05 April, 2010

Retail buying, for real...

So a friend of mine recently asked about my work, and specifically how she could get into it too. At first I thought, oh yeah... it's nice. As much as I complain- it certainly has its perks; Great clothes, cool people, a little travel... But when I really start thinking about it, it's much more than that. Good and bad, it's much more.

Women love clothes, and young women especially tend to think of the fashion industry as glamourous, and beautiful and I don't know what... so when I tell people I'm a buyer for women's clothing, the immediate response is usually: "Wow!" "Awesome!" "Lucky..." or "Fun". Oftentimes I wonder what they're imagining my work to be... I try to think about it from an outside perspective and wonder, what would I imagine a "buyer" does all day? I can't. I've been up to my eyeballs in this business since I was 14 years old, working as a gopher and retail slave -girl for two years before wriggling my way into "Buyer's Assistant" at 16 (which, cool job title aside, was exactly the same job). It's impossible for me, therefore, to have any remotely unbiased views of this life or to relate at all to the countless girls that seek it out. Am I jaded? Not unless I started out that way. My opinions of, and interest in fashion are so deeply ingrained, they're hard-wired.

My mother sourced and sold vintage couture. I grew up reading "W", "Vogue", and French "Elle" like they were nursery rhymes. I understood the nuances of "cuts" and "lines" while most girls my age were still dressing their Barbies in poly-blend. This may seem smug, but it's really the opposite of that. I didn't know any better. I had no idea that it was any big deal until I was helping squeeze Salma Hayek into a Norma Kamali boneless corset dress at 15 and said: "Well, it's all in the structure- her couture is influenced by architecture and swimwear of the 1940's, so it's really structured, without being restrictive. Flattering without being overt, you know? She sews you in and holds you there with these incredible dual-purpose fabrics, so you don't need the boning!" Salma looked at me like I was possessed, and then she bought the nearly $4,000 gown. My imminent promotion followed soon after. This was my "Oh, I'm not normal"-moment.

The thing is, I knew so much about fashion by the time I went to college, that I couldn't have cared less if I ever went near the industry again. I lusted after the cuts and lines of industrial architectects rather than the cuts and lines of couturiers. Fashion was family, and home, and fall-back, and meh... it wasn't going anywhere. Inevitably I went back to it, simply because it came easily, it was what I knew and I knew it well. I went from gopher, to assistant, to buyer, to store owner and I can tell you- there's not a ton of differences between the four other than money; who's making it, who's spending it, and who's paying it out. Of all those little hats, the one that fit me best was buyer. I make my own hours, I work alone, and the better I buy- the more I earn. The best part is, as I get older, I buy better, I buy smarter and it just gets easier and easier. The worst part is, I'm not challenged, except by my own morals.

You see, there is a new breed of consumer- someone who grew up on Claire's, Forever 21, and polyester prom dresses. They want more and more for less and less, and they don't care where it's made or how- so long as it's cheap and trendy. What's more disheartening is the fact that we (in the industry) are kow-towing to this woman. We're supporting disposable trends, and unethical manufacturing simply to meet the demands of debt-ridden consumers whom either don't know any better, or don't care. But it's cute? That dress you're purchasing at a bargain price was made of cheap, synthetic fabric, dyed with hazardous chemicals and some (illegal in this country) pesticides thrown in for good shipment. But it looks okay to you? It was probably sewn in a filthy sweatshop by a worker paid an unfair wage. There is nothing to be proud of in that prom photo, dear. Your dress is shit and it will fall apart on you. In fact, it's likely something will go wrong with it by the end of the night. Got a deal on your bridesmaid's dresses? Bad manufacturing doesn't bode well for the chicken dance, sister. You're better off having just one bridesmaid and buying her a decent ensemble. Better yet, buy vintage. The fabrics and tailoring are incomparable. Try the touch test. Vintage satin vs. today's cheap but oh-so-shiny and wrinkle-free impostor-satin...

I mention the satin, in particular because I'm fresh off of buying for prom season and to my shock, I found the most incredible silk satin dresses by Joseph Walker. These feel like the vintage couture I know and love. These are the real deal- or as close to the real deal as you're likely to find for the price. Retailing for around $200 they blow the competition out of the water (*ahem* Jessica McClintock *cough,cough*). Even his palette is inspired and tasteful. There is nothing of the garish brights and neo-neons that pop up in nearly every showroom, nearly every Spring. Particularly, his pinks and greens... A subdued, and slightly greyed pink that just looks grown-up and beautiful and an absolutely sumptuous jade green; something universally flattering but oft overlooked. Furthermore, consumers, you're not actually saving on anything- here's a little fashion industry secret... YOU'RE BEING SWINDLED BY BARGAIN PRICED CRAP! Retailers know what prices you're used to, what prices you're immune to, and what you consider a "deal". The less they pay for the goods, the more they make off of you. Think they're passing savings onto you? Absolutely not. The "savings" are built into their profit margins, not passed on to the consumer. In other words, the less they pay, the more they profit. Is there a trendy little shop in your town that seems to ALWAYS have a sale going on? They actually don't... they're simply buying a dress for $10 pricing it at a 5.0 margin (WELL above industry standards). They then mark the dress at 50% off and you're thinking "Wow, I'm getting such a great deal", when in reality, they're profiting off of your trust and making more than they would on a higher priced, quality garment sold at full MSRP (a 2.3 margin). There is no bargain, my friends. The sale price was a farce and that damn dress will fall apart in a few months. Which just opens up a whole other can of worms... false economy, consumer culture, mass waste, etc. On this topic, the moral is this- hang on to your mother's and your grandmother's clothing; these are the items worth their salt, these are the items worth keeping and handing down to your daughters. Expect to pay more for items made ethically and appreciate quality craftsmanship. Have we forgotten what this is? With Levi's now made of varying materials in varying countries, two identical pairs of style 501 you've worn forever (and in the exact same size) will now vary by up to 3 inches in length and 2.5 inches in the waist. The washes and finishes will have no consistency and the cut and feel will most likely be unrecognizable.

