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.
As far as fashion buyers go, Tiffany Hsu might be one of the most instantly recognizable; you've likely seen her in fashion week street style photos season after season, or in a plethora of outfit inspiration photos on your Instagram feed. The fashion buying director of the Munich-based e-commerce site MyTheresa.com has cultivated her own strong sense of personal style and has a penchant for mixing the latest and greatest contemporary brands — think Nanushka, By Far and Y/Project — with more established labels, such as Isabel Marant, Loewe and Balmain.
Hsu's fashion background runs deep. Born in Taiwan, she moved to the U.K. to go to boarding school when she was 15. "I was deciding what I wanted to do when I grow up, and I saw a picture of [one of] John Galliano's collections," she recalls. "I told my parents, 'I think I want to be a fashion designer because this person made this beautiful dress and I want to go to the same school.'"
She left her boarding school in the countryside to go to London's Central Saint Martins, where she pursued a fashion design degree. "At 17, one day I just took my portfolio, took a train, went to London myself — I got in and I just told my parents I was moving to London," she says. "It was a little scary, but that's where everything started."
The rest happened by chance. To this day, Hsu has never had traditional buying or business training; she's eschewed all that for a career path that's been based on self-learning and first-hand experience. But clearly, that doesn't mean she doesn't excel at what she does: Since joining MyTheresa.com in 2015 as buying manager, the retail site estimates that the team has grown to be three times the size it was when she started. Plus, they are doing more special initiatives, namely exclusive designer capsule collections and expansions, than ever before.
Hsu was named fashion buying director in October 2017. Aside from committing to meetings in the main office in Germany while working her regular days out of her London office, Hsu is on the road for eight months out of the year for her job — six of which are solely devoted to market appointments. We caught up Hsu at the tail end of one of her New York market visits to discuss her evolving career as one of the most noticeable buyers in the industry. Read on for the highlights of our conversation.
What was your first job in the industry?
I worked at a stall in Notting Hill Market. Then, I was a bartender and got fired within three weeks — I was such a bad waitress. I worked at high street stores and designer boutiques [after that], and then after school, Feathers hired me as a buyer. It's not around anymore, but they're from the same family as Browns. I found them because I was looking for Matches and I got lost. I was like, 'Do you guys know where Matches is? I'm looking for a job.' Then I saw they had Rick Owens in the window and was like, 'You guys look kind of cool. Who are you? Can I work here?'
Literally nothing was planned. I have never been professionally trained in buying or fashion business; I'm just trained in fashion design. Everything I know, I learned from working with different people at different companies. I was [at Feathers] for five years. First I was the shop girl, then the store manager. When I finished school, they asked me to stay and buy with them. It was a very small, family-run business and I was lucky that they gave me the opportunity. We were going to Italy and going to Paris, buying designer brands. Most people have to start with being an admin or assistant for two years.
What was it like to immediately jump into fashion buying without the traditional training involved?
You have to learn a lot. People think we just go and point at pretty dresses, but we have to do reports and analytics. I learned most of that when I worked at Lane Crawford. That was the first large-scale corporate company I worked for. I was there for three years in Hong Kong. I decided I had to do that because I had to work for a corporate brand. It was quite hard to leave London, because that's where all my friends were and that's where I grew up, but it was a great experience. I met some really great people in Hong Kong, like Tina Leung. We're still friends.
It was very intense. Although I'm Chinese, to me, it's quite foreign to live in an Asian country because I didn't spend a lot of time there. Working for a corporate company like that was a crash course for me. You're so used to: This is your boss and you just work with your boss. Then suddenly, there's 5,000 people you have to report to and things that need to be signed off on. You have to be very diplomatic. I would spend a whole month in Europe to work; it's so far that you don't go back [home], you really spend a whole month or two on the road.
How did you work your way up to becoming fashion buying director at MyTheresa.com?
I went back to London to work at Selfridges, so I was really happy. I was there for three years. Selfridges is very creative and they allow you to be very creative, so we did a lot of fun projects. They did renovations during that time so it was exciting; they had new teams, new projects. Then I joined MyTheresa.com. I was recruited by Justin O'Shea, the fashion buying director at the time. I had been working at brick-and-mortar stores for ten years and I wanted to try something different. E-commerce is the future.
MyTheresa.com was also expanding after the acquisition of Neiman Marcus group. They needed more people because the company was growing [to be] triple the size. I had been lucky that I joined each company at a time when they were expanding, bringing on new things and people. I thought that was one area that I didn't really know well so I wanted to give it a go.
