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.
The first thing one might notice about Lisa Aiken is that she's "chic," that most coveted of fashionable adjectives. But beyond the confines of Instagram, Aiken has built something of a reputation for herself as a fashion director with a keen eye for up-and-coming talent, a skill built up over several years of working with luxury e-tailers like Net-a-Porter and MyTheresa. Now settling in as the women's fashion director at Moda Operandi, Aiken is ready to bring burgeoning designers to a new audience.
"Moda is known as a destination for new, and I feel like that has been such an important element of my career," she says over the phone just ahead of the busy fashion month season. "Being at a business that can really support a new brand from the very outset through that trunk show model was really an opportunity that I couldn't miss."
We're not counting out that chicness, either: Becoming something of a street style star herself has given Aiken an even bigger platform to both reach and champion the talent she believes in. "I see it as an opportunity for me to do my job better," she explains. "First of all, having a profile within the industry gives a designer a place to reach out to; I get a lot of direct messages from new brands that wouldn't have my email but can get in touch with me [on Instagram], so I feel like that's been a really fantastic thing to come out of it."
And to think, it all started with an internship at Matches Fashion. We asked Aiken to fill us in on how she parlayed her second-ever internship into a full-time gig, why she feels its her duty (and ours, too!) to support new designers and what her best advice is for today's aspiring fashion directors. Read on for the highlights.
What first interested you in fashion?
I don't think fashion was ever a choice for me. I remember being a child, drawing dresses that I saw on television — fashion was what I fell in love with very young, and ultimately, when I was making my choices through school, I decided that I really didn't want to do anything else.
I studied fashion marketing at Northumbria University initially, then I had an internship [at Matches Fashion] and I didn't ever go back to school; as part of my year in industry, I was offered a job and decided that was really important to me, because I fell in love with the job and with the company. Then I finished my degree at London College of Fashion.
How did you decide on marketing and buying?
In my career in general, I've always done the thing that I loved, and then the next step has always sort of found me. In terms of marketing and buying, it's one of those things where my career has always sat right in between those two areas, and that is just because the industry evolved so much. I came into the business just as e-commerce was really becoming something people were taking notice of; all of a sudden, rather than having a buying function and then someone doing the visual merchandising in store, we have a buying function and there is a lot of content that then sits on site to tell the product story.
It's evolved over time. I remember being interviewed for a position and they asked me where I wanted to be in five years, and turning around and saying, "Well, I don't know, because this job didn't exist five years ago." The fashion industry and the retail space have changed so much, that you've got to go with it.
What were some of your first steps in the industry?
I did an internship here in New York, and then I went back to London at Matches and I interned there. They were just about to launch their website at the time, so I got really involved in that, and they offered me a role and I took it. I think I joined as a marketing executive — gosh, we're going way back [laughs]! There was no marketing team at the time, it was a really small business, and that really taught me a lot. That's one of the things that I got to be most thankful for: My first entry into the industry was at a small business where you were actually exposed to a lot of different elements. I spent time with the buying team, I spent time with the press team, I spent time with the stores, I went to the digital agency that was building the website. I got a very good handle on a lot of different areas in the industry in one position, which is really rare.
I went off and had a little bit of international experience after that. I went to MyTheresa and headed up the editorial team there, mainly because I wanted international experience. And then, the job at Net-A-Porter — I wasn't really looking for a next step. A friend of mine sent me the job spec and was like, "I think this has got your name on it."
I read it and it was basically my dream job, so I joined Net-A-Porter as a senior market editor. I was there for seven years and moved around [within the company]; I spent so much time with the editorial team, and spent a lot of time with the buying team, and ultimately, really felt like buying was the thing that I loved the most. I had this epiphany that the commercial side was really where I wanted to be. That's when I became retail fashion director.
You've made a reputation for yourself as being someone who can spot and nurture new talent — how do you find those brands and why was that important to you?
I'm extremely passionate about young, emerging talent. I think it's all of our responsibility to nurture them and look after them, and make sure they're making savvy business decisions.
Essentially, it's about meeting with people, and learning about what they're doing and what their vision is, and you find brands from all different sources. There's the traditional sources — receiving a lookbook through post or email. There's a lot of multi-brand showrooms that you really just have to tread the boards on. There's obviously fashion week, which could give a lot of brands a great platform — the younger brands are obviously not quite as exposed in that area, as yet. That's something I want to work on.
Social media has changed the game. I think it's been the most incredible thing that's happened to our industry from a new talent perspective, because essentially, you're able to get a direct relationship with a consumer, with a retailer, with an editor, and I feel like it's unlocked so much opportunity for young brands.
Beyond discovering new talent, how has Instagram changed your job?
It's changed my job quite dramatically; it's putting newness at the forefront. It's made the pace a lot faster. I'm probably like everyone else — even more so — on Instagram; that late night scroll is really addictive. [laughs] I now take [my job] to bed with me, because I sit and look at Instagram. It's really competitive to find these new brands, meet them, really understand what their vision is, and be reactive to what they want to achieve as well. Beyond finding brands and deciding to launch them with Moda, we then have to champion it through social media, and I feel very passionately about that through my personal social media as well as the corporate one.
