Updated: Aug 21, 2020
As part of the blog, podcast and support channels here at Fashion Podcast, I will be interviewing a selection of industry professionals about their roles, with the vision to support students in their early career choices as well as supporting graduates into their first or future job roles. I hope that you all find them insightful! These blog posts are scripted from the Podcast episodes from ‘The Fashion Toolbox Podcast’ available on all Podcast listening platforms, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.
Michelle is a Buyer and Product Developer specialising in Menswear with 15 years of experience under her belt.
Her interests are in sustainability, commerciality and product and she prides herself on having a keen eye for detail including the latest trends and customer requirements.
Michelle began her career as a Buyers admin for Dorothy Perkins, where she began in Womenswear before moving into Menswear in 2007. She has worked her way up over the years from Admin to Junior all the way up to Brand Manager. She uprooted her career from the UK to progress her career in Australia in 2014 where she worked for Target Australia and Myer.
She had planned a well-deserved travel break where she planned to expand her global knowledge of the world by witnessing first hand, but unfortunately this was cut short by the Covid pandemic, instead she has returned home to the UK and has been studying to plan for the sustainable future of fashion which lies ahead for us all.
Fashion Toolbox 00:07
When did you first become interested in fashion?
So, I think an interesting fashion has been with me forever. I definitely remember as a young girl, raiding my mum's wardrobe wearing her tops as dresses and my poor sister was used as a bit of a fashion model when I used to take my mum's tights and make creations out of them, these lovely little one pieces for my sister. And then when I was at school, I was very much into art and fashion, textiles, but also, I was really good at business studies and economics as well. So, I did not really know how to mix those two together. I went to Clothes Show Live, I just used to love watching the Clothes Show on a Saturday afternoon, and there used to be back in those times a Clothes Show Live at the N.E.C in Birmingham. They had University stands there, and you go to the university stand, I knew I wanted to go to university. And there were these leaflets to say if you like this, this, and this, this is the course, and this is the job, which was Fashion Buying. And I just read that I knew that that was the direction I wanted to go into. So, a few thinks really, but I think it has always been with me.
Fashion Toolbox 01:22
I think it is really interesting that you came across Fashion so early, because so far, the people that I have spoken to have not really stumbled across it that young. And I think that if you are creative, you have always got that art kind of mindset and you are driven towards it, but Fashion was never there so early for me. So yeah, I just find it really interesting.
What made you go to the Clothes Show?
I think by that time, it was just something I used to watch on TV. So, it was called the Clothes Show Live and I just thought it was the coolest thing ever. I think I actually did my Textiles GCSE just to be able to go to the Clothes Show Live as well because that was part of a trip that you went to if you did your GCSE in Textiles which was the trip to the N.E.C to see the Clothes Show Live.
Fashion Toolbox 02:16
That is so lucky at GCSE level, I wish I had that!
Can you tell me about how you came to working in the industry?
So, I think it is obviously from a young age, well I was 14 when I saw that university stand and knew that that was for me. So, I always kind of worked towards a career in Fashion. So, it started with my university degree. And also, I grew up in quite a small village so there was not really access to clothes stores to work in as a Saturday girl and things like that. So as soon as I got to university, I took a part time job working in River Island in the store and while I was a student, so I gained work experience in stores. The reason I chose my university degree is because they had a year work placement, and also a six-month exchange program with New York with the Fashion Institute of Technology. And I just knew even being a 17/18-year-old girl, that having that type of experience would set me up in my career for the future. So, I would already when I finished university had a year work placement with Marks and Spencer’s. So then after I finished university, I was looking for that next role to be a buyer so, I just applied to lots of different companies, luckily had the choice between the Arcadia group and Tesco’s actually at the time when I chose the Arcadia group and started as a buyer's admin there.
Fashion Toolbox 03:48
Wow, it just sounds like you have been so focused on what you wanted to do from being so young!
I have! I did not know quite what else I would do really!
Fashion Toolbox 03:59
Well you've kind of already answered this, but what field did you want to get into from the outset?
