As the fashion industry continues to corporatize and globalize, it requires executive leadership that understands the complexity of turning design into product; that understands the emotional and functional needs of the consumer and balances that with the financial objectives of the shareholder. It requires someone with creativity, vision, practical skills and flexibility. And now more than ever, it requires an understanding of an omni-channel framework driven by digital engagement and cutting-edge technology.
And while in the past, it was typical for a merchant or buyer to move up through the ranks into management roles and then the executive offices of a fashion brand, it’s now just as likely to see MBA graduates in the C-Suite, often without any fashion experience at all. Both scenarios come with their own pluses and minuses. However, according to Renee Cooper, a professor in the School of Business at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the ability to lead is fundamental. She states, “After all, a leader influences people to follow, whereas a manager gets people to work for them, thereby executing the leader’s mission.”
Renee believes that in today’s evolving fashion industry the key challenge for any business leader is building a sustainable, competitive advantage beyond products and services. “It’s not just about members sitting at the board table or majority stockholders. Today, the C-suite must ensure the demands of the customers, employees, and the communities in which they operate.” And they must do with this more transparency, authenticity and empathy. For example, “Fashion business leaders should recognize the benefits of diversity and inclusion and put initiatives into action. Not only talk the talk, but walk the walk.” She emphasizes, “Look at your executive team leaders. Look at your candidate pool. Look at the current committed members of the organization who have never been given the recognition, title and salary for their contributions over the years.”
However, this important focus on the qualitative aspects of competitive advantage cannot forego a more traditional, quantitative approach, one that ensures the perfect price and product mix. “Shareholders should be looking for data driven, strategic, decision-making to optimize sales in a highly competitive online world—omni-channel strategies enforcing and ensuring synergy from store to online.” And she adds, “There must be supply chain fortification, which then enables speed to market.” And finally, Renee says that today’s fashion leaders must invest in sustainable business practices. Not only is it a way for companies to invest in their futures, it’s recognizing their role in a global economy; it’s seeing the bigger picture. She suggests leaders look to companies like Patagonia for inspiration underlining their theme: “everything we make has an impact on the planet.”