All Keyed Up is a monthly column by managing editor Seth Friedermann
There is no degree or certificate in fashion buying, it’s an occupation that professionals succeed in via a mix of training, instinct, and fiscal discipline. A department store buyer will often study under a more experienced buyer for many seasons before being promoted or accepting a head buyer position elsewhere. Whereas opposingly, a boutique owner is instantly thrust into the role repeatedly before their store is even open. It’s an exceptionally difficult job in a good economy, so you can imagine how hard it is today. When a buyer enters the seasonal market, the severe constraints within which they operate quickly shackle their freedom to choose. A fashion buyer has to be 99% correct at least twice a year. Add in the holiday, resort, and pre-fall, and the opportunity to be wrong increases. To choose incorrect pieces is to end up with dead stock, which can be the kiss of death in the fairly narrow margin world of retail fashion. Add in the fact that an established buyer enters each season with an inflexible budget and labels that they already know will sell to their client, and that leaves precious little money left over to spend on emerging designers. Now factor in the current mess that is the world economy and the chance of a new designer’s work being purchased by a buyer has shrunk to a pauper’s slice of the pie, irregardless of talent, skill, and inspiration.
Despite all of the knocks against new talent, boutiques and department stores ignore fresh faces at their peril. It’s important for retailers to remember that everybody who is a superstar now was an emerging designer once. To break a new star designer adds tremendous cache to your store and will increase your destination foot traffic by giving you the status of “a place to go for those who know.” Of equal importance is the fact that after the designer breaks out you will never see wholesale prices that low again if you don’t establish an early relationship of some kind.
What follows are my views on how to select a designer whose work has grabbed your attention, but whom you’ve never seen or heard of before. First, let’s begin with elements you should not consider when deciding to buy pieces from a new designer. Do not judge based on any listings of existing retail accounts from any web page or PR documents. I’ve encountered more attempts at deceit in fashion in this area in particular than an any other. PR companies fabricate false impressions constantly for themselves and their clients. Another area where you can be sold only if you’re gullible enough to be buying is “press clippings.” It’s a sad fact that the current fashion press is generally for sale. Articles, editorials, and other coverage can all be purchased, which means they must carry no weight in your decision. Even honest press is limited in it’s impact. Just because people know who a designer is does not mean that they will seek them out and find them in your store.
Now, here are the metrics that I recommend you do use. Is it unique? In today’s knock-off-crazy low originality world, I firmly believe that consumers are beginning to look more at how to stand out than how they can be sure to be the same. We’ve passed the tipping point in homogeneity, get on board with the coming wave of originality is the new everything in high end luxury womenswear or risk getting run over. Is it well designed? Does it feel balanced? Did the designer get the proportions right, the volume, the colors and textures? When your standing in front of a good design you will always get a sense of it being a complete thought, though not always seeing it just on a rack. If you don’t feel that from a piece, I’d steer clear. Along the same lines, great design… isn’t, if it doesn’t fit well, isn’t well made, and isn’t easy to wear. If that’s not true with what your looking at then it doesn’t matter what the work looks like. Another question to consider, is the public presentation of the label current and well reasoned? Poor web presentation, such as out of date collections or a lack of current information can indicate either missed seasons or laziness in maintenance. In either case, it’s a caution flag. A designer’s work ethic is everything, good designers at least influence the design of everything that represents them, and I will guarantee it will impact any order you might place. Finally, you should do your homework on a designer’s existing retail accounts by picking up the phone and asking what they were like to deal with.
Let me leave you with one last idea. The designers and their sales representatives understand that they need to make the buying process convenient and easy for you. However, that does not change the time honored equation of hard work = success for you, and what you must do to succeed in purchasing effectively is to do your homework. You as a buyer will be rewarded by working harder than your competition. Hit the streets in the downtowns where you live, spend hours online looking for rising stars, build relationships with fashion school professors, and open every look book you receive. Many buyers get tipsy on their inherited power and become complacent. Avoid that trap and you’ll be more than just powerful, you’ll be a leader.