Yeah, I have always wanted to be a fashion buyer. And I think from the age of 14, But I think if I had not done that, I think the next one was always an art teacher, or a teacher of some sort. I think that is always within me that kind of wanting to teach people and especially in my last role in fashion, is that I really helped to develop the junior members of the team and set up the Buying Academy within the company that I was working in to try and help promote and develop buyers within the business. So, I think that wanting to be an art teacher’s kind of still in there somewhere. Wanting to teach people and kind of help the industry in that way.
Fashion Toolbox 04:49
I have that same passion, as you probably gathered! So, I think that definitely the more experience that you gain through your career, the more successful that you will be a teacher, won't you? It is it is never harmful to just keep moving up that ladder.
Fashion Toolbox 05:10
I just I think it's just so fascinating that with you again, just a completely different case that you chose that so young, and you have carried through in that Buying role all the way through your career, which is, I have just done so many different rules to get to what I want to do.
And there is not a right or a wrong route. Some in some people can stay in a business for all their career as well. And I have had different experiences with different sized businesses and different opportunities when it was right to take them in. And there is not a right or wrong to any of that for whatever path you are following.
Fashion Toolbox 05:53
How did you get into your latest role and what you are doing at the moment?
So, my latest role was in Myer, which is a department store in Australia. It is probably easier to tell you how I got to Australia, probably from the UK! I was a Senior Buyer in tailoring for House of Fraser. And my husband got offered a role in Australia, and then also at the same time Target in Australia, were looking for UK buyers specifically to come and help turn around their fortunes in their stores. So, myself and my husband moved out to Australia with not knowing anyone but wanting the opportunity at one point to work aboard. We kind of told our families that we will be there for two years, and five and a half years later, we moved back to the UK in the middle of a pandemic, not ideal. But yeah, I had two roles in Australia. One at Target, and then the second role was at Myer, which I loved. And that was the most similar probably because it is the most similar to house of Fraser, which I had worked at in the UK. So, that is what took me to Australia. I still loved the UK but wanted to have a chance to work in another country.
Fashion Toolbox 07:20
That must have given you a really diverse skill set going and doing Buying in another country?
Well, you think so. But I think it more, it was exactly the same job just in another country. So, I am not sure if it changed necessarily my skill set, but maybe that kind of readiness to move and try something new. Yeah, definitely took me out of a bit of a comfort zone from, living in London for at that time I had been in London for over 14 years, with a great friendship set and working for a great company to do that change is probably something, a skill set in myself that I learned. But the other job was pretty similar. But then really working with different people because customers are different.
Fashion Toolbox 08:11
Yeah, I guess it is being receptive to change isn't it?
Fashion Toolbox 08:21
So, speaking on skills, what skills would you say are paramount to your role in the industry?
I think definitely organisation. I think definitely is a buyer one thing I love about it is that it not every day is the same. So, you have got to be organised and there's definitely curve-balls that can come different times of the day, you know, different days. So, I would say organisation and teamwork. You know, there is not an I definitely in the Buying team or Product Development team. You have to work strongly with Designers, you've got to work with Merchandisers and lots of different people around the business and lots of times I think I found, especially in Australia, because the teams were a lot smaller than what I was used to in the UK and people just wanted, they thought he had all the answers, you had to answer everything for everyone. So, I think it is, being able to multitask, and work with lots of different characters those I would say were the main skills.
Fashion Toolbox 09:25
And would you say that you learn those skills within your Education or within Industry mostly?
A mixture, I think university and degrees in Fashion, well the degree I did in fashion definitely set me up for team working, we had to do lots of projects together, and at the time you think, you know, "What do I need this for?" But actually, all that project work is exactly what you need when you are in an in a team. And then I think, as you get older as well, I think you know, when you're at university, you're still in your late teens, early 20's and I think as you get older, there's even more different characters and managers and things like that to work with and develop your skills in that way and when you are at university you don't really have lots of management, you're not dealing with managers or you're not a manager yourself. And I think that is something that you do learn more on the job.
