There are many identities in the fashion industry. Front-row-goodie-bag thieves and “influencers” are just some. But the ones to watch are the group of people considered to be the Usain Bolts of the ragtrade: the fashion buyers.
While the street-style set are playing it up for the cameras outside the fashion shows around the world, such as the upcoming Fashion Week Australia in Sydney, buyers are usually sprinting from runway to runway adding outfits to their store’s carts. They are always leading the pack – because they dress the pack, as well as millions of others around the world.
Their choices, or edits, become apparent in the weeks after fashion shows. They select what makes it on to the racks of stores such as Myer and David Jones, and online shopping websites like Farfetch, Matches and Net-A-Porter.
“We don’t want to limit ourselves by ticking boxes or adhering to a set of rules,” says Matches studio buyer Chelsea Power. “If we think it is something our customer would like, we buy it. There is no specific checklist.”
Buyers are always looking for the next big thing and they have relationships with myriad designers and labels. Among their most valued traits are their abilities to forecast and to network.
Myer group general manager Karen Brewster, who has been in the business of choosing our clothes for more than 20 years, treats the fashion buying game like the stock market, albeit the talk is more boucle and bootleg hems than bulls and bears.
“Buyers have to be real students of the market,” Brewster says. “The role balances creativity and commerce. They have to be up to date with consumer trends, they have to understand what’s going on in the competition and they have to be a great negotiator on prices. Then they need to be able to pull together a range that customers want to buy and therefore have the right stock in the right stores at the right time.”
Brewster looks after a stable of 25 buyers, 10 of whom work specifically in womenswear. Many travel frequently to international shows in Paris, New York, Milan and London, often twice a year.
“It may look very glamorous with all the travel and a lot of time spent sitting front row at fashion parades, but that’s probably only about 2 per cent of the job. It’s really about dissecting trends, what celebrities are wearing, then what and when to bring them to market,” Brewster says.
“For fashion retail buyers, the buck stops with them for their accounts. They are accountable for sales, they are accountable for profit. Their financial accountability, which is as cut-throat as any other business, is ensuring they get the sales through. They have sole responsibility for the ranges they put on the shop floor.”
Brewster’s former employee Teneille Ferguson, who is now David Jones’ womenswear buying manager, agrees.
“Sure, all the glamour of fashion shows and being front row wearing designer dresses is an amazing perk, but my job also involves a lot of hard negotiations, hours and hours of analysis and years spent building good relationships with suppliers and designers,” Ferguson says.
“Lots of brands dream about getting into David Jones, so mentoring and coaching them about what our customer wants is also crucial. That said, if a brand is all about sequins and ruffles, I’m looking at them for that and … it’s my job then to curate an edit that will sell on the floor.”
Ferguson is known in the industry for her ability to nurture brands and teach them about the needs of big department stores and their customers. She was crucial in signing cult Sydney label Aje into Myer before she, and then the label, defected to David Jones.
“Australia is now considered a retail emerging market, so now is a good opportunity to elevate it,” Ferguson says. “There’s an influx of international stores and brands but [David Jones] being here, with so much heritage, gives us the edge to identify and nab Australian designers first.
“Another advantage we have here is that I can work with some designers for as little as three months or as long as three years before entering into a commercial relationship with them,” she says. “That’s what I love about my job: I feel like I’m constantly collaborating.”
Farfetch’s womenswear buyer Emma Pull, who will be in Sydney for Fashion Week Australia when the shows start on Sunday, also enjoys the “people” side of the business.
“My perfect day at work would be out on appointments during market. I love strategising and planning, but putting it all into action is my favourite time of the year,” she says. “The ideal is meeting an emerging designer that is totally fresh and unaffected by the industry, but has really strong ideas and drive.”
Pull will be on the lookout for “an original shape” or distinctive print while in Australia for the six-day fashion event. “I also like to see clothes in the shows that I can imagine real women wearing.”
In recent times, fashion editors and publications may have been usurped by Instagram stars and bloggers when it comes to fashion commentary, but buyers have seized on this changing of the guard and now use data from social media and other online platforms to make more educated decisions during buying trips.
Brewster says the disruption is challenging but also provides great opportunity. “Ten or 15 years ago we’d go overseas and bring the trends back to Australia because the world wasn’t global. You didn’t have the information you have at your fingertips like we do now,” she says. “The biggest change is seeing that our customers have access to that information. Is Kendall Jenner wearing floral bombers? Then I’ll need that now.”
“We’re going to sell something like 120,000 bomber jackets this season and that was on the runway at the Fall 2016 shows [held in February 2016] by labels like Vetements,” Brewster says. “Historically that would have taken two or three seasons to get there but within the three months of those runway shows we really saw a huge uptake, even last year. We didn’t have enough and went back and bought heavily and that was only eight months since those shows.”
Both Myer and David Jones are now sinking resources into the online space. Both department stores will relaunch websites this year, and they already have strong followings on social media. Gone are the days when a show would be held up to ensure the editor of Vogue was seated; now events start promptly at the go-live times of scheduled Facebook Live streams.
International retailers are already heavily invested in the virtual world, and buyers now need to ensure their choices appeal to customers online, in store and on social media.
“The biggest shift within fashion has been the impact of social media and access to online content from a buying perspective,” Net-A-Porter’s retail fashion director Lisa Aiken says. “Our customer is extremely reactive to the content she sees and staying ahead of this is vital; we need to anticipate what makes an impact socially and editorially.”
“I am always looking for new brands that our customer can’t find anywhere else and that have a global attraction. I can’t wait to see the new talent next week,” says Aiken, who will also be in Sydney for Fashion Week. “The new wave of designers coming out of Australia is incredibly exciting.”