instance, candidates have to go through a lengthy recruitment process. The first stage involves psychological assessments and interviews with the chief executive and heads of departments. Candidates are then invited out to the company’s head office in Istanbul. They visit the stores and meet the buying and merchandising teams in order to get to grips with the customer profile. They spend time with company executives, going out for dinner and generally getting to know the business. Sometimes people are offered a short-term project to see if the lifestyle suits them.

Culture shocks C&A also says it understands the upheaval of relocating overseas. C&A’s Traylen says: “We appreciate that you are moving to a new company, a new country. People often want to get stuck into their new jobs straight away, but we want people to take time to settle in, to learn our business. We don’t expect them to contribute as much in the first six months. We want them to find a house, find a school for the kids, learn about the business. We value that.” Damian Fogwill, a former George at Asda menswear buyer who relocated to C&A’s Brussels office in April, is currently going through that experience. He explains: “I’m just trying to get to grips with a totally different way of buying.” It’s much more of a team effort at C&A, he says, with five people buying the same product - in this case jeans and trousers - as opposed to everyone working on their own. “It is much more fun,” says Fogwill.

For most, the chance to live in a different European country is even more of a draw than the job itself. There are the ski resorts of the Alps, historic cities such as Paris and Rome and stunning spots like Lake Como, near Milan. Fogwill has set up home in Antwerp, just north of Brussels. This trendy city has achieved cult status in the fashion world, due to the presence of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, which is one of the most important fashion academies in Europe.

Fogwill says one of the reasons he accepted the job at C&A was to give his nine-year-old son the chance to experience new cultures. “The opportunity for him is fantastic. He will go to an international school and learn French, Dutch and Flemish. He will have a very cosmopolitan upbringing.”

Graham Lucas, director of Michael Page Buying & Merchandising, says: “It is important to spend time researching the company culture and the realities of living and working in that country. The European retail market is not homogenous and countries are in very different stages of retail development. Western markets are significantly more mature than those in Central and Eastern Europe, although experience across both can aid rapid career development.”

He adds that Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey are thriving destinations, yet countries such as Greece, Portugal and the Republic of Ireland have suffered poor retail growth as consumer confidence remains low and retailers are cautious about expansion plans.

Wensley says that if seriously considering a move abroad, a key factor to clarify is how fluctuating exchange rates can impact your salary, particularly if one has financial commitments in the UK such as a mortgage. “There are also tax implications to consider. Prospective candidates need to be aware of the differences in local taxes as there can be a huge disparity either positively or negatively from the UK, although there is also a possibility of enjoying a tax-free salary. Generally, employees will have more disposable income due to the support from companies in the form of housing allowance or initial rental support,” she says.

Another tip from Wensley is to find out who is responsible for obtaining and paying for work permits and visas, for both the employee and their family. Fees for international schools must also be considered, as they range from ¤10,000 (£8,860) to ¤30,000 (£26,580) per year.

Moving abroad is clearly a glamorous option. But people need to do their homework before jetting off.

 

Top tips

From Michael Page, for anyone considering a career move to Europe:

  • Check the job title - they often differ from the UK
  • Research the country you’re planning to move to. Some retail markets are less developed than others
  • Check how fluctuating exchange rates might affect your salary
  • Consider fees for international schools
  • Check all the tax implications

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