Cultivating the Next Generation of Fashion Professionals

The fashion industry is not only glamorous and exciting, it's big business — with more than 4 million gainfully employed in the United States alone and many millions more worldwide. It is not surprising that scores of the most ambitious young students are eager to break into the industry — and those of us who are charged with educating them have an essential responsibility to help them succeed in this competitive field.

After a 20+-year career in the apparel industry, my passion segued to educating the next generation of fashion professionals. I was asked to take my professional knowledge and impart it to this younger, hungrier group of students who are much more savvy than I ever was in my day. With a post as an adjunct professor of fashion merchandising at Long Island University, I have the opportunity to interact and learn from my students, who have so much at their fingertips.

Technology has given this generation the world on a platter, which has furthered my conviction that the optimal preparation for today's global fashion industry is to be well educated with knowledge of business, communications, technology, politics and yes ? fashion. It is the whole package that will give these kids a broad platform from which to launch a fashion career that might be steered in many different global directions.

My career began with the Retail Training Program at Saks Fifth Avenue, which led me to become a buyer and then an associate fashion director. I moved on to Henri Bendel to direct its special events nationally as the brand opened up its Fifth Avenue store in its landmark location, as well as others across the United States. Later, my entrepreneurial drive led me to the successful launch my own business, which in no time became a multi-million dollar brand worn by women and celebrities across the globe.

Learning about the world at large
During the course of my own fashion career, I utilized so many skills across the board, from designing and producing to doing my own PR and marketing, to writing a business plan, handling an income statement and even appearing on national TV and co-authoring a book.

This is why I believe it is so important for a student focused on a fashion merchandising career to receive a well-rounded and diverse education. A fashion student with a background in marketing, advertising, communications, public speaking, business, graphics design and art history, as well as the hard skills of fashion itself, is surely more valuable in today's world than one who is not equipped to tackle the intricacies of this ever-changing industry.

At LIU, fashion merchandising students may choose to take a class in the School of Business, where they learn the essential skill of writing a business plan. Or they can tap public speaking and presentation courses, which hone key skills for students aspiring to become buyers, fashion directors, event planners or entrepreneurs. Or they can pursue graphic design or art history to cultivate their artistic sensibilities.

History, political science, sociology and other courses are valuable as well. Fashion is a global industry — no longer solely centered on Seventh Avenue —and students need to be savvy about the world at large. During the course of their careers, they may be producing garments in other countries or selling to customers across the world; they may be launching a global brand or dealing with a product that has global implications. This, in and of itself, makes it imperative to not only understand other cultures and their monetary systems, but to understand the environmental, political and economic factors they encompass: how economies are fluctuating, whether disposable income is up or down, even the basics of world currencies.

Students will be buying from and selling to people from all walks of life and corners of the earth and should display awareness of diverse social and economic influences. Politics comes into play, as do considerations of sustainability and social responsibility as we produce garments in India, Vietnam, Madagascar and other countries offshore.

At the same time, students need to learn the nuts and bolts of the fashion industry: the skills of working with cost sheets, pricing, sourcing, design, fabric selection, production and retailing. Math for merchandising, import and export, fashion trend forecasting, fashion law, visual merchandising, and digital/social media marketing know-how are advantageous for being competitive in the 21st century global fashion trade.

Students should also have a highly developed understanding of fabrics — drape, fibers, yardage, color, trim and texture — and discover how a product launch might start with a specific fabric as its inspiration. From natural fibers to the latest synthetics and high performance fabrics, an in-depth knowledge of textiles is naturally at the core of fashion.

Seeing beyond the trends
This generation is exposed to a great deal of fashion in their everyday lives, and students are coming into the classroom with a huge amount of up-to-the-minute information about styles, trends and stores. It's no longer absolutely necessary to obtain coveted tickets to Fashion Week — students watch live streams of the shows on their laptops, tablets or smartphones. They don't breathlessly wait for the new issue of Vogue to come out — they keep up with their app. They follow the Twitter feeds of the celebrities who ignite fashion trends, instead of waiting to see who wears what on the red carpet on TV. By the time this stuff hits the stores, this generations is already tired of it. It is an ever-changing, fast-paced world and we all need to be prepared for what's to come.

