There are few sectors of the economy that offer as wide and interesting a range of career opportunities as fashion.
When it comes to working in the fashion industry, it might seem like there are only a few pathways in the business, such as becoming an editor, designer, buyer, stylist or photographer. But in reality, these functions represent a small portion of the overall industry. The fashion industry has significantly evolved over the last 10 years and emerging trends, such as the evolving store, changing consumer preferences, a heightened need for radical transparency and more, is shifting companies’ priorities and the roles they are hiring for. BoF meets six fashion professionals with jobs that are becoming increasingly important, to discuss how they landed their roles and how each one contributes to the industry.
1. 3D Printing Engineer
For fashion designers, one of the most challenging aspects of the business is the manufacturing process. The adoption of 3D printing, however, would make manufacturing quicker, easier and cheaper, lowering the barrier to entry for emerging designers across the globe. Even major players like Chanel and Iris Van Herpen are experimenting with the medium to print designs that would otherwise be impossible to manufacture.
“A job in 3D printing bridges two areas: being able to execute the technological aspects of the business as well as the creative vision,” says Naomi Kaempfer, creative director at Stratasys, which manufactures 3D printers and materials, and works with companies like Safilo, the world’s second-largest eyewear producer, and Iris Van Herpen to produce prototypes and parts directly from 3D CAD files.
Indeed, 3D printing will play a bigger part in fashion as it turns conventional manufacturing on its head. Instead of starting with some fabric and removing sections to create a desired shape or design, 3D printing begins with nothing and only adds material as the production process unfolds. “This is one of the biggest attractions for manufacturers as they can cut down on potentially vast amounts of waste,” says Rob Walker, a contributing analyst at Euromonitor International. 3D printing also has implications for ‘fast fashion', most of which is produced overseas in sweatshop conditions as workers are exploited for cheap labour.
A job in 3D printing bridges ... the technological aspects of the business as well as the creative vision.
As more apparel makers adopt the technology, it has the potential to trickle down to the masses. According to Wohlers Associates, publishers of the annual Wohlers Report, more than 278,000 desktop 3D printers were sold worldwide in 2015. The worldwide 3D printing industry is expected to grow from $3.7 billion in revenue in 2013 to $12.8 billion by 2018, and hit $21 billion in worldwide revenue by 2020. The technology raises significant questions: If everybody is printing clothes at home, will people still visit retail stores? Will retail stores even be relevant?
“3D printing puts more power in the hands of consumers, who can play a bigger role in the design and realisation of their products,” Pascal Morand, the executive president of the Fédération française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, previously said on BoF. “3D printing will facilitate differentiation and customisation, enriching the dialogue between the consumer and the designer, giving rise to a wider range of goods than ever before.”
2. Consumer Psychologist
Over the centuries, clothing has evolved from a practical necessity to become an influential ‘tell’ of our personalities. This has led to the rise of a niche group of industry professionals — the fashion psychologists — who apply psychological theories to what we wear, understanding that our clothing choices impact not only our own emotions, but also those of the people we interact with.
“I work with brands, agencies and creatives to help them understand consumer behaviour and how that can be applied to make more effective, strategic business or creative decisions,” says Kate Nightingale, head consumer psychologist and founder of Style Psychology, a consultancy firm that works with clients such as retail chain Debenhams and menswear brand Thomas Pink, to provide insight on why people buy what they buy.
“If you understand how human perception works on a neuroscientific level and how people choose clothing based on their psychological makeup, you can create an incredibly effective strategy, ultimately enhancing the overall customer experience and the bottom line,” says Nightingale. Indeed, fashion businesses can use consumer psychology to make shoppers more willing to purchase certain products or services. This could include looking at details like packaging, shelf placement or advertising.
To become a fashion psychologist, or any psychologist for that matter, “you should complete extensive psychological studies. BSc is theoretically enough, but many courses are simply not in-depth enough,” advises Nightingale. “I often urge people who are interested in becoming fashion or consumer psychologists to study not only psychology, but explore other behavioural sciences like neuroscience, anthropology and sociology.”