Fashion Toolbox 10:21
Yeah, there's just so many different types of people that it's hard to know, and hard to think how to react to situations as well without causing friction or problems it is definitely one of the hardest things in working in industry, knowing how to deal with people.
Yeah. The jobs usually fairly straightforward!
Fashion Toolbox 10:53
So, what was the most useful thing that you learned at university that helped you in your career so far?
I think well, one I've which I've taken everywhere I've been for the last 20 years is we did a module on CV writing, and even though my obviously my experience has grown, that way of writing my CV hasn't really changed or kind of put that across, I was really grateful for that module. And I was also really grateful for the course set up and that was a year and a half at university, a year work placement, and then a six month exchange program with the Fashion Institute of Technology and then a year back at university. And I think that diverseness was really good. And I just think for people in the future, looking to do a degree I think, really look at ones that have an opportunity to work in companies and that the universities will support you in that because some of the people that I met as a year work placement, I still see now one has been my mentor nearly my whole career and two, we actually ended up in in the same company in Australia, which is bizarre. But, you know, these people are still people that you see in the industry. So, that that kind of support from the universities to have that work experience and having a work experience was really invaluable.
Fashion Toolbox 12:24
I couldn't agree more with that our university offered the same we got to do a year out in industry, and that was the most experience and the most skills that I had learnt in the course I would say.
Yeah, I would say the same.
Fashion Toolbox 12:40
And like you said, those contacts as well. I am still in touch with all of the people from that placement. It is definitely an experience not to be missed!
Probably one more thing, was learning to use a WSSI which is merchandising tool, because the degree I did was Fashion Merchandise Management. So it was a mixture of Merchandising and Buying, it was actually set up to find Merchandisers at the time because they knew people wanted to go into either Buying or Design but there wasn't a lot of people in very trained in Merchandising in the 2000s. And so, the university degree was set up to find future Merchandisers. So, to have that skill set as a Buyer and learn that from an early age was really useful as well, has been useful.
Fashion Toolbox 13:30
Could you explain to anybody that might not know what a WSSI is?
Oh, yes! It is basically how you monitor stock in a business. So, it monitors your sales, your stock, and it is basically a merchandisers Bible. And that is what they work on all the all the time that's kind of their job is managing a WSSI because that helps them see their sales and their plans and where their stock is. So, it is basically a big Excel spreadsheet that monitors all of that.
Fashion Toolbox 14:04
So, what does your job entail and an average working day?
In an average working day, I would say, the beginning of the day is always asking my team how they are, always doing checking in on everyone. And then really planning the day, usually it depends what day it is, normally, if it were a Monday would be all about sales and reactions to trade. And then an average day after that would be emails and really fitting emails around meetings and emails would entail questions from suppliers, it could be things like, in my last company, we were very much working with a VM (Visual Merchandiser) and to make sure all our ideas were also in stores. We were doing education for stores as well. So, we would do videos monthly for stores to educate them on what was coming into stores that month. Fits as well, with our Garment Tech's twice a week, making sure all the product was coming in was to fit into spec, and approvals. So, lots of different things thrown into the day. Maybe I just gave you a week?!
Fashion Toolbox 15:24
Yeah, it's interesting to hear how many cross collaboration through the departments there is, you know, I think that's probably part of the Product Development role, and maybe as the Buyer as well is that you are crossing over with Garment Tech and overseeing all of the fittings and you have to be really heavily involved in those don't you as part of your role? So yeah, it is really interesting to hear that.
In your opinion, what would you say makes a successful Product Developer/ Buyer?
I would say a good eye for detail, you need to be able to be able to translate the trends, the future trends for your customers, what is appropriate for your customer, but also making sure that they are the approvals and colours are correct. I think also a level of creativity, and that doesn't mean necessarily that you're the designer or you know, you can draw the most amazing picture, but you are creative in the way that you're thinking. So, thinking for the future, but also creatively thinking about problems. I am sure there are a lot of Buyers at the moment with reaction to COVID-19 trying to think creatively about how they can stop production, or work with their suppliers to try and re-phase production, change of season. How to manage things like that. So, there is a lot of creative thinking, and it is not just all about art and the range specifically, it can be creative thinking in the way that you are going to train the business.