Valuable information presents itself via many different avenues, and keeping up is essential as the pace of the industry accelerates and many notable brands now turn their merchandise over every three to four weeks.

This instantaneous gratification has its pluses and minuses. The generation at hand in some ways has a sophistication unseen in previous generations, but this knowledge tends to be focused on the end product. It is our job as fashion educators to teach young students about all of the hidden steps that are necessary to create the product, bring it to market, and show it to the world: how a garment goes from A to Z, from inspiration to Fifth Avenue and beyond.
Fashion merchandisers need to possess a combination of fashion sense and business know-how, learning key skills such as the ones we teach at LIU:
  • An understanding of consumer wants, needs and behavior
  • Knowledge of current fashion trends
  • Excellent communication and promotion skills
  • Analytical math and finance skills
  • Technical knowledge of colors, patterns and fabrics
  • The process of buying and selling in the fashion industry and global supply chains
  • Visual display methods and options
The best fashion education encompasses both the traditional techniques and the newer modalities. For example, students need to learn CAD (computer-aided design), PDM (product data management) and PLM (product lifestyle management) systems so that they can someday interact with a manufacturer in Asia or other global colleagues. But they should also gain a sound understanding of the traditional methods of designing, draping, patternmaking and samples. Though CAD allows you to see a garment in 3D, manipulate a simple stored pattern, and streamline design, some of the world's finest designers still prefer to drape, so students should be exposed to these time-tested methods as well as the latest technology.

Experiential learning in fashion's hub
Social media plays such an important and starring role in today's fashion industry. Not only does social media help promote brands, stores, celebrities and trends, it also becomes an invaluable tool for finding a job. Digital skills come quite naturally to most Millennials, while the ability to interact confidently in the real world might take more coaching.

For this reason, proximity to the fashion industry is a great advantage. There is simply no substitute for the experience gained by attending college near a global center of fashion such as New York City. Proximity provides a chance to network with people in the industry and secure internships that lead to desirable jobs, as well as attend trade shows and fashion shows. We also encourage students to explore the cultural mecca of New York City — from museums to small galleries to dance, music and theatre performances. The inspiration for fashion and a true sense of style is often found far beyond the shops and showrooms.

Experiential learning right on campus can prove to be invaluable during these informative years, as well. At LIU, we have students working as managers, buyers and merchandisers in The Student Body, a trendy and fully functional fashion boutique on campus — and one of our six student-run ventures. Having a venue that engages students in a fashion or retail job right on campus can be highly convenient and motivating. From working with customers and maintaining a sales report, to planning the floor assortment and monthly buy, being a-part of this student run business is an opportunity that can't be matched. We recently took a group of students to The Coterie to buy for the boutique — an amazing hands-on learning experience, encompassing the ability to select styles and sizes as well as understanding pricing and the target customer.

Finally, fashion merchandising students find it advantageous to learn from professors who have experience "in the trenches," not just in the classroom. Only those of us who have lived the fashion industry for many years can impart the reality: the excitement and the rewards, but also the pitfalls of this incredibly fast-paced field. When I talk to students about my career — from the glittering events to the daily business on the cutting-room floor — they are highly interested in all the details. They have many questions to ask as they impart their own fascinating, youthful slant on the industry, which in turn is remarkable and thought-provoking to me.

Working in the field of fashion merchandising requires a unique combination of instinct and training. Students need hard skills in global retail and management, along with the ability to choose the best looks and trends at prices that customers will pay. Creativity, fashion sense and business acumen are all required — as well as outstanding people and presentation skills. These attributes are all intertwined in the "success equation." And in this global economy, a student needs an in-depth understanding of the world at large. We want to encourage them to become knowledgeable about life beyond fashion — from the span of art and culture to current political events.

It's a wide world of fashion and we can best prepare students by encouraging them to engage in a diverse range of study that will expand their horizons each and every day.

Cherie Serota is a professor of fashion merchandising at Long Island University (LIU).
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