However, this type of role has only emerged in recent years. “It’s still not very common to hire consultants like myself,” Nightingale says, although the biggest advantage would be for global companies, who have relationships with customers around the world with very different backgrounds, behaviour and preferences. “I believe at some point, all brands will be consulting either in-house or external behavioural experts.”
3. Data Scientist
Advanced machine learning has become a more integral part of the fashion industry, as brands are increasingly focused on anticipating and predicting what shoppers might be looking for. According to McKinsey, a retailer using big data could increase its operating margin by more than 60 percent. As a result, today’s companies are moving away from using simple statistical analysis and using AI and deep learning to predict and personalise recommendations at an individual level.
Dubbed the sexiest job of the 21st century by Harvard Business Review, the role of the data scientist was only coined in 2008 by DJ Patil and Jeff Hammerbacher, then the respective leads of data and analytics at Linkedin and Facebook. Today, thousands of data scientists work at both fashion startups and well-established companies, using statistical machine learning and other quantitative methods to gain data-driven insight into consumer behaviour.
“My time is split between machine learning, engineering and management,” says Eddie Bell, lead data scientist at Lyst, which allows users to shop products from multiple retailers within its own online platform. “On a typical day, I’m trying to teach our mathematical models about fashion. We accomplish this by showing our models millions of product images and descriptions, with the aim of teaching them the fashion knowledge that humans take for granted.”
When a user searches for ‘red Valentino dress', do they want a red dress by Valentino or a dress by Red Valentino? Data science can answer these questions.
Certainly, for an online fashion aggregator like Lyst, which catalogues 13 million products from 15,000 designers and introduces 60,000 new products each week, it’s not feasible for a team of individuals to manage content of this magnitude. “When you have a million pairs of shoes, how do you decide which shoes to show to a user? When a user searches for ‘red Valentino dress', do they want a red dress by Valentino or a dress by Red Valentino?” asks Bell. “Data science can answer these questions. If you want to scale the business, data scientists can help automate what is normally done by a human.”
The most common backgrounds for those who are interested in pursuing this career path are computer science and physics, says Bell. “Those two degrees have the right combination of algorithms, mathematics and pragmatism. But generally speaking, any quantitative background, whether it’s biology or economics, works.”
“Join a collaborative research project such as ai-on.org or openai.com. See how high you can get on the leaderboard machine learning competition site, kaggle.com. Try to understand and implement an ML paper on arxiv.org. Take to people at data science meet-ups and contribute to open-source data science projects,” he advises.
4. Fabric Research and Development
Over the past few years, several major apparel giants from Nike to Lululemon have been sourcing or developing new technologies to create a new generation of materials that enhance the style, performance and sustainability of their products.
Major breakthroughs in fabric development occurred in 1958, when Lycra hit the market, followed by Gore-tex, which disrupted the outdoor and performance-wear sector. But recent years have also seen a wave of new innovation, such as the emergence of wearable technology and smart materials, which has been explored by companies including Ralph Lauren (the company unveiled technology-enabled tennis shirts, which monitored the heart rate and stress levels of players at the US Open Tennis Championships in 2014).
While smart fabrics may still be in their infancy, it is a fast growing market with new capabilities and is sure to play a more significant role in fashion, particularly given the emergence of the athleisure sector, which has led to a greater interest in performance materials. Smart materials have also opened up a whole new conversation around clothing and health, Todd Harple, director of pathfinding and innovation strategy at Intel, told BoF: “If I have my mother and she’s elderly, I want to know when she’s afraid or anxious — how might I do that without being bothersome? Or if I have a child that I’m providing care for who has autism, wouldn’t I like to know when he’s focused or not? These are all possible through garments.”
“It’s important to stay inspired and ahead of the ever changing needs of our customers,” says Lululemon’s Logan. “[For a career as a fabric developer], a degree in textiles science or textile engineering is preferred. But if a candidate’s experience demonstrates a strong technical background in working with raw materials, exceptions can be made.”
