If you’d told me a few months ago that things would have changed this much, I don’t think I, or anyone else would have believed it. I guess we’re all in a position to say that, as Covid-19 has snatched our everyday life away from us, giving everyone time to reflect on what they’ve lost, whilst trying to find a way to live through the current lockdown. What will life hold for us on the other side, and how much will it have changed from what was considered “normal”?
I am passionate about creating and delivering the best possible product to the customer; I have loved my career in buying, and (almost) everything that came with it – the people, teams and suppliers I have worked with; the product; the travel; the buzz of being in London; the occasional glamour of a fashion show; the trade fairs; the opportunities for public speaking and interaction with other related industries, such as licensing and manufacturing. Whilst spending a few weeks chasing job applications for similar roles elsewhere, however, I began to seriously re-assess my priorities. The retreat I mentioned in my previous post helped me gain some perspective, and I have come to realise that the elements of the job that were closest to my heart were based around the people – the young stepping out of college & university onto the buying career ladder, the team I had working with me, and those that I was working closely with throughout the supply chain. The restrictions we face as a result of the virus have only served to reinforce my understanding that people, and the relationships we build with them during our working lives are what makes for a positive experience.
This realisation led me to do two things. Firstly to re-engage with my inner teacher/lecturer and get back into sharing my knowledge and helping those youngsters onto a path that will lead them to be the buyers of the future. I love their passion and enthusiasm, their determination and their desire to learn. Currently, they have a lot of questions about how the face of retail will have changed when we reach the end of this crisis, and what it means for their job prospects. I can’t answer all of their questions (my buyer’s crystal ball is a bit murky!), but what I can tell them is that a role in fashion buying changes every day at the best of times, so the most important thing they can do to help themselves right now is to use the time to soak up as much information as possible, to work on their innovative and creative skillset, and to concentrate on understanding the immense subject that is sustainability in fashion. I sincerely hope that we come out of this with a more sustainable mindset and take concrete action to deliver on Unicef’s SDG12 when it comes to responsible production and consumption. Coronavirus has stopped fashion retail in its tracks; what emerges will be a very different industry. How many retailers will have survived, and in what form? How will their supply chains have had to evolve, creatively and financially, in order to stay afloat? How many new and groundbreaking businesses will have set up in its wake? How will the balance of online vs bricks and mortar have tipped? Growth in online retail was already far outstripping that of physical stores, and newer, more agile businesses, such as Gymshark, In the Style, Boohoo and I Saw it First were the ones driving that growth.
The second action I took was to create a buying and sourcing consultancy business, with the aim of using my knowledge and experience to empower retailers, brands, licensees and manufacturers to maximise their potential. What is happening throughout the retail supply chain at this moment is incredibly sad for the industry as a whole, and will leave us in a very difficult position when the crisis is over, so I am determined to try and make a difference somehow. Not least in questioning the way fashion retail currently does business;
- The outdated and restrictive seasonal structure of our buying and selling seasons, and the impact that this has on creativity, innovation and relevance. We have lost an entire spring season, and our sourcing channels have been decimated. How will it impact on the way we plan going forward?
- The interminable pressure on buying teams to do it faster, bigger, cheaper and in ever greater volume, which, inevitably, leads to over production and increased markdown, and ultimately contributes to the amount of clothing ending up in landfill.
- The payment terms which are so heavily weighted in favour of the retailer, leaving the suppliers exposed to financial ruin, and foreign factory workers destitute in the turmoil of this pandemic. What some seem to be failing to understand is that, without our suppliers, we have no retail business.
In the meantime, I have designed and built my own website, and had a few sourcing projects underway before the virus curtailed my activity, so, if you think your business could benefit from my experience, check out the website and get in touch! We specialise in buying, sourcing, licensing for retail, and training, all of which can be tailored to each specific clients needs.
This new existence is nothing if not varied, and I have never had to learn so much, so fast. This past couple of weeks has seen me creating lectures and developing seminars to be delivered online, writing an article for Drapers, and marking assignments on global sourcing, sustainability and garment technology. I’ve also been creating tech packs and working with overseas sources to build costing and sampling schedules so that when the world re-opens for business we can get off to a flying start, besides connecting with a wide variety of former colleagues, friends and suppliers – sometimes, when we find ourselves in uncharted territory, it just helps to talk about it. I have also embarked on a training course to gain a teaching qualification, and returned some attention to the book that I started writing a long time ago and never quite finished.
Getting out into our local countryside, across the fields and through the bluebell woods, with the dog, and doing daily zoom pilates classes are also helping to keep brain and body moving!
On tuesday I embarked on a 4 hour stint of delivering online tutorials…… It was the first time I had done this; I had 36 students (although not all of them managed to make it), in groups of 4, at 20 minute intervals. Each student had, in essence, 4 minutes to present their research and summary, on sustainability, for their chosen retailer (of which they had 3 very different global businesses to choose from). Obviously, in order to manage this effectively, I had to also have done the research on these particular brands myself. What I discovered was very mixed, and generally involved the production of huge reports on sustainability which talked a great deal about the aims of the business, what they planned to do, and how their strategy was being developed, but not very much detail on actual action being taken. At a moment in time when every brand or retailer needs to take action right now, acting responsibly and ethically towards their employees and supply chain, it made for very concerning reading. The students were asked to formulate their thoughts on the following:
What are the brands current policy, sustainability approach and practices?
Are they or are they not doing enough, or is it all simply greenwashing?
How do they fare on the Fashion Revolution Transparency Index, Higg Scoring and against the relevant Unicef Sustainable Development Goals?
And finally, how would the student develop an approach to deliver improvements in the sustainability practices of their chosen retailer?
This left me a brief opportunity to ask questions and give feedback. Challenging enough, under normal circumstances, but what I have failed to mention is that the majority of these are international students, now relocated as a result of the virus, to multiple time zones, joining me from as far afield as Indonesia, China, Switzerland, Poland, Russia, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Portugal, India and the USA. It was like a bizarre United Nations version of online speed dating – exhausting, but exhilerating, and I loved every minute of it!
With everything that they are learning, and the new ideas they are bringing to the table, this crop of retail buying graduates will be a formidable, global force for change!