The fashion industry is undergoing its most tumultuous period arguably since ready-to-wear was born in the mid-21st century — a consumer-facing system flipped on its head, shifting everything from who is seated front row during fashion week, to how consumers shop and which companies are making (and breaking) the rules.
As a result, career opportunities in fashion have shifted drastically. Gone are the days where it was realistic to dream of being a writer-editor at a big-name fashion publication and make a livable wage doing so, as the fashion media landscape is tumbling around us as we speak. Tales of burnout abound. Once-abundant advertising dollars are increasingly allotted to influencers. Even some of the most revered designers in the industry are having trouble keeping brands afloat in the shifting retail market, and those who do have high-profiles jobs are given less and less time to turn things around before their corporate bosses let them go.
However, as daunting as entering the fashion industry today may be, there’s ample opportunity for people to make an impact — albeit in roles that are far from traditional.
According to global consulting firm McKinsey’s 2019 report on the state of the industry, produced in partnership with Business of Fashion, 42% of survey respondents expect conditions in fashion to become worse this year.
“Dealing with volatility, uncertainty and shifts in the global economy are seen as the top challenges for the third straight year,” Achim Berg, who helped pen the report and is leader of McKinsey’s Apparel, Fashion & Luxury Group, tells Fashionista. “This pessimism could be driven by fears of an accelerating trade war as China and the U.S. react to each other’s tariffs, uncertainty over how Brexit will play out, or just a feeling that a 10-year boom is now overdue to tip into recession. Optimism can be found only in pockets, notably in North America and in the premium and luxury segments, aided by their strong performance in 2018.”
It’s worth noting that 20 of the most profitable companies in fashion, largely in the luxury sector, have contributed to nearly all of the industry’s growth — 97%, according to McKinsey. While mega-corporations like Zara-owner Inditex, LVMH and Nike are among those most-profitable companies McKinsey cites in its report and represent career opportunities in the shifting market, they’re not the only bright spots.
“The fashion industry has always been a highly competitive industry, but recently there has been a big shift to e-commerce from traditional retail experiences,” says Marisa LoBianco, senior director of career development and experience at The New School in New York. “We advise our fashion students to be responsive to market forces as the retail landscape continues to evolve.”
McKinsey’s Berg says that it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly which industry roles anyone should jump into today, though “it’s clear that all of them will continue to change and become increasingly digital.” Around 70% of “future [job] turnover” will be made in retail stores, some positions remaining though those left will certainly evolve to look like something much different than they do today. The Disneyfication of fashion offers one clue, while growth and hiring sprees at digital-first operations like Rent the Runway present another. (And if you’re looking for some guidance, we’ve outlined a few jobs in fashion that didn’t really exist even five years ago.)
When it comes to advising people on how to approach fashion’s new frontier, Michael Fink, Dean at the Savannah College of Art and Design’s School of Fashion, believes the changes within the industry — namely “the purchasing cycle that is presented to the consumer advocates disposable clothing in lieu of quality and sustainability,” “faster delivery cycles” and an ever greater emphasis on social media — necessitate a few key skills that will make you a more attractive applicant or a better equipped entrepreneur, depending on your path.
First, broaden your understanding of the basics of responsible consumption and consumer psychology. Next, develop your computer-aided design abilities as well as more traditional techniques. And finally, be able to both gather data from social platforms and apply the learnings from that data to encourage purposeful, rather than habit-based buying.
If you’re already a student (whether at a design-based school or not) poke around to see what kinds of career resources your institution offers. At SCAD, for example, there are both career resource offices as well as concentration programs which offer a fast-track to fashion’s corporate ladder: SCAD’s luxury fashion management program led to employment or a higher degree program for 99% of Spring 2017 graduates within 10 months of graduation, according to the university. Meanwhile, the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York has an Industry Partnerships and Collaborative Programs group which regularly works with companies like IBM on future-focused fashion and technology projects.
Those still interested in fashion editorial need to approach the space with a clear understanding of how it is shifting and where those shifts point (say, considering branded content jobs or becoming an editor-influencer.) Speaking of influencers, those creators are now clearly positioned in the center of the fashion-advertising nexus, building their own content-based and apparel brands, and as such are building out teams to do so — all while fashion sites and magazines lay off employees and enact hiring freezes of their own.
Landon Peoples, who worked as a fashion features writer at Refinery29 in New York for four years, recently left his position to work as editorial manager for Olivia Palermo’s eponymous group, which produces its own digital fashion content as well as collaborates with brands on products like sunglasses. Though he’d considered leaving editorial entirely, Peoples decided to pursue the Palermo role in part because it allowed him to continue writing as well as expand his skill set to include conceptualizing and directing shoots.
“A lot of people might tell you [joining traditional fashion editorial] is not a good idea, or that there’s not a lot of money in it — and there is some truth to that — but it’s also really fun and sets you up for a creative, enriching life after,” Peoples says. “There are so many avenues you can go down once you (and if you) finally decide to move on from it.”
Though the landscape might look much different today than it did even half a decade ago, the key to finding stability comes in honing a skillset that makes you agile: technical skills paired with a creative eye and an understanding of data and how to apply it. And as important as the resume-padding skills are, so, too are the soft skills, reminds the New School’s LoBianco. Oral and written communication, fluency in global standards and issues, and professionalism are a must.
Ultimately, the industry will likely continue to change in size or in appearance, but one thing all the experts agree on is that it’s the hardest working hustlers who will find success.