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Getting a Shoe in the Door of Fashion Retailing

A passion for fashion is de rigueur, but so are sharp financial skills, a talent for marketing and entrepreneurship, and most of all the desire to sell. Four executive women share well-tailored advice.

"Retail is where the rubber hits the road," said HBS professor Janice Hammond, kicking off one of the best-attended panel sessions at the Dynamic Women in Business Conference 2004. Retail needs more than a fantastic product, she said. Even if your product sails right through the twists and turns on the supply chain, it can still hit a wall if the retail experience is bad, she said.

"Retail needs the right product at the right time in the right place in the right position at the right place," she explained. "All the other aspects have to be right in order to make the retail proposition work. ... And then the customer comes in every day and votes. So there's a real challenge in getting all these other pieces to work correctly."

It also takes more than a love of shopping to make it in retail, panelists agreed. Naturally, anyone who wants to succeed in the field is going to need good taste and a passion for fashion. But he or she also has to have superb analytical skills, an instinct for operations and human resources, and talent for negotiation, marketing, and investor and public relations. Retailers need to know how to "create a theater"—a sophisticated atmosphere that will attract and engage customers, added Pauline Brown, Est©e Lauder Companies' vice president of corporate strategy and new business development.

Most importantly, people who want retail have to love to sell, said Michelle Mandel, executive vice president of Talbots. "Selling is not a dirty word. If selling isn't your passion, maybe retail is not for you. It's the litmus test," she said.

Humble beginnings
No committed would-be retail executive should ever turn up her nose at the opportunity to run a store because stores offer wonderful lessons that come from retailing in real time, according to Lisa Capozzi, vice president of merchandising and planning for luxury purveyor Louis Vuitton. A good store manager is a jack-of-all-trades, she said.

I left with no business plan, but I had good taste.
— Liz Lange, designer and entrepreneur

Liz Lange agreed. A designer of high-end maternity clothes who also creates affordable fashions that are sold in the mall-friendly discount chain Target, Lange said, "I insist that employees start in stores. That's the front line. You have to be on the selling floor" to get a bead on customers' needs and their changing desires. For Lange, a lust for fashion as a college student had led to what many fashion fans would consider nirvana: an editorial desk job at Vogue. One day in the course of her work, however, she met a young, struggling designer. "I fell in love with the product and the process," she said. Realizing that designing and entrepreneurship were a perfect match for her, Lange left the sleekness of Vogue for a grimy one-room studio in New York's Garment District. "I left with no business plan," she recalled, "but I had good taste." She found her niche by turning her skills to an area no one else was interested in, either for designing or selling—the luxury maternity market. Quizzed later in the conference session about tips for work-life balance, Lange answered with a smile, "I am an entrepreneur. It is hard for me."

Career catwalk
Getting one's shoe in the door for a retail executive career is difficult but not impossible, said Kikka Hanazawa, chief strategy office for apparel designer Theory. Hanazawa (HBS MBA '02), whose mother is a designer in Japan, had always loved shopping with her mom but took a brief detour into investment banking once she became an adult. Only later did she accept that fashion was the right business for her, too. She counseled younger women in the room who were considering retail to look for companies that are expanding through acquisitions. Most fashion industry information will not be found in standard business bibles such as The Wall Street Journal. "You have to look for changes in managers and in the industry landscape, and know how you can add value," she said.

Though it is less likely to happen today, Mandel of Talbots cautioned women to resist being shunted into buying rather than operations. Operations is more likely to lead to a fast-track executive position, she suggested. In the 1960s, when Mandel was accepted into an executive program, she was automatically placed on the buying side while men were slotted into operations. "I did want to be a buyer, but I wanted to decide it on my own," she told the conference audience.

Mandel is now the first female executive VP at Talbots. "Business is fun," she said. "And retail is the most fun."