Inevitably, potential buyers think that this job is about style, trends, and getting clothing at cost. On style... Of course style is a key factor in maintaining relevance, moving merchandise and longevity in this job. I'm not sure if this factor is innate, it's a bit of an x-factor- but it's also about influence, and inspiration. On trends... This aspect of my job is really the science part of it, and again a bit of x-factor for good measure. Trends are about picking up on little clues and subtle cues in the collective consciousness. They are about understanding the motion and force of fashion from Asia, to Europe to America's East coast, to California, and back to Asia again. It's about the trickle-down effect of Haute couture to Prêt-à-Porter to up-market, to mass production. And once you understand all that, it's about timing. Computer-generated analysis of markets and retail analysts offer some help and take a bit of guesswork out of which departments and categories are moving well, but ultimately it comes down to your innate ability to time a given marketplace. Knowing months in advance what trends will hit at what moment and where. Will your consumers be ready? I can't tell you how many times my own timing has been off. Often as a buyer, having access to upcoming colors, collections, and designs- you're so far ahead of the collective curve that you overestimate your own clock. I've had to store away entire deliveries for months at a time, until such time as the trend hit and the consumer was ready for it.

But more and more my job is really about protecting consumers and the marketplace from bad investments, it's about shielding stores from bad reputations, and finding a happy medium between style and substance, whilst maintaining a fair price-point for desirable apparel. And clothes at cost? Yes, it's a perk. If you're interested in being a buyer, you're likely something of a clothes-horse anyway, so you'll appreciate this aspect of it. I keep waiting for the stuffed-to-the-gills closet thing to get old (it hasn't yet).

9 comments:

Meghan said...

Great post! As a girl on a budget, I would much rather spend some time thrifting for cheap vintage stuff that needs minor repairs/alterations than go to Forever 21 and get something generic and shoddily made. You're right about vintage quality, they just don't make 'em like they used to. Any tips on how/where to get the best old stuff?

Anonymous said...

Thanks Jeff for sendingme here. Amazing inside information about something I've always loved and wanted to do. I'd think twice about it now. Had no idea that it was so complacated. Wow.

Cary Conrady said...

Vintage, eh? Good to know. Thanks.

Jamie said...

You're really pretty and really smart.Cool post.

Eli said...

wow what an insightful post! I have wondered about this concept for a few years now as a consumer, and since I am on a budget - this is why I thrift diligently instead of buying new. I cannot for the life of me fathom buying at Forever 21, their clothes construction has always been crap, and to boot it has gotten about two or three times as expensive as it once was. This is mind boggling. We've caused our own prices to inflate by popularity - they saw the opportunity and ran with it.

I still have a few pieces of clothing from my mom's closet, and they stand up with the newer stuff. And none of us who has had a mall store item can deny seeing the seams coming apart or loosening soon after buying, it happens to everyone.

Since I live in Las Vegas I have been lucky enough to attend some of the trade shows that pop up during Magic Week here. Not quite the real fashion week, but you get to see the spectrum of clothes being sold to consumers. There are celebrity lines, indie labels, up and coming. I will never forget going to the Off Price Market show which just had a bunch of junk imported from China. It was awful, and so cheap. I think consumers need to be more aware of profit margins. Im one of those that doesn't think it's fair that prices have risen across to board, but I think in my years I've finally understood quality vs. quantity.

Jem said...

this is such a great post, i think its interesting to see the point of view from someone on the otherside of the bussiness.

Halie said...

You make a lot of good points but it's really hard to reconcile my desire for quality clothes that weren't made by children in China with my lack of money. I sometimes shop at Forever 21, and the like, and I do feel guilty. But when trends move so fast, I feel even guiltier spending money on clothes. And even the "upmarket" places seem to have things that were foreign-made, like Banana Republic or J. Crew (yes, I know they're mall stores but even those are expensive for someone middle class). Magazines are always telling me to "invest in well-made classics" but it's hard when some of the things I see even at Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom seem cheaply made AND expensive, and then also my wardrobe is reduced to a few black dresses, one pair of "quality" jeans and some tops, which isn't a very versatile or fun wardrobe.

Plus, for prom dresses, most teenagers A) can't afford things like well-made products or quality vintage (I've tried vintage shopping many, many times and I mostly find crap so it's frustrating) and B) prom dresses aren't very useful for the average teen after their first run, so it's hard to want to spend a lot of money.

So, my questions are: where can I find these elusive well-made lines of clothing and where can I find them cheaply?

Anonymous said...

i appreciate your knowledge of fashion.
i'm pretty sure most young adults know that they are buying on sale low quality clothing though - maybe it's to get a fix for a fast, trendy piece (or maybe they only have so much money..and they need to get more for less because they have to). i feel that peoples' psychological view on money, such as paying 20 dollars now, is more "frugal" in their minds than paying 200 dollars for some other item, when i reality, they will probably end up paying that much anyway to replace the low quality clothing...sigh

Samantha said...

Excellent post.

Any suggestions on how to turn mom & grandma's old clothes (especially those great Mickey Mouse sweaters, hah! - never said my mom was in style) into something trendy?

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