Fashion Toolbox 17:00
Yeah, it is like being reactive isn’t it to whatever comes your way and being ready to problem solve, it is definitely a key part of the role.
So, we have kind of touched on this, but how important is it to cross collaborate with other departments in your role? And who would you work with most closely?
Oh, so important! I just do not think you can get the job done without collaborating with people. And I would say two main people, I would say were the main people I would work with one is my Merchandiser. And I think you know, you've got a great relationship, a great relationship with your Merchandiser and your designer, that is the best team that you can have as a Buyer, because the Designer will help bring both of your ideas to light and then on the planning side, on the Merchandising side, that they are managing the options and they are managing the money, if you can work collaboratively with those, that team, then that's great as well, because you'll get the best results. Because, you can think you've got the best range ever but if you can't sell that and work with your planner to plan it in the right way, then it's not going to be as successful, either. So those two people I would say.
Fashion Toolbox 18:18
What software do you use regularly as part of your role?
So, I am still an Excel girl. So I use that a lot, but there were there were some programs that were just coming into play, as I was leaving, they were more planning, so as a Buyer, you wouldn't necessarily work on those but you would work with your planner who would be putting the options in and starting to look at trends and how to manage stock better. So, more planning than necessarily on the buying front.
Fashion Toolbox 18:52
How do you see sustainability impacting your role in the future?
Well, I think it has to be at the forefront. I am actually not working at the moment after arriving from Australia, and I have been spending the last four months on as many sustainability courses as I can. And I think that is because, I think the last few years especially, I just think we can make a difference in that world of sustainability. You know, I have definitely been a culprit of when speaking to suppliers and factories, asking them for that 10 pence cheaper and not asking questions of what that actually means. And I think then the last few years, I have been asking the right questions, and you find out that factories can actually give you better initiative cotton, for example, at very little extra price, because they can get hold of it, they can do it. So, I think it is really the responsibility of all Buyers to, if your company is not doing it, to educate yourself. And so, you can help be that positive solution in sustainability because our resources will run out one day. And I think that we have to do something about it. Sustainability is resources, but it is also how we treat people. And I think that we need to be looking at that more. I think, if I were learning now, I would definitely be asking universities to be teaching you about that. It was not something that was taught 16 years ago. So that is a gap that I feel I have at the moment in my learning and my development, but as a buyer, I think it is my responsibility to know how to ask the right questions. So I'm educating myself and I think that there's a few there's a quite a lot of retailers out there that, the course I did they offer that to the H&M group, they offer it to ASOS, there's a lot of retailers already sending their employees on these types of courses, which is fantastic. But I think if you are not currently at a company that is doing that either, I would be asking about it. I have sent the course on to my previous employers because I think that that is something that is useful for buyers to learn on the movement.
Fashion Toolbox 21:23
Yeah, I think it's great that you've taken that initiative to up-skill yourself, because I do think it's something that's really important in our industry is that things are forever changing and we have got to keep up with it. We have got no choice!
You know, that is the thing. I think, especially as a Product Developer and a Buyer, you are by nature, you are looking at what the future is, and, and what the future trends are. And I just think that people want that in the future. You know, whoever, we are going to be making clothes for the younger generation, and they are going to ask why, they will be the ones making the decisions. If they want to buy products that is sustainable or is not sustainable. And I think they will be up there will be wanting things that are sustainable. So, I just feel like that is a journey that all retailers and industry needs to go on and are starting to, but it all needs to happen a lot quicker. I think that is an important education piece for all of us to learn.
Fashion Toolbox 22:27
Do you think that COVID-19 might spur this on a little bit faster? Do you think that people are starting to realise and companies are starting to take it on board?
