In her third piece for 2019, frequent contributor Elizabeth Shobert shares her views on the future of fashion employment.. Elizabeth is Director of Marketing & Digital Strategy at StyleSage – an intelligence business, founded on the idea and mission that we can all do better, and that technology has the power to enable smarter decision-making.
Gone are the days when an interest in and dedication to the fashion industry were enough to take you along a rewarding and interesting career path. We all know the fashion industry looks worlds different than it did a few short years ago. It moves faster, it’s influenced by different elements, and with that, consumers’ choices are changing and multiplying by the moment. Keeping up, let alone keeping ahead, has never been more challenging.
With these shifts the foundation for the new norm, the business skills needed to navigate this environment successfully have also changed. Yet many in the industry have struggled to keep pace, trying to balance the demands of their day-to-day with the long view. So today we’re here to shed light on a few critical skills that will separate those who thrive from those who fall behind. And while the changes afoot might seem scary, I think we can all agree that preparation is the best antidote to those fears.
Build ”Organic Intelligence”
There’s increasing chatter around AI and how it has the potential to displace entire cross-sections of manpower within the industry. And while it’s true that technology has and will continue to change the face of fashion as we know it, tech won’t change the fact that we as humans have what tech pundit Scott Galloway calls, “organic intelligence” or the “ultimate data processor.” As he puts its, AI has the power to unearth and organize entire universes of data, yet only humans still have the ability to fully process, personalize, and contextualize what it all means – qualitative and quantitative data alike. It’s why you’ve seen some retailers doubling down on their people efforts, from Sephora’s beauty advisors to Best Buy’s “blue shirts.” At the end of the day, only certain things can be done well by a human – from giving style advice to providing personal insight into how well a product works.
Where AI is at its present best is in doing the annoying and time consuming tasks (albeit very necessary tasks). But AI is teeing up the ball so that we humans can make the call about what to do with all that information. So with that in mind, sharpening one’s analytical skills has never been more important. When you can go beyond, “here’s the data” to “here’s what this data means and here’s what I think we should do next,” you’re keeping that processor primed and ready for whatever the next curveball may be.
Fashion and Data Fluency
A glance at fashion job postings tells us the extent to which the industry is changing, with titles ranging from Technical SEO and Performance Marketing, to Front End Development and Data Science. And while some of these might inherently be more technical business functions, the truth is data is everywhere in fashion these days. Even in creative roles, data analytics is informing areas like trend forecasting and the origins of customer demand.
Take it from e-commerce giant Zalando’s buying team where, “On a daily basis, buyers receive daily data from every kind of angle of their business — what’s sold, where, how much and when— so you can really analyse your assortment. It’s very data and analytical but also creative of course. The buyers are super grateful, because the data really acts to support your gut feeling.” The results for Zalando have been a level of speed and agility that many organizations seek to replicate, both from financial performance and company culture perspectives.
The learning here is that being versed in data – whether you’re merchant, marketer, or designer – is no longer an option. It’s an absolute must if you want to keep abreast of changes, create successful product, and defend your business decisions. [Interested in fashion courses designed to get you up-to-speed in data? Check out these options at FIT, Parsons, and Polimoda that will help you nerd out on fashion.]
An External Viewpoint is Mandatory
Along with the aforementioned new type of “fashion job” is the increasing occurrence of non-fashion people working in fashion. But it’s not just the co-mingling of people from different industries that’s taking place, it’s that ideas from outside fashion are having a real impact on what’s happening inside our industry. Let’s take a step back so we can understand where we’re at currently. In fashion, we’ve all at some point in time been so caught up in our company’s unique culture, style of collaboration, and inputs to decision-making, that we forget to look outside. In turn, it means that we can quickly get out-of-sync with what’s happening in industries and places outside our immediate grasp.
But for the sake of counterargument, you could say it’s in our DNA to look outside: fashion is known for its weird and wonderful brand collaborations. Yet for all that, those collaborations haven’t often penetrated deeper than the product itself. But the good news is that this sense of “insularity” is changing, and it’s why you are seeing interesting mash-ups between startups and established fashion companies, along with practices for recruitment, culture building, and technology development being borrowed from outsiders and adapted for fashion roles.
How can you get a piece of the action? Network across your organization to find these types of opportunities, for example, by nominating yourself to vet new solutions and processes, and informing and involving yourself in places in your organization where change is happening. In the process of doing so, you’re going to learn and create opportunities for yourself outside the established boundaries of your current role.
If we were to give a name to the skillset tomorrow’s fashion leaders need, it’d be “digital flexibility.” It’s an understanding that while your job may be one thing today, you’re open and ready to develop and learn the skills you will need tomorrow. And if fashion organizations are smart, they will provide pathways and tools for those leaders to achieve those goals.