What Skills Does a Fashion Buyer Need?
Along with being a creative director or fashion editor, a buyer is one of the most sought after roles within the industry. These professional tastemakers can tell what will appeal with their customer base and what won’t, while procuring the best wholesale deals to ensure maximum profit for their business – not to mention they’re plane hopping to different international fashion weeks while doing so. But what does it take to be a great buyer?
We asked two from the iconic London retailer, Browns, to share their industry secrets. Thom Scherdel, Browns’ Menswear Buying Manager and Hollie Harding, its Womenswear Non-Apparel Buying Manager have a wealth of experience underneath their (trend-ticking) belts, learn about their career trajectories, thoughts on how to keep up with an evolving industry and tips for newbies below.
Thom’s career trajectory
My “buying life” changed when I left school and went to The Fashion Retail Academy. My buying tutor had just left Selfridges and told me about a vacancy for an allocator role and suggested I apply. I was reluctant at first, because in my mind I wanted to be a buyer and start my career as a Buying Admin Assistant, but she convinced me that starting off in Merchandising would only make me a better buyer in the long run; the skills I’d learn were not only transferable, but would give me an advantage. I worked that role for about a year, learning numbers, stock management and how the merchandising team were key to a good buying function and then moved over into a BAA role working across all departments. From there, I was lucky enough to be headhunted by Topman to start their new branded division as an Assistant Buyer. Topman was operating in a different retail climate to Selfridges, which at the time, felt more relevant to me personally. I’d gone from buying for Selfridges where brands would never say no, to starting a branded business for Topman where brands would never say yes – so it definitely had its challenges! Instead of the usual trade shows that all the other buyers attended, I started scrolling through social media looking for those “bedroom brands” that we could launch and work with exclusively.
Five years on from building that up, I made the move over to a digital start-up that wanted to enter the market at a more contemporary level. Being at a business at its very start means you get exposure to all aspects of it, and because of our small size, we could activate some amazing projects. I was learning more aspects of the digital landscape, and I realised that I essentially missed purely buying. I joined Browns in 2018 to look after Non-Apparel, and that’s where I think all my previous experiences amalgamated to form everything I really needed to take the business forward. I’m now the Buying Manager looking after a team of buyers and assistants, constantly trying to set the best possible standards in how we operate within our own business.
Hollie’s career trajectory
“Buying” as a career came to mind during my school years. I was lucky enough to meet the Head Buyer for M&S and decided his job seemed to tick all the right boxes for me. I decided to look into the London College of Fashion and spent the next 18 months doing work experience on school holidays, shadowing in buying offices to better my CV for a chance of being accepted. When I started LCF, I opted for a year in the industry to gain more experience and that’s how I spent a year at Harvey Nichols in the menswear buying team as an intern. I loved working it and was able to secure a BAA role in the Men’s Shoes and Accessories team when I finished my degree. Due to my internship and the experience I’d gathered, I was able to hit the ground running – raising orders, store allocations and running sell through reports, etc. I was quickly promoted to Assistant Buyer and moved to the Men’s designer department. The buying team worked very closely with merchandising, and being a department store, margin and profit were the key focus, and so this allowed my analytical and negotiation skills to improve and I was soon given my own department to manage; Men’s Underwear. During my time as an Assistant Buyer on men’s RTW, I was lucky enough to work on the relaunch of the Men’s contemporary department, which allowed me to practise strategy and creative thinking. Soon after, I was promoted to Buyer of men’s casualwear, denim and formalwear and in the same year, we launched a flagship renovation which gave me exposure to architect store designs, capacity planning and market positioning decisions.
One piece of advice I regularly give to others is to never underestimate who is watching, as I was then offered the Non-Apparel Womenswear Buyer role at Browns by Ida Petersson, who had been at Harvey Nichols back when I was an intern. Joining Browns was a complete change to my previous role; instead of oiling a large ship, Browns and Farfetch were scaling and setting up internal processes that were necessary in order to power the large online retail platform that we are today. Not only were my analytical skills used, but also my skills in project management and planning, which I acquired during the Harvey Nichols refurbishments became essential. Over the past five years, the non-apparel department has grown exponentially. From a team of three when I joined five years ago, I now manage a team of twenty. Browns has not only given me experience managing high volumes for online, but it’s also given me and my team the freedom to support new talented designers in line with Browns’ reputation for being the first to market, support and spotlight emerging and next generation talent.
What skills do buyers need?
TS: Contrary to popular belief, I think the most crucial skill in being a good buyer is being analytical. So much of the job is about being able to look at numbers and act on them, and it only becomes even more data driven the further you progress in your career. That’s not to say you need to be a chartered accountant, but you need to understand how numbers can assist in your decision making. Being good with people is also a fundamental skill; you will be trading on a global scale, so you need to be able to form relationships that you can rely on throughout your career. Finally, you need to be both obsessive and have an open mind about what people are wearing and how it evolves over time. You’re not buying what you personally like at the end of the day, you’re thinking of the customer and what they’re looking for and it’s essentially down to you to ensure you can service that clientele better than anyone else in the market.
HH: As luxury retail continues to grow, I think it’s important to have a good understanding of the bigger picture and the buying cycle, in order to be proactive and consider how the changes might impact ways of working. Agility and teamwork are both key skills. As a buyer, you are the hub of information from the product you have bought, right through to supporting the operational and finance teams. Persuasion and negotiation are skills you need both internally and externally, when working with brands or on a launch project where you need support from the business, for example prioritising deliveries, styling and marketing support.
With the rise of social media, have your buying skills had to change?
TS: Absolutely, and I think it will be something that evolves even further as we enter the era of Web 3.0. The world has never been a smaller place and now thanks to technology, we can look at brands and shows from all corners of the world in minutes and make commercial decisions based on cultures and regions that we would have never been able to look at or understand in the past. However, it goes without saying that despite overcoming challenges and successfully navigating through the pandemic through buying digitally, nothing beats the real thing. Even if we do find something on social media today, we’re hesitant to make an investment without seeing it in real life first.
HH: Definitely. Instagram has provided an incredible platform for finding new brands. Previously, brands were found via physical showrooms and by the only person from the team who was travelling – however, now anybody in the business has access to view brands/collections, which makes this so much more accessible. Browns has always been a champion for new talent and our hardest job, especially due to how much visibility we have, is choosing the designers to champion. Mentoring is a huge part of our job, especially with designers who have never worked via wholesale before, so it’s incredibly important to support them on this journey and welcome them into the Browns family.
If you’re not in a buying role already, how would you recommend developing those skills?
TS: Buying is essentially about running your own micro business as part of a bigger organisation. Ultimately, it’s about identifying pieces, trends or brands that people want to buy into and then scaling up those findings to create revenue. I would start by going to a few car boot sales and trying to find some pieces that you think you can flip and make some money on. You’ll meet some great characters, will be able to do it on any budget and hopefully make some money out of it. If you enjoy all those elements, you’ll love buying.
HH: Look at what is trending now, check what type of products are ‘selling fast’, buy them and see how they resell on apps like Vinted and Vestiaire. You can even do this with accessible price points – there’s always that one Zara or COS dress that everybody wants that you will be able to sell or swap.
Your top tip on how to be a great buyer?
TS: Being constantly interested in people’s individual style, having an open mind, working hard and most importantly, being nice to people.
HH: Keep an open mind, listen to other areas outside of buying, don’t be afraid to challenge the why and how, and remember the fun is in the product and the people!