Scroll through any photos of fashion week and you’ll see them: cool women dressed in an identifiable mix of high-end and emerging brands. Quite often, they're fashion buyers, the women who discover the labels and trends that you'll soon be shopping. While it may not be obvious on the surface, what fashion buyers do and the clothes they wear are both shaping the fashion landscape.
These buyers serve as ambassadors for the trends and young designers their companies are hedging their bets on. And in a retail space where social media can be just as important as a big fashion show, these individuals are cherry-picking runway trends and scouting talents who may not have had a platform before.
Take, for example, Tiffany Hsu, fashion buying director of Mytheresa. With 151K followers on Instagram and a never-ending presence in street style photos, Hsu’s recognizable personal style has made her a fixture outside of shows, offering an aesthetic that fits Mytheresa's luxury shoppers.
“I like feminine style but with an androgynous edge,” she explains to TZR. “I love to experiment and mix-and-match the unexpected.” Hsu admits that nearly 90 percent of her wardrobe comes from Mytheresa's rotation of labels, which she discovers during fashion week seasons as well as on social media. “Of course we look through all the names that are showing at the various fashion weeks, but we also get a lot of inspiration from magazine, websites, and Instagram,” she adds.
But perhaps Hsu's biggest impact is her eye for bringing on new and undiscovered brands. For example, Mytheresa and Hsu were some of the earliest supporters of Nanushka, the Budapest-based brand known for its vegan leather staples. She also sites footwear designer Amina Muaddi as an early discovery. "We bought into her collection from the very first season onwards," she explains. Hsu says that when taking on a young brand that customers haven't heard of, she and her retail employer try to push awareness in every way possible, taking extra steps to promote it on social media and featuring it in email newsletters.
Kristen Cole, President, Chief Creative Officer and Fashion Director of Forty Five Ten also tends to turn to Instagram to help grow the site's roster of labels. “I love finding new designers and shining a spotlight on emerging brands," she tells TZR. "Season after season, I’m continually surprised that I’m excited to wear new silhouettes and buy into new ideas. Reinvention is a constant in this business.”
Texas-based Forty Five Ten is known in the industry for its spotlight on creative, quirky brands, a label born out of its buyers' ability to source and buy into new designers in emerging markets. In addition to social media, Cole discovers these brands through her network of stylists, designers, and industry friends. "Half of our roster [of buyers] is devoted to buying emerging brands," she explains. "My passion lies in spotting talent early and watching it develop. That’s the fun."
Cole is also merging different types of retail into a single space. Forty Five Ten stocks Marni and Loewe alongside vintage items, home goods, and the up-and-coming label Collina Strada. "We take mentorship and partnership seriously," she says of working with brands who have never collaborated with retailers before. "We try to take risks, and usually will for a few seasons, before we fully judge the success of a line. Sometimes it takes a minute to build a following." Over that time, Cole is able to determine if a label simply needs visibility to convert customers, or if the designs aren't hitting with the Forty Five Ten shopper.
At Moda Operandi, fashion and buying director Lisa Aiken finds travel to emerging fashion weeks to be an important point of discovery. "I'm not just scouting in cities like Paris and Milan," Aiken tells TZR. "I'm also seeking out talent at some of the more fringe fashion weeks which happen to be some of my favorites. Think Copenhagen or Tbilisi. For me, no matter how I come about new talent, I usually know instantly when I've fallen in love."
To introduce newly discovered labels to a wider audience, Moda Operandi, Net-a-Porter, and Matchesfashion alike have established incubator programs to help scale these labels in a sustainable way. "Our customers are more and more product-driven which is exciting and encouraging for smaller brands," says Cassie Smart, head of womenswear buying for MatchesFashion. This translates to shoppers buying a new piece because they truly love it, rather than just loving the brand that makes it. "It is also incredibly exciting for us to be a part of this journey with the designers. In recent seasons we have been amongst the first to stock brands such as Chopova Lowena, Germanier, Marine Serre, Art School, and Rave Review, and this season we are excited to exclusively launch a collaboration with new designer Edie Ashley and Bolt Motorcycles."
Spotting and exclusively signing these designers can earn a buying director clout in a competitive market. But beyond discovering, on-boarding, and supporting the labels (not to mention wearing them to fashion weeks and on social media) behind the scenes these women are also using analytical data to drive the purchasing decisions.
“What you see on the runway is only 20 percent of the collections and we buy a lot more, and deeper into brands," explains Hsu. "We sometimes spend several hours in showrooms to find the best products for our clients but also to review every single piece.” If these buying directors spot an "it piece" they not only have to select it, but forecast how well it will do and make sure they order enough stock to fulfill demand. "We do our best to predict the styles that will really hit, but sometimes miss an opportunity in depth," says Cole. "Our buyers always react fast and re-order if possible, and if not, try to bring in the next iteration of that piece the next season. We just bought more of the Prada lug-sole oxford for that very reason." In their work, they have some market power to control how widely available an item will hit.
Increasingly, the success of products can also go beyond a simple re-order, and lead to a one-off collaboration. Smart notes that while she wants her customers to have access to high-demand pieces, "we want to ensure that each item feels special and customers aren’t going to be able to find it everywhere. If a particular product performs really well, we may work with the brands to introduce exclusive colors or new takes on a popular item so that it feels different for the next season." This means each retailer is able to tweak or reissue items to the demands of their market demographic.
But as the industry increasingly looks inward to reexamine existing processes, buyers like Smart are also looking at the bigger picture and considering issues like sustainability and inclusion. "Buyers have a way of influencing real change, introducing and championing brands who are making efforts to be more responsible, whether that is through production, preserving artisan craft, supporting charities or investing in fair work environments for people," says Smart. Now, both MatchesFashion and Net-a-Porter have eco-focused edits — dedicated spaces where shoppers can seek out sustainable brands to shop.
As these buyers continue to look both inside the traditional retail system and look out at what's next, their choices inform where the industry will head in the years to come. "I try to keep an eye on big-picture, forward movement," explains Cole. "Not just with the trends, but with making investments in lines who are moving towards sustainability, inclusion, and visibility into their product. When buyers make an effort to buy responsibly, they can start to shape what’s to come."