The Insider Advice series offers advice from leading fashion professionals, HR leaders and academics, to answer topical careers questions for today’s fashion employees and help inform and guide you in your career. Discover the latest job opportunities with 2,700+ roles on BoF Careers today.
In recent years, the fashion industry has begun to embrace employing talent outside of its immediate talent pool to mitigate existing skill gaps and diversify the workforce. Brands including Chanel, Ralph Lauren and Under Armour have all welcomed executives from human resources, consumer goods and hospitality, respectively.
Indeed, professional crossovers are becoming common, according to data cited by Harvard Business Review (HBR) in 2022, with less than a third of college graduates eventually working in jobs closely related to their majors. Over half of those who quit their job in 2021 have since changed their field or occupation. This occurs across all ages, with people who attempted a career change after age 45 reporting success in 82 percent of cases.
Indeed, professionals of all seniority levels looking to transition into fashion can harness their pre-existing knowledge and experience to unlock industry opportunities.
“The advantage actually is to switch industry, because if you’re in a space where you’re like everybody else, then how do you become unique?” says Jamie Gill, founder of The Outsiders Perspective, a non-profit incubator that supports people of colour looking to work in fashion, and whose career span architecture, financial services, tech and M&A consulting before he became chief executive at Roksanda. “The key is skill set,” he adds.
The challenge lies in aspiring talent’s ability to generalise their skills and demonstrate how they may be applied in a new field and generate value in new contexts — which experts say should be taught at university level. “A lot of the skills that are needed now are interdisciplinary,” said BoF’s workplace and talent correspondent Sheena Butler-Young in a recent BoF LIVE event on closing the skills gap. “The reason we are seeing [skill] deficits is that colleges are just catching up to the idea that we might need some interdisciplinary departments that help people. It is not just, ‘Ok, I am in design and we will show you a little bit of tech.’ Those things may need to have equal weight.”
Björn Kastl, chief people officer at luxury e-tailer Mytheresa, echoes this outlook: “We are not only in the luxury fashion business but also in e-commerce, so therefore we are holding different skill sets within our company which means that the majority of people working at Mytheresa have not started their career within fashion.”
Employers ought to recognise their own vested interest in sourcing candidates from diverse talent pools to drive innovation. “People coming from [non-traditional] backgrounds bring skill sets that we don’t see [often in our industry],” says Kastl. “One of the advantages of giving people a starting chance when they are not originally coming from your industry is that they are bringing in new ideas,” he adds.
Here, BoF Careers shares insight and advice from industry executives and career coaches on how talent with diverse experience and backgrounds can demonstrate their transferable skills and pursue a fulfilling career in fashion.
Study the Industry and Research Your Desired Role
Fashion is a vast industry, with a spectrum of functions that span perpetually evolving creative and commercial outputs. Talent looking to join it must therefore have a clear, informed idea of where they want to go and what they wish to achieve.
“If you are going for a job — it could be in fashion design, it could be in retail, it can be in a magazine or some sort of marketing agency where their clients are fashion companies — you need to understand what that business is and [what] the transferability is,” says Caroline Ceniza-Levine, executive recruiter and career coach whose clients include Fortune 500 companies to tech and media startups, as well as executives from the likes of Amazon, Goldman Sachs, Google, McKinsey and Tesla. She is also Adjunct Instructor at Columbia Business School and author of “Jump Ship: 10 Steps To Starting A New Career”.
Start by analysing the vocational standards and requirements fulfilled by those working in your desired field, to find potential skill gaps for you to tap into and to identify areas where you require further professional development.
Reaching out to people whose careers inspire you can help you become more informed. Consider the best medium to connect, as many professionals prefer to be contacted through formal channels like LinkedIn or via email. Then, keep your message short and succinct, and be sure to make a clear and simple ask.
“You need to risk-mitigate as much as possible before you make the move,” says Gill, who advises “speaking to as many people as possible [in the field], doing as much research as possible, and getting as close as possible to it. […] Find avenues where you can shadow [others] or get exposed to [the sector you want to transfer into] — I don’t know anybody who wouldn’t take free work.”
What is the thread amongst all the roles in your experience to date where you champion yourself? Highlight five clear threads through the experience.
Full-time unpaid work is a privilege not many can afford, but you can consider volunteering or assisting brands and creatives outside of working hours — for example, during special events like fashion week or on photoshoots. These can provide you with invaluable experience and insight, not to mention industry connections.
Evaluate Your Own Positioning in the Job Market
With newly gained insight into the industry, reflect upon your existing skill set, qualifications and interests. Think about your skills in buckets, from hard skills such as IT literacy and certifications, to people-centric skills like task delegation and remote collaboration. Also consider your self-oriented skills, like curiosity and attention to detail.
