As we wait to see what Raf Simons, one of Europe’s brightest talents, will bring to his role as Creative Director of iconic American label Calvin Klein, and shrug with resignation at the news that LVMH, unable to deliver results, has sold that other American institution, Donna Karan, it begs the question: What does it take for creative talent from overseas to succeed in the U.S.?
The challenge of “cracking America” has always existed in the creative worlds of music and film. (Most Americans will respond with “How do you spell that?” at the mention of Kylie Minogue.) American industries have proven they can exist perfectly fine, even thrive, without foreign input, and the U.S. certainly prides itself on self-sufficiency. The hurdles facing foreign talent are equally present in the field of fashion so what draws designers to the daunting prospect of working in NYC?
One theory is they are thrill-seekers, adrenaline junkies who are nonplussed by the glamour of Italian runways and scoff at the prospect of working in a century-old Parisian maison, but are intoxicated by the bigness of America: the shine, the swagger, the risk, the power. Salaries are bigger, titles are myriad and important-sounding, careers are stratospheric but the fall is steep. And the culture shock can be as overwhelming as a plunge into ice-cold rushing white water. Here are my five recommendations to help designers crack America:
Address language barrier
French accent too tricky to master? Italian sounding a lot less romantic when you speak it? As a graduate, you might find NYC appealing as it’s the one fashion capital that offers minimal linguistic challenges. Or so you’d think. Cliché responses like “It’s simply divine, darling,” don’t pass muster in Manhattan’s corridors of power. Corporate jargon is music to sales people’s ears and it’s an insider language that’s ever-evolving, multilayered and often maddening. Here are some phrases I’ve heard bandied about at meetings: “Can you drill down on that?”... “Penetration drives the bus”... “Our brand matrix is a delicate ecosystem”... “Based on the team’s learnings, it’s low-hanging fruit”... “Roll with the equation here”... “Kill it. Rapido”... “Let’s remove a few variables: the sleeves”...
Must we say “price point” when we just mean price? Unfortunately, we must. See if you can spot other examples cleverly planted in the text, “double down” on familiarizing yourself with this language of the land because, if you can make it one of your “core competencies,” it could prove to be a “Key Performance Indicator.”
Look to the streets
In the studios of Paris, Milan and London, young designers fresh from the hot fashion schools mince before the revered Signor Armani or the majestic Kaiser Karl, sporting holes in their clothes, pins in their skin, rags tied around their limbs, slogans on their chests as an audacious middle finger to any system that would allow them entry. The message of anarchy just won’t fly stateside. It’s often stated that Manhattanites dress in a monotone uniform and the tourists are the ones in brights. That’s true of the streets and it’s true of the office twenty storeys above the streets. Don’t be a tourist. You don’t have to wear business attire, but read the room, refine your image and look clean. Otherwise you are marking yourself out as someone who doesn’t belong, whose opinion doesn’t matter and who won’t be taken seriously. It is what it is.
Channel the American Dream in the land of reinvention
The U.S. industry is about brand-building and rebuilding. The ever-changing New York City skyline reflects the work habits of its industry players. Like real estate, brands must keep reinventing themselves in order to pay the price of existing in the increasingly saturated marketplace of Classic American Sportswear, a term for the wearable separates that are the building blocks of the fashion industry here. Lifestyle themes recur and perhaps the two most important ones are: the old-money Ivy League prep model of Ralph Lauren, and the high-glitz jet-setting nouveau riche of Michael Kors. Both speak to wealth and living the American Dream, but interestingly, neither brand is currently performing well, having lost some of the allure and exclusivity they once possessed. If you can reimagine the American Dream, you will be golden.
Subscribe to design by committee
James, a design director and veteran of first, the European, and then, the U.S. industries, summarizes his experience of the transition like this: “Europe is design-led, I still feel, and the U.S. is sales-led, and has always been. In Europe, designers design, sellers sell, buyers buy. Here, everyone is involved in design. This was my big wake-up call at my first job in the U.S. at Elie Tahari. Young designers should be prepared for the knock-on effect of this: Everyone works under a nervous energy, rethinking every decision, changing things up to the last minute, sending deliveries completely off-calendar and setting you up to work late into the night and catch up on weekends. On the plus side, I learnt all about the business side of things, something which many designers in Europe are sheltered from and the schools barely touch upon. I’d never heard of the Fashion Pyramid until I came here; couldn’t read a spread sheet to save my life.”
Add to this the reality that you will be cc’d or bcc’d on every email regarding merchandising, sales, marketing, as well as design and production, because no one wants to be blamed for leaving you “out of the loop” or setting you up for failure. However, these extra demands on your time certainly don’t allow for what Raf Simons found so lamentably absent in his previous role at Christian Dior: “Incubation time for ideas.”
Stand out and fit in!
From Tokyo’s Bunka to Antwerp’s Royal Academy to London’s Central St Martins, the best fashion schools push you to find your voice and be different. Working in the U.S., you’ll regularly feel tugged towards doing the opposite. There is little time for meaningful creative research but studying columns of figures in Excel is a daily task. A merchandiser’s parting words, “This sold really well for our competition; why don’t you do a version?” encourages a form of copying and your voice is at risk of becoming a muffled squeak under the wheels of commerce. Yet your job security depends on you bringing something to the table and giving 110 percent. And this is most commonly evaluated through sales. This is when thinking outside the box comes into play.
If you live in NYC, you’ll notice its residents have a habit of looking over your shoulder when they’re talking to you. It’s not rudeness so much as symptomatic of their eternal optimism: There is always something better around the corner. It fuels New Yorkers to never stop seeking fulfillment of their own potential, but it also encourages your boss to never stop seeking someone better than you.
It’s nothing personal, just business.
By contributing guest editor Jackie Mallon, who is on the teaching faculty of several NYC fashion programmes and is the author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.
Photos by Jackie Mallon