In this age of self-startups and e-tailers, the possibilities to carve out your own career in fashion have never been greater. From product design to seamstress and pattern maker, sales manager and PR/Social media account director, the choices of working in fashion are vast. However, a career in fashion does not always have to follow a single trajectory, as working in this creative sector can lead you to places and roles you may have never considered before.
A multi-functional career can be extremely rewarding and challenging, as Debra Simoes, Strategic Account Manager EMEA at The North Face shares. With a degree in philosophy next to an MBA, she may not have had a traditional start to her career, but over the years she has developed a unique skillset, the drive and passion needed to succeed in her role. FashionUnited talks with Simoes to learn more about how she began her career, what she has learnt from her various roles over the years, what specific skills are needed to keep growing and what it is like working at one of the largest outdoor brands in the world.
1) Tell us a bit about yourself – did you always want to work in fashion?
I am originally from Canada, but I moved to Europe nearly ten years ago for a role at The North Face. Before I joined the brand, I worked as a Product Manager for a sporting good company for nearly seven years. My education is actually not related to what I currently do – I have a degree in Philosophy. It was by fluke or by fate that my first job out of school was in the buying office of the department store The Bay (now known as Hudson’s Bay). This job gave me an opportunity to grow in an industry I knew nothing about. Fashion or merchandising was not necessarily something that I thought I would pursue as a career, but it just grew from there.
2) When did you first start working for The North Face in Europe?
I was at a stage in my career where I had reached the point of wanting to try something new, to challenge myself and to see where that adventure may take me.
I had a friend, who I previously worked with, who knew the Director of Product for The North Face in Europe. I had always loved The North Face brand, and luckily, she was able to put us in touch. We tried to set up an interview for weeks but kept missing each other due to the time zone difference. We finally set up a telephone conference call for when he was going to be at The North Face head office in the U.S.. But seeing as I was going to be in California at the time, I thought, why not just fly to meet him in person? Meeting with someone in person is always preferable to a telephone call. I think that he was impressed with the initiative because it worked out. We had a good conversation, I met with a couple of other people on the team, and no more than a week later they offered me the position. It was a bit of a risk, but I thought well, why not go for it? I even agreed to move to our European HQ in Switzerland without ever having set foot in the country before. The risk paid off big time – I have been here ever since.
3) How did you end up in your current role at The North Face, a VF Corporation brand?
My first role at The North Face was Product Manager for Account Exclusive products. I worked with both the product team and the sales team to identify opportunities at our key accounts and make products for them. Over the years, that role evolved, and I was lucky enough to be able to expand my responsibilities to both special account projects and the inline range. About two years ago, an opportunity came up to join the Strategic Account team, which entailed moving from product to sales. I did not have any experience in sales. However, I had been working with the sales teams and key accounts for many years. The North Face asked me if I’d be interested in the role and I said yes. For a second time in my career, I was at a point where it was important to me to challenge myself and try something new. I started the job two years ago.
4) What does your current role at The North Face entail? How has it evolved?
I use a lot of the same knowledge and skills in my new role that I developed in my former roles. I have found that a lateral move can often be very rewarding as you are exposed to new areas of the business. Now, rather than bringing products to life, I am working within the consumer, markets and marketing spectrum. What that entails is understanding the products and marketing stories we have as a brand and how best to match and execute them with our customers.
My role is more strategic, where I try to understand what the opportunities are in each of the markets we work with. I need to have a knowledge of our consumer
and identify the right product and the right marketing stories to engage with them. Rather than working on a specific product, I bring together the product, the marketing and consumers we have in our accounts to make sure what we are offering them is relevant.
5) Do you feel working in sales offers solid and varied career development opportunities?