5. Sustainability Expert
Many fashion companies are prioritising sustainability and putting sustainable business models at the heart of their organisations. This means taking how they produce their products more heavily into consideration and hiring sustainability consultants whose sole function is to ensure that the company is doing whatever they can to integrate sustainable sourcing and environmentally friendly practices.
“[My job is] to constantly look for ways to incorporate more recycled materials into our products, drive innovative projects that cut our impact on the planet, and expand programs like Fair Trade that have a direct positive impact on the people who make our products,” says Rachel Cantu, vice president of global supply chain at Patagonia, an outdoor clothing giant that has built its brand on sustainability. It boasts North America’s largest repair centre and also offers mobile repair vehicles that travel around the United States to fix garments, free of charge.
There’s a recognised need for sustainability, especially if you’re a large business.
“As consumers become more conscious with their buying decisions, the demand for companies to be able to demonstrate radical transparency and measurable improvement in both environmental and social impacts of their supply chains will be more and more critical,” says Cantu. Indeed, by pursing a green agenda from the beginning, the brand has built immense loyalty amongst consumers, particularly millennials, who market experts say are more likely to buy a brand that supports a cause.
Adidas, Kering and H&M were the fashion brands among Corporate Knights' 100 most sustainable corporations for 2016. “There’s a recognised need for sustainability, especially if you’re a large business. We’re at a point where there’s nowhere to hide. You can’t make excuses like ‘It’s not within my control,’ or ‘I didn’t know about it.’ There’s an expectation for all businesses to own up to their responsibilities and they have to go beyond that,” Burak Cakmak, Parsons’ dean of fashion, told BoF.
It’s important for us to “never stop looking for ways to improve and question the status quo,” says Patagonia’s Cantu.
6. Personal Stylist
Personal styling was once reserved for Hollywood starlets, affluent socialites and top executives. But as e-commerce has become a dominant way to shop — 54 percent of consumers worldwide shop online weekly, according to PricewaterhouseCooper’s 2016 Total Retail survey — tech-savvy retail companies are trying to democratise styling, just as Uber has granted everyone a private driver. “The whole shopping experience is becoming less tactile and more impersonal,” says Shaunie Brett, style director of the personal styling website for men, Thread. “As more and more people are shopping online, the ability to offer expert advice and a personal touch needs to exist in the online market.”
Thread, founded in June 2012, has only eight stylists, but has helped thousands of clients sharpen their wardrobes through online communication and a powerful algorithm. “As fashion and tech become more entwined, the role of a personal stylist has evolved to incorporate a more in-depth understanding of technology,” explains Brett. “My role is to help our software engineers and data scientists grasp how a stylist makes decisions, so that they can apply this to our algorithm and make personal styling scalable for the first time.”
In recent years, the e-commerce space has heated up and fashion brands, big and small, are catching up fast to enter and leverage the digital marketplace. As a result, online styling services using intelligent algorithms to offer personal styling help have emerged. “We want to be able to bring personal styling to millions, but people can spot a robot from a mile off, so we want to keep things personal by combining our algorithmic technology with a team of actual stylists. We call it stylist-driven AI,” says Brett.
The competition today ranges from New York-based Keaton Row, which creates personalised “look books” of outfit ideas from online retailers such as Asos and Shopbop, to Trunk Club, which, working with Nordstrom, creates a wardrobe for men. New entrant Everywear, launched in April 2015 by Brandon Holley, the former editor-in-chief of Condé Nast’s Lucky magazine, offers customers recommendations based on what’s already in their closets, and in return, shares that information with stores to help them better understand why some products are selling and others aren’t.
“A good personal stylist [has] good emotional intelligence and a motivation to help people, rather than wanting to make it ‘big’ in the business,” says Brett. “The most important quality is taste. Taste is something you can’t teach; it’s innate. Regardless of whether a stylist has just graduated or has been in the industry for five years, taste should be evident in their work.”