How Jan-Michael Quammie Channeled an Overseas Retail Career Into a Role as Highsnobiety's Style Director

Before joining Highsnobiety, she held positions at Saks Fifth Avenue, Net-a-Porter and Mytheresa, as well as "InStyle" Germany.
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Jan-Michael Quammie at Paris Fashion Week. Photo: Claudio Lavenia/Getty Images

Jan-Michael Quammie at Paris Fashion Week. Photo: Claudio Lavenia/Getty Images

In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.

For those who live in the U.S., New York is considered a mecca for kickstarting a career in fashion. And while Jan-Michael Quammie grew up and cut her teeth in the city with jobs in retail and buying, she couldn't pass up the opportunity to make a major move overseas for a new job in Shanghai, which then led her to cross continents and live in Munich, where she's currently based.

From a young age, Quammie knew she'd end up working in fashion. After high school, her first fashion job was at a local store that sold designer-name clothing, where she'd often join the shop's owner on buying appointments. Eventually, she took her retail experience to the next level at Saks Fifth Avenue, climbing the ranks over the years until she ran her floor's sales team. One day, she gathered up the courage to go up to the department store's then-Vice President of Women's Ready to Wear, John Cruz, "who's a legend in the retail world," according to Quammie. "I told him I wanted to go across the street [to the corporate headquarters] and be a buyer," she recalls. 

That leap of faith paid off: Quammie started out as a merchandise assistant at Saks Fifth Avenue and continued to climb the ranks until she became a buyer for the department store, handling high-end brands like The Row. Soon after, a chance encounter allowed her to move to China, where she first worked as an international buyer for a local multi-brand store, then eventually for Net-a-Porter as the luxury retailer's buying director. 

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A long-distance relationship with her boyfriend in Munich influenced Quammie's move to the German city and there, she switched gears from retail to editorial. First, she worked for Mytheresa's styling team, then InStyle Germany as its fashion director until she took on top role as editor-in-chief for Material Magazine. But when the publication decided to shutter its print edition, she, too, had to part ways. Around the same time, she started talking with David Fischer at Highsnobiety, and in August of this year, the title announced she would become its first-ever style director. In the role, Quammie will contribute to the publication's fashion editorial direction via both print and online, as well as keep up with new trends and brands in menswear and streetwear. 

"We were always quite interested in working together in some capacity, but it just wasn't the right timing," explains Quammie. "I knew that if I were to go back to working with a magazine full-time that it had to be a magazine that resonated with who I am. There was no other magazine that did that for me other than Highsnobiety. That was an innate goal for me."

Ahead of her travels for a month's worth of runway shows, Quammie chatted with Fashionista about how she made the move overseas to work in fashion, transitioning from working in retail to styling and how being kind and a good leader goes a long way.

What first interested you in fashion?

I was quite exposed to the fashion industry at a young age. My uncle was a buyer at Bloomingdale's and when I was eight, I would go with him to the office or buying appointments in the summer and on the weekends when I didn't have school. I didn't really know what he was doing at that age, but I knew that I wanted to do what he was doing.

Did you always want to work overseas?

Ever since I was young, I've always been quite infatuated with being overseas. I would never have picked China to be the first place I went, but that worked out well. When I was super young, I always dreamed of moving to London or Paris, but I think very early on in my career I realized that New York was a very saturated market and I felt like I could kill it overseas.

Before the whole China conversation happened, I was looking at jobs in Paris, just online, poking around, exploring what was out there. So I always knew that I wanted to get out of New York, but I wasn't sure in which capacity or where I would go. But I think the biggest incentive was that I wasn't just going without a plan, I already had a job waiting for me. And I already had it in my head that it doesn't matter where if I don't have to go somewhere and figure it all out on my own while being jobless.

Jan-Michael Quammie at New York Fashion Week. Photo: Melodie Jeng/Getty Images

Jan-Michael Quammie at New York Fashion Week. Photo: Melodie Jeng/Getty Images

Were there any challenges living and working abroad?

Because I started in fashion at an early age — and also corporate America at an early age, Saks was quite corporate — I already knew that I was fast-paced. And also being from New York, you think faster, you work faster. It's always that concept: First one to come in, last one to leave. That's how I worked. Overseas, I realized that it was more so me educating my team. Everything was super new to them. People were having titles that it was like, 'Do you know what it means to have this title? I need you to work at a pace where we can actually get things done,' and it wasn't like that. I had to train really intensively so that my team can work efficiently the way I need them to. 

Are there any big career lessons that you've learned so far?

Being a good leader is important, speaking to your team as you would want to be spoken to. A lot of people in high positions talk down to their subordinates and things like that. I never work that way. I could be tough, but I'm never storming through offices and being crazy. I think that once you show your team that they're an asset to your company, and that you took your time with them and you're patient. It comes back full circle. Also, you just never know who's going to be your boss one day. You never know. I think kindness goes a long way, and being a strong leader really goes a long way. In the fashion industry, you never know who you'll meet again. So always be kind to everyone — upper management, subordinates, your support team — just be a good person.

What was it like transitioning from retail to magazines, or from buying to styling?

It's important to be exposed to all sides of the fashion business to have a full perspective in your role. I understand and see things differently than someone that hasn't. My skill set has definitely allowed me to work in a different way that's more effective. I don't just think creatively, I also think numbers. So it's always an analytical approach to what I'm doing, as well as a creative approach. There's a lot of creatives that don't think analytically because it's [practiced] more in retail. I had to go through retail mass, which was hardcore. You had to pass these exams but also understand the science of retail and numbers, bestsellers and just correlate. It's a whole science behind it. I think it's important, definitely.

Jan-Michael Quammie at London Fashion Week. Photo: Christian Vierig/Getty Images

Jan-Michael Quammie at London Fashion Week. Photo: Christian Vierig/Getty Images

When you go to shows for fashion month, what do you look for specifically?

I love new designers. I always try to check out the smaller designer shows. Of course, the staples are the staples, and there's some anticipation going to something like Calvin Klein in New York or Prada in Milan. Celine is a show I'm really looking forward to, obviously, but also it's all content. So when I see the looks coming on the runway, I'm taking notes of we're going to turn what we see in front of us into content when I get back to the office. I'm already forecasting trends across the board from city to city.

Would you ever see yourself working within retail in some capacity again?

Probably not. I do like to keep that close, which I do with consulting. What I'm doing now kind of works closely with retail and that's great.

Do you have an ultimate career goal?

Oh, wow. I'm not sure. I kind of surprise myself a lot year to year. I'm really happy being at Highsnobiety right now for several different reasons. If you want to talk about highest potential, I feel like I'm close to that being [with Highsnobiety]. I definitely want to invest my time in where I am now and see what that develops into.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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