Definitely. In Sales, you get to see different aspects of the business and see things from a different point of view. When I started my career, I thought that I would always work in product. I love product and wanted to become an expert in this area. That is certainly a career path that I could have followed if I had chosen to. But when I had the opportunity to move into a different function, it benefited me greatly as a person and from a professional point of view. I think that what has helped me a lot in my new role is that I understand what the other teams do, what their challenges are and how we can work together to create value. There are two routes you can pursue in your career. You can work to become an expert in the area you chose and to grow vertically, and that can be a valued career path. But I took a lateral move to develop myself as an individual and as a professional. I think that choice was very rewarding. I believe that having a diverse view of the business helps you as a professional and individual.
6) What do you enjoy the most about your job?
That I come across something new every day, in my first year of working in sales, I was able to develop a good understanding of the role, what the competitive environment is and needs of my accounts and consumers. During my second year, I developed a better understanding of what I know and what I don’t know, as well as what I need to work on in terms of developing the business. That could be additional products we need for the consumers in my account, that could be identifying operational areas that need to be developed to better support the accounts – many things. I like that I can touch on several different areas.
7) What degree and skillset would you recommend people look for if they are interested in pursuing a similar role?
There are several courses you can take in fashion and design if you are interested in working in a more technical product stream. Although my philosophy degree was very rewarding and taught me a lot of things, I wanted a more well-rounded knowledge of business, which is why I pursued my MBA while working. Having a business degree helps get you in the door, but it is not always possible for everyone to pursue a degree. In my opinion, there is no replacement for hard work, ambition and motivation. However, if you are able to pursue higher education, then I would recommend you do that. I think that you should also develop yourself when it comes to the technical knowledge learning on the job. Especially in the product stream, there is a lot of credence given to people who know the more technical aspects of the role, which certainly helps you. On the sales side, I would recommend developing a growth mindset and an understanding of the competitive environment. You need to understand what motivates the consumer and your potential competitors.
8) What is the most important skill to have, in your opinion, to have a long-lasting and successful career?
I would say the most important skill you can develop is resiliency – because there are a lot of times when things are going to go right but also a lot of times when you may feel frustrated. For example, you might not get that promotion you thought you deserved, or you may not get that job you applied for, but you need to be able to assess the situation, learn from it and keep going. Be motivated and continue to drive yourself forward. I would say resiliency is the one key skill you need in order to survive and thrive in the Fashion industry.
9) What sets The North Face apart from other apparel companies, in your opinion?
I think there is a lot of opportunity for a hard-working, ambitious person to excel at VF. I think what motivates me the most about working for the company is the entrepreneurial spirit of the organization. For example, if you have a good idea for a product or process that could improve, the ‘open door’ culture provides you with an opportunity to express it. But, you’ll be asked to make a formal plan, of course! The company is always moving forward. The value of working for a company like VF is that they have a clear purpose, which is not only about selling products, but also promoting healthy, active lifestyles and supporting both people and the planet.
10) What advice would you give your younger self and young graduates looking to emulate you?
I would advise them to make (and don’t wait for) opportunities. Take a few risks. That could be taking on an assignment in another country, or it could be accepting a role in an area you may not have considered before, but it can give you an experience you can take into the next role.
The best advice I can give is to always find a way to get along with people. In any organization, there will always be conflicting viewpoints, so try to understand other people’s point of view, listen to them and respect them. Not everyone will always agree in a meeting. If you have a conflicting viewpoint, then make your case. But make it with logic, facts and data and not with emotion. Also, be aware that sometimes you may need to compromise in your role and within your career. And if you have to compromise or are disappointed along the way, let it go and move on. It will weigh you down if you carry it for too long.
You need to believe in your value, in your skills, and in your ability to contribute. Whatever your goal is – keep going for it and work to achieve it. And finally, try not to compare yourself to others too much – we all have our own path. Create yours.
The North Face is part of VF Corporation. Founded in 1899, VF Corporation is one of the world’s largest apparel, footwear and accessories companies connecting people to the lifestyles, activities and experiences they cherish most through a family of iconic outdoor, active and workwear brands including Vans®, The North Face®, Timberland®, Napapijri®, Eastpak® and Dickies®.
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