What's the biggest difference in buying for brick-and-mortar stores versus e-commerce? Has there been a learning curve?
It's a lot harder to understand your customers [online] because you don't see them. It's a lot of reports and analytics — that's probably the biggest takeaway. When you buy for brick-and-mortar, you meet the customer and you know who it is. There's a shop person you can go and speak to and ask, 'Why didn't this work?' For us, it's digging deep into what's working and what's not working, how we can improve it.
With e-commerce, you have more control of what you project. On the shop floor, sometimes people move things around. For e-commerce, everything is set in a certain way and it's easier to translate that. If you have some sort of idea of what it should look like, you can create how you want it to look and then it stays that way. On the shop floor, it's very different. Someone forgot to put something out. They didn't steam the dress. You don't have any problem with that digitally. I work with the team and we all decide, 'This is the look we're going for, this is the look we want to push.'
You originally studied fashion design. What interests you most about buying?
You constantly get to see new things. I think in fashion particularly, you meet a lot of new people. Most people have your mindset; they just want to create beautiful things. That's one of the nicest parts. There's constant newness and things that excite you. I don't think that I could do a nine-to-five job of the same thing all the time. We work with 250 brands and more as we go. Everyone around you likes new things and they want more. A lot of more traditional companies don't want to see new things — they're more systematic. We're a very nimble business and we're all about creative ideas.
Do you have specific vision when you're buying? Who is the MyTheresa.com woman?
I actually think the MyTheresa.com woman can be many women, but what's important is they know what they want. We don't have to educate our customers, they're very aware [of the market]. We are just there to make an edit of what we think they want. They're busy, they're working, they could be a mother or a creative. We're just making a guess at what a well-educated, luxury customer would want. That's our job; we're not trying to be fashion editorial or educate them about what they don't know. It's a comprehensive service for them. This is where you can find the most desirable designer items of the season.
We change with the trends, but not drastically. My customer is still there. Maybe they want Victoria Beckham this season and next season they want The Row, but the aesthetic doesn't change. We find new things to service different types of customers.
How do you find new brands?
We get people writing emails and sending lookbooks all day long. Some weird factories email me and say, 'Oh, we make this.' But I don't buy things from factories. I think Instagram is very useful as compared to the past, when you'd have to read a lot of magazines to find the next new things. For those that don't have the means to be in publications, Instagram is a great way to find smaller designers and things you've never seen before. We still have to go see them in person to make sure the quality is good, but it all starts from visuals.
I know some of the brands we found via Instagram: Ganni many years ago and Nanushka. There are brands that I follow... we don't buy them immediately, but I watch them and their progression, then we'll reach out to them.
The conversation of whether fashion week is still relevant has been a hot topic for a while now. What's your opinion on it as a fashion buyer?
I think fashion week is important purely because we see all the brands. Some cities are better than the others. New York, when you come to market, a lot of them are not ready to sell, so we often end up buying New York brands in Paris. Paris has become more relevant to us just because everyone is selling. When we come to New York, they're just doing shows. It's still important, but you can't see real product. Paris becomes really, really long for us. We stay an extra week after fashion week in Paris.
The job is pretty public; in a way you're a spokesperson for the brand and you have a big following on social media. Do you feel like you're an influencer?
Some people consider me an influencer, but it's just a bonus. My real job is still what I do on a day-to-day basis. It's just me — whatever I wear is just things that I like.
What are you most proud of since becoming fashion buying director at MyTheresa.com?
Now our business is three times bigger compared to when I first joined. I think my most proud moment would be growing with the company and then building a team. We have a lot of good relationships with the brands and lots of capsules. We do a lot of marketing [initiatives] and we do so much more than we ever have before. We're launching childrenswear, which is quite exciting. We're really, really expanding.
What advice do you have for others who want to go into fashion buying?
I don't want to use such a cliché line, but you really have to have a passion for it; otherwise, it's just really tough. I think from the outside it looks glamorous but it does require stamina. You work long hours and for weeks you don't go home. You work hard and you do a lot more than [going to shows at] fashion week. Once we did a 12-hour buy in the same showroom. I was there for so long because I cover multiple categories. I think you really have to love it to not feel like it's very tiring. Some people like a more systematic lifestyle, whereas this is something new and exciting every day.