I hope so I feel like I've listened to so many webinars the last four months and it does feel like there is a change in the air and I think that, I'm hoping that is because people have actually had to stop you know, I think in our industry, and definitely is what I felt as a buying product developer, you are so busy all the time and working mostly long hours, and I'm just trying to get through the day to day. And I don't think, you know, as I said, not asking the right questions, sometimes that could be because I was just trying to get my job done, just trying to get it done in China or India or in Bangladesh, and you're set with a margin target, and without even and then having time to pause and time to think, you know, how do I want to do this differently? I am hoping that that is given everybody time to think about that.
Fashion Toolbox 23:29
Yes, me too. We can all hope for that for the future!
What is your favourite part of your role?
I just love, there is quite a lot! But I love seeing the finished item. I love seeing people wearing it. There is nothing better than seeing someone walking down the street wearing a shirt or a T-shirt that you have developed and put out there. I actually really love at the end of the season; you should do like a best and worst. And I love that, I love looking at like what worked, what didn't and then what were all the learning from there and taking that on further but how trying to better yourself every year, I really kind of like that drive. And I just love the teams and knowing a customer and kind of thinking about what they would want and then working as a team to deliver that. And I love that when you develop someone on your team, and they are moving through their career and that they enjoy it as much as you do. Yeah, loads, loads of things.
Fashion Toolbox 24:40
That is very positive!
What is the most challenging part of your role?
I think the most challenging can be people at times, I think just managing different personalities, different agendas, different styles of management. I think that is something that has been a challenge at times. And maybe workloads at times, that has been a bit of a challenge. But you always get through it. You think I have only got so much time to put a range together or until sign off, but you always, you always get it done.
Fashion Toolbox 25:18
Yeah, there's very tight deadlines, I think no matter what role you do in the industry, those deadlines are so tight, and we all get so stressed, but it is so worth it in the end.
What is one key piece of advice that you would give to someone who wants to get into this role in the industry?
Well, I am actually going to borrow this from someone who said it to me, well actually send it to a group of people, and her name is Barbara Hulanicki, she was the founder of BIBA. And someone asked her that exact question and she said, "Get a mop, and then once you are amazing at sweeping that floor, then you'll move up through the ranks" and I think about was the most amazing thing that she ever said. Or someone said to me, and I still think about it now. And I just think, just start somewhere. It's either, it's quite difficult now to get into a buying world without a university degree or a college that supports Fashion, but I would say try, reach out, find some way you can do work experience. I actually got my first work experience at the age of 16. My mum's best friend was a cleaner and she was cleaning for a lady, and she was talking about how I wanted to work in fashion. And she happened to mention that her daughter was a Fashion Editor of a magazine and gave my mum's friend her number. So, I just called this number and ended up working for a week in a fashion magazine, which was really interesting. But I knew doing that, that it wasn't quite what I wanted to do for my future career, but just having those experiences and getting into an office, I think I was 16 and a half, 17 it was just good experience. So, all experience is good experience. I also think you can't really say you want to work in fashion if you haven't worked in a store, though, you know, making sure that you have kind of go and work at your local, whatever store when as soon as you can. And then yeah, look at universities or colleges that will take you on the journey really.
Fashion Toolbox 27:42
I agree with that. I think that you need to see both sides of the industry, the retail, and the supplier side to understand. And I learned so much when I worked in retail, so I have never actually thought about it until you said it but, that actually probably gave me a really good understanding. Then to go to university and understand even more the manufacture side of things. And I absolutely love that quote, brilliant.
Yeah, she was brilliant. And I just thought you are exactly right. Because even though you know, you could draw dream as a 14 year old girl that you want to be a fashion buyer and want to get there as quickly as possible, you wouldn't be the most successful one you can be if you don't have the skills behind you. And a lot of the skills, you learn a lot of university but even when you finish university, you do not know all of it. And the rest of it takes time. And it is only time. It is just time and experience. But you know that all that time and experience adds up to something.
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