When you were a child, a family member probably decided which clothes you would wear every day. In a roundabout way, professional fashion buyers do the same thing, though on a larger, more complicated scale.
Let's say you need to buy a new shirt. All you have to do is go down to the nearest department store or apparel shop. But did you ever wonder how the dozens or even hundreds of available shirts ended up at the store in the first place? And who decided which shirts would be sold at that store and which ones wouldn't? Chances are it was a fashion buyer, indirectly determining your wardrobe.
Fashion buyers typically work for department stores, retail chains, independently owned stores or wholesale distributors. Their jobs might seem easy; after all, what's not to like about buying apparel with someone else's money, to the tune of thousands or even millions of dollars?
But fashion buying goes far beyond the clothes themselves. And if you're not willing to work hard, you just won't make it in this field. Indeed, the key skills and traits you'll need to succeed aren't generally associated with apparel, and they're not typically mentioned in the more glamorous descriptions of fashion buying, says Connie Passarella, director of career services at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.
"You must be highly analytical, have a strong working knowledge of computers and have the ability to work under pressure," says Passarella. As a fashion buyer, you're responsible for:
- The Past: You need to understand how certain items have sold in previous years to predict how similar items might sell.
- The Present: You must be in constant contact with the retail staffers who are actually selling the apparel you've purchased to determine if it's moving. You also have to continuously analyze complex sales reports to see if your company should buy more of a particular item or sell it to customers at a higher or lower price.
- The Future: In many ways, you're a fortune-teller. Using your knowledge of industry trends and forecasts, you have to predict two or even three years out which apparel and accessories will sell and at what price. So you need "to continually stay educated on the industry and trends by reading as many of the top fashion and industry publications as possible and attending various fashion events," says Todd Kellogg, senior buyer for Beach Bums, a clothing and accessories retailer with nine California locations.
A bachelor's degree is generally the minimum educational requirement for a career in fashion buying, where salaries generally begin in the mid-$30,000 range but "can reach the $100,000 range with ease," Passarella says. Prospective employers won't be too particular about your major, she adds, but if you have a general idea of how the fashion industry works, you'll be "in a better position than those who have never dealt with any segment of the industry."
One avenue you'll definitely want to pursue is the executive training program. Many retailers, particularly larger ones, offer these programs, which will help you work your way up to a buying position over several years. The executive training program at national retailer Neiman Marcus, for instance, prepares participants for jobs as assistant buyers and, ultimately, buyers for the company.
But perhaps the best place to start is with a sales associate job at that store where you bought your new shirt. "It's not a requirement, but companies like to see retail experience on an individual's resume" Passarella says. "That way, they know you have a basic understanding of the selling floor."