Once identified, extract these skills from their original context and generalise them to showcase their applicability in future scenarios. For example, writing company-wide newsletters could translate into content creation, corporate communications and CMS proficiency. According to HBR, listing such skills in your resume before your experiences leads to better callback outcomes in 21 percent of cases where candidates’ CVs previously got rejected.
“Pull out what you are good at, what is the thread amongst all the roles in your experience to date where you champion yourself,” advises Gill. “Highlight five clear threads through the experience: communication, marketing, presentation, relationships, financial proficiency […] as examples of intertwining skills that you can then [expand on], and allude to what [you] have done that is not industry-specific but [more general like] ‘I have [demonstrated] the skill of relationship building for business development.’”
Weave a Common Thread Between Past and Future
Draw the connections between your past experience, your desired trajectory and the current needs of your target organisation. Illustrating the connection between these three is your “elevator pitch” — the unique selling point that might form an introduction to your resume or shared in conversations with recruiters.
“Lean into your uniqueness and your understanding of something,” said Geoffrey Williams, global vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion at Burberry, in a recent interview for BoF. “I think a lot of the time, people expect if they were to go and take someone else’s thoughts or sentiments, that will open the door for them. Having your own narrative and your own position is always a benefit in my mind.”
Personalising your application by tying your skill set and experience back to the company and role specifically at hand can further help your application stand out.
“This way you can address what is top of [recruiters’] mind, because at the end of the day, they are hiring to fill a need — they just want the perfect person to fall out of the sky,” says Ceniza-Levine.
At the same time, employers should also “start looking at skills and thinking outside the box,” says Gill. Nevertheless, “the onus is not on them to give you the career that you’ve now decided that you want […] We can reap the benefits of those skills, but the onus has to come on you as an individual because you’re carving your life, your career. You’ve got to take responsibility and accountability.”
Assess Potential Financial Implications
Many junior and mid-level positions offer low compensation in the fashion industry — and sometimes, none at all. Bear this in mind when looking to retrain and gain experience in the industry as an outsider, which can often lead applicants to think they should step down into the industry to build up new expertise.
When calculating the affordability of a potential salary decrease, Ceniza-Levine recommends pragmatism: “If we’re talking about a 10 percent gap, you might not feel it. But if you’re talking about a 20 percent or 50 percent gap, you’re going to feel it, and so you need to know whether there are things that you can change.
“You might have kids in college or private school; you might have a mortgage that you can’t get out of. That type of stuff you need to work out well before you receive an offer, because once you get in that situation, your negotiation needs to be about your market value relevant to that position — not what you need.”
Do not assume that you have to take a pay cut. […] Once you become the hire of choice, they want you and there’s a cost to not getting you.
Gill of The Outsiders Perspective suggests looking at a career change as a long-term investment. “When you join, your experience is still rooted in what you’ve been doing,” and new roles are an “opportunity to add the bolt-on […] You got to give it some time, bank it, and then both of these [experiences] together are worth a lot more.”
However, it may well be that your market value warrants similar pay as your previous position, especially if you have specific skills and expertise that are in-demand in fashion and crucial to employers, such as in supply chain management, sustainability and DEI teams.
“Do not assume that you have to take a pay cut,” says Ceniza-Levine. “If there is a compelling enough need that is causing the company to go outside of the industry to hire that person, there is something that they want. Once you become the hire of choice, they want you and there’s a cost to not getting you.”
Consider a Gradual Transition
Today, personal and professional employee development are top priorities for 76 percent of C-suite executives and human capital leaders, according to Randstad Sourceright’s 2023 Talent Trends report.
Internal mobility is a particular focus area for 82 percent of those surveyed in the report, as it provides for both employers feeling the effects of prevalent skill gaps and ad-hoc talent crunches, and employees who look to explore new development opportunities, with a mutually advantageous solution. Employee turnover can also cost up to double the employee’s annual salary, according to HBR.
Therefore, if you are presently lacking the resources to completely overhaul your career, consider pursuing upskilling opportunities that bring you closer to your career goals at your current employer, who may see value in and support your ambitions for self-development. This might look like shadowing other teams, initiating cross-functional collaborations or developing solo projects to pitch to management once they ripen.
Another low-risk route to expand your skill set is to join professional associations that are relevant to your group, says Ceniza-Levine. “In the case of marketing, it actually might be a marketing association versus a fashion association, but then finding enough people who are in and around that industry. […] You need to have insiders who are talking about what is going on.”
Embark on this journey with great patience, as success is not likely to be immediate. “You can’t expect to be 100 percent settled in that job just after one year,” says Kastl of Mytheresa. “I understand that, especially younger people, are keen to get to the next step of their career — however, sometimes you have to wait [and] prove yourself.”