On that note, you've become an influencer in your own right. How have you integrated that into your career?
In terms of embracing the influencer side, that's a little bit more tricky for me. My full-time job is dedicated to Moda as a retail platform. That sort of thing, I think it just happened to everybody, and there are obviously people that have made a fantastic career out of it. But I believe that type of career, within social media and as an influencer, is also a full-time job, and it's not my full-time job. I've got the upmost respect for anyone that takes that on, because I actually think it's more than a full-time job, it's an entire lifestyle; I've got a lot of friends that do operate in that space and it's really hard [for them].
As someone within the industry, when you're going through fashion month, you can't have that day where you're just like, 'Okay, I don't need to go and get myself ready to have my photograph taken. I can just show up just wearing whatever I want to wear.' It's definitely added a layer of pressure in that sense.
I really love the social side of things, but you get to the end, and your friends are like, "Oh, my goodness you have the most glamorous, amazing life!" And you're like, "I've been on the road for five weeks, and my days are eighteen hours long, and then at the end of eighteen hours, I sit and look through Instagram to find the next hot new brand."
What was appealing to you about Moda Operandi?
What's going on within the business right now is a really fundamental shift that I think is actually going to permeate the industry and change the game. I had a fantastic time at Net-a-Porter, and I just felt very, very excited about the opportunity to do something that sort of broke the boundaries a little bit, and is really pushing the dial; that's really coming from the trunk show model, which has obviously been fundamental to Moda's proposition from the outset.
But when we think about kind of macro consumer trends, a lot of industries are putting power in the consumers' hands. What the trunk show model does is exactly that, and we're essentially saying you can have anything that you are looking for from that runway — you are not at the whim of what a buyer chooses.
What are your goals in your new position?
I'm very keen to continue Moda's existing perspective on newness and push it even further. There are so many brands out there that I believe in, that I'm seeing very early on. I can react to a single image on Instagram. I'm following a brand right now that's posted three shots, and I'm going to see them when we're traveling for pre-fall — just from those three shots, I'm intrigued. Being able to jump on that and push that even further is going to be great. I am looking to really evolve the fashion point of view in terms of embracing different customer aesthetics and putting that trend momentum at the forefront.
We had a customer insights survey, and what came out was that the reason people shop at trunk show is because they love a piece, they love a product. That emotional reason for purchasing, to me, is pretty incredible. It's the purest form of consumption, right? It's not because you need it for an event or you don't want to miss out, it's just purely because you love it. So then when it arrives, it's a delightful moment, because it's the thing you've waiting for because you fell in love with it.
How has the role of a fashion director changed?
I think if you go to any business, the role of a fashion director is completely different. if you go into a department store, a fashion director is completely different to someone in an e-com position, to someone at a boutique, so there's no one set definition of what a "fashion director" is. What I will say is that e-commerce in general has really pushed the need for a fashion director to the forefront, because there is so much more storytelling, and so much more opportunity to talk about key pieces, and trends, and designers that we believe in, and why we love it.
What do you look for in someone who wants to join your team?
Passion. I'll be frank, I don't think anyone can do this job, or any other job in the fashion industry, if you're not passionate about it, because it's a really competitive environment. If you are not passionate and eat, sleep, and breathe what we do, ultimately, there's going to be someone that's going to be more driven and more committed than you are.
I look for someone with a really great taste level, and that can evolve over time, but I think having an eye for what women are going to love is something that is quite innate; it's not about what you love, and I think that's the biggest distinction. It's not about how you dress yourself; it's more seeing an opportunity, and putting yourself in many other women's shoes, thinking about what they would love from a collection. That guiding, innate sense of taste is really really important. And then, a sense of positivity and a collaborative spirit. I love our industry, and I think if you don't love what you're doing when you go to work in the morning, it's a sad situation.
What is something you wish you'd known before starting out?
I wish I knew that it was all going to work out really well. I think the pressure when you first enter this industry is incredible; you've really got to have a thick skin and be very driven, and work incredibly hard. I'm not saying those things don't need to happen, but — certainly for me, and I'm usually pretty hard on myself, I wish I hadn't questioned myself quite so much as I was going through those early years.
What advice would you give someone looking to become a fashion director?
Start off by looking at various different elements of the industry, whether that is on the editorial side, or marketing, or buying, or as a social media editor, whatever it might be. If you look at my peers and other fashion directors out there, they generally come from a [different] area of the industry and through that, grow into this role. There's no set path, and there's not necessarily one version of it. Probably one of the most challenging things that I've seen through my career is that uncertainty; as much as I say the next thing didn't exist, that level of uncertainty can be quite unnerving. It's not like you walk in as an assistant buyer and then you become a junior buyer, and then you're a buyer; there's no sort of career ladder that exists. It's all about blending skills from different areas and putting it together.
What is your ultimate goal for yourself?
I think what we achieve at Moda will be really game changing; being able to establish a platform for new brands — I think there's several organizations that are out there that do that, but I still think there's not enough support out there. I'm hopefully establishing something that can really make a difference, and make sure that the talent that exists out there makes it through.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.