I have a confession to make. I used to be one of those chicks in fashion. Ha. That still makes me laugh. Anyone who has seen me in my ulta-fave sweatpant shorts and witnessed the still-in-progress unpainted fingernail marathon of 2006-7 is probably laughing as well. Yes, I had a subscription to Women’s Wear Daily. I had the newest and latest stuff all the time. I sat in runway shows and worked in the business. For five years.
My first job after college was working at a corporate office of a retail company everyone knows – Nine West. Essentially, I was a buyer. But it was wholesale buying – so you are not making a selection. You are taking what needs to be produced and scheduling it on lines and making sure it gets done.
Nine West entered into a license agreement to make Calvin Klein shoes for the now defunct cK brand of footwear. I commuted my ass to Seventh Avenue in New York City and quickly learned that the sun never rises in the Garment District. Something about crossing Sixth Avenue, and everything went dark.
License agreements are screwy at best. Calvin Klein, the man and the company, are masters at licensing the name and slapping it all over everything. Technically, nothing except the Calvin Klein Women’s Collection is actually done in house anymore. I learned that anything with the Calvin Klein name on it was made by some company who specialized in that particular product line. The prestige of wearing Calvin Klein underwear dissipates quickly when you learn that Vanity Fair or Fruit of the Loom were really the ones making it. If you wonder why sometimes things look so similar among designers, that’s a major reason. If you work for Fruit of the Loom and in addition to making your own boxers you have to do Calvin’s – what do you think happens? You slap that puppy on the same production line with your own and there is very little difference in product quality or appearance. It is always more cost effective to run the same styles on the same lines.
I remember the day I rode the elevator with Calvin Klein and Christy Turlington. I was not as awe struck as my co-worker, who was practically in tears at sharing the same 4 by 6 space with them. Bah. I was more excited to tear into my Eggplant Parm.
After several grueling years, and making it to a buying office, I learned the industry had too many sordid back corners for me to permanently call it home. This is how it works:
A company has designers who spend time in Europe checking out the latest fashions. They come back and “re-interpret” that for America. (Groan. Have you seen the rest of America?) They may show 100 pieces in a collection, but after the Sales Managers come in, a lot of what they don’t think they can sell gets cut. Then after the trade and runway shows, whatever else lacks interest also gets cut. The final collection you take to production is about 30% of what you originally started with. The best pieces always get cut and never make it out to the world. Up against rising production costs and factory workers who weren’t very competent, Nine West moved all their production from the States and Brazil out to China. They didn’t have a choice. As a manufacturer, you just can’t win.
The other side of the business, being a buyer, is really not much better. You are given a set budget and you have only that money to spend for the season. But there are many levels of management above you who determine on what they want you to spend your budget. This is usually due to “exclusive deals” with manufacturers. While this sounds like a fantastic deal, it’s a load of crap. The real reason the seller is offering a discount on volume is because they got a break on price from their factory. They are trying to max their profit out on something that isn’t necessarily what people want, just easy to make. The buyers plan to heavily promote it, because many subscribe to the belief that at the right price, anything will sell. The promise of exclusivity is also not that at all – you will almost always see a very similar piece of merchandise at a competitor. The vendor will contest this though. This is my favorite lie: “Oh, it’s a totally different shoe! It’s one millimeter of one millimeter higher in the heel! That speaks to a completely different woman!”
So this item above “exclusive” probably ate 20% of the buyer’s budget. Then there are “basics” that every buyer has to have, as well as continuing sellers from prior seasons. Finally, there would be about 15% to 20% of the budget left at the end for “fashion” items. These are the things that are more interesting, more outrageous, that not everyone will want. The trick to these is that if you are a buyer and only spending a few dollars on these fashion items, so are the other buyers of the world. This means the seller has to go to production with a very limited run. Changing a shoe mid production is costly. You have to produce a minimum of 5000 pairs just to break even. Your price may go up. Then it busts your budget. See now why everything you buy is made in a country you haven’t heard of?
My days at Calvin Klein yielded one superstar. Several years after the place closed up shop, my old co-worker and one of the only nice people at “cK Shoes and Bags,” John Truex, hit it big with Lambertson Truex. The rest of those assholes are probably still sauntering around Manhattan in head to toe black, coming in at 11:00 for their jobs, eating ice cubes for lunch, snorting coke, and leaving at 9:00, where they promptly hit the party scene. No thanks.
My days at Nine West yielded one casualty, Laura Southwick. You can see from that picture, taken at the latest in 2000, she was a definite fashionista. People didn’t start wearing those glasses until the past couple years. That chick was ON IT. Laura and I worked in the same office and she came with me the day I bought my first car – the original VELVET. After Nine West, I moved to Atlanta and Laura went on to work for Kenneth Cole. As everyone in fashion learned in the late 90’s, the only place for production cheap enough to ensure any profit was China. Laura traveled endlessly. The “glamorous life” she had envisioned wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Just four months after September 11th, she went on what she told friends would be her “last trip to China.” As she wrote in her journal, she realized she no longer wanted to be at the mercy of a company who couldn’t guarantee her personal safety. She wrote her resignation letter on the flight as well, but would never return home to deliver it. And no, no one knows what happened, other than that she died overnight in a rural Chinese hospital and the doctors didn’t even know until the morning when they went in to review her test results with her. Um, no thanks on the travel by the way.
At my grad school graduation, I gave the speech. I spoke about Laura and how we learn, sometimes through the hard lessons of friends, that some things are just too important to sacrifice. A final sidenote about how pathetic the industry is – at Laura’s funeral service, Kenneth Cole, the man, approached her parents and asked her for a leather coat back that he had given their daughter as a present. Can. You. Fucking. Believe. It. Fuck you Kenneth Cole and there’s the reason why I don’t buy any of your shit.
So what brings this up? I received an email from someone who heard I had the buying experience they wanted and blah blah blah. Nope. No way. Ultimately I made the decision to leave the business for good. The hours were long. The pay was low. The politics were heavy. The potential cost…astronomical.