It's been two years since the Covid-19 pandemic set off a chain of events that would change the fashion industry forever — or, perhaps more accurately, would speed up changes that were already underway. One byproduct of this is a job market that looks pretty different today than it did in 2019.
As technology revolutionizes the way we shop and consume information, some of the fastest-growing fashion companies are starting to look and act more like tech companies. In a June 2021 report by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Euromonitor, about 58 percent of retail professionals said the pandemic accelerated new technology-related product launches at their company. Innovation is happening faster than ever, brands are investing more in their digital presence, and a lot of money is still being poured into fashion-tech startups, creating an abundance of new job opportunities — they're just not necessarily the kinds of opportunities that have traditionally been associated with fashion.
Historically, fashion industry jobs didn't change much: If you wanted a career in the field, you probably wanted to be some version of a designer, an editor, a buyer, a publicist, a photographer or a stylist, and there were pretty clear pathways to get there. There will always be some need for those roles, but the door is also wide open to join a cool fashion company on the tech side — and that trend shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, there's so much demand that employers are competing for employees, which is leading to higher salaries, more flexible working conditions and better benefits in an industry that's notorious for, well, not having those things.
"Careers in fashion are changing as the landscape changes," says Robin Sackin, chairperson of the Fashion Business Management department at FIT. "Students — as future employees — will need to have an understanding of new technologies and how they can help develop and advance their careers."
So, how do you get started? What educational background and skills do you need to be prepared? What even are these roles? How do you find them? In addition to Sackin, we spoke to a recruiter and CEOs at rapidly growing fashion-tech companies to answer those questions and more. Read on for our guide to pursuing a career in fashion tech.
What kinds of roles are there?
E-commerce jobs are in higher demand than ever, due in part to the pandemic. "Clients who relied heavily on wholesale prior to the pandemic, all of them had serious issues because [physical] stores were hit so hard," says Audrey Shaeps, founder of Los Angeles-based fashion recruiting agency The Workshop LA. "In order to be competitive with anything going on in this business right now, your brand has to be digital."
She's found that, as brands focus more on selling directly to consumers online, e-commerce jobs have become more segmented: Brands are hiring for separate roles in CRM (customer relationship management, i.e. customer service), fulfillment, growth marketing, email marketing, SMS marketing, digital graphic design, production and photography. In the past, these responsibilities might have all gone to an e-commerce manager or been outsourced or freelanced out, but brands increasingly want full-time, in-house talent in these areas.
Demand for social media-related roles is still growing as well, especially at brands targeting younger customers, for whom social media might generate much, if not most of their e-commerce revenue.
"Probably every single one of my clients has asked me for a social media manager, a social media director, someone who can help with social media strategy," says Shaeps, adding that employers are especially eager to find those with expertise in TikTok: "That's creating a lot of new jobs specifically for that Gen-Z market, where they're the ones teaching us."
Other sought-after, entry-level roles include e-commerce assistant, social media assistant, influencer assistant, graphic design assistant and assistant studio coordinator. There are also jobs specific to certain types of fashion-tech companies — resale sites need people to help with procurement, pricing and authentication (even as much of that process becomes automated); personal styling services need stylists and shoppers.
Among fashion businesses of all kinds, there's also growing demand for truly technical roles, like data scientists, coders, engineers, UX (user experience) designers, 3-D and AI designers and digital product/project managers who can actually build technology and use it to solve problems. That's not to mention the higher-ups who strategize and manage them, including chief innovation officers, chief technology officers, digital knowledge managers and the like.
How do you find them?
They're on job-listing sites, LinkedIn and even right here on Fashionista, but companies also often hunt for the right talent through their networks: the VCs who helped them raise money, existing employees who might refer people from their schools or previous jobs, accelerators and incubators, events. For more technical roles like engineers, they'll hire recruiters who specialize in that area.
Execs also told us they're more likely to consider someone who reached out directly to express interest in the company, even if that person wasn't applying for a specific position. So, aside from looking at job listings, read articles (here, Business of Fashion, Fashion United and Vogue Business are places to start) about up-and-coming startups, acquisitions and funding announcements. If a company just raised a lot of money, chances are it's about to start hiring people.
Julie Bornstein, CEO and founder of AI shopping platform The Yes, tells me, "I would encourage anyone who's interested in this space to find a startup that appeals to them and be proactive and reach out, because it goes a long way."
What skills/education do you need (and not need)?
For highly technical roles like engineers, data scientists and designers, employers do tend to look for degrees in computer science and applied math, or at least completion of some sort of coding program. Interest in fashion isn't a priority, in part because it isn't very common. "The overlap between interest in fashion and the engineering profession is very low, as you could imagine," says Bornstein.
Outside of that, your educational background and skillset might not be as important, at least for now. College degrees are usually expected for salaried roles, but majors and grades tend not to matter.
With e-commerce jobs, it can help to be proficient in commonly used software and platforms like Shopify, Returnly, Zendesk, NuOrder and Joor. (Shaeps says clients often look for this on resumés.) But overall, execs stressed that things can be taught on the job, and they're ultimately looking for people who are right for the company, confirming that even as the fashion and tech fields overlap, there continues to be a need for the creative and fashion-obsessed folks the industry has always embraced.
"At the end of the day, these fashion brands need creative thinkers, and the tech aspect, that's something that really can be learned," says Shaeps.
Bornstein and her team use a set of company values to determine whether someone's a fit for The Yes, including critical thinking, helpfulness, an "ownership mindset" and speed. Even with technical roles like engineers, she's not as focused on expertise in a specific area, especially at the startup stage.
"I'm a big believer of hiring just really smart generalists," she says. "[We're] more interested in good problem solvers, rather than people who had built certain technology, because the technology is changing all the time."
For Amira Rasool, founder of The Folklore, a luxury e-tailer for African designers, interest in fashion is a priority, as is diversity. She'll proactively search for candidates on LinkedIn by entering names of HBCUs alongside relevant job titles and companies.
"I get a lot of people from all different types of races, which is great, but I want to make sure we have a good number of Black people to consider," she says.
Many companies also have internship and entry-level roles that require little if any relevant experience or skills. "If you're a college grad and you want to go join a startup, you're very smart to be willing to start as an intern," says Bornstein.
Starting at the bottom can be a great learning experience in itself, and startups often promote from within. Luxury resale site Fashionphile puts new employees through "Fashionphile University," which trains them for jobs in procuring, receiving and authenticating consignments in the hopes that they will stay and grow their careers at the company.
"Our most senior role in procurement was an animal trainer in Hollywood before," says founder and CEO Sarah Davis. "We've got members of the department who have come from the brands that we sell or who have degrees from FIDM or wherever, and that's awesome. It's just not necessary for success in our business." (She looks more for people who seem like "little detectives," with attention to detail and strong work ethic.)
Some larger, more established retailers are educating and promoting from within as well. To deepen its commitment to AI and solve for the lack of talent interested in both fashion and engineering, Levi's launched a recurring eight-week training bootcamp last year to turn existing employees without any computer-science experience into coders and data scientists.
Are fashion schools teaching this stuff?
As the career landscape shifts, schools are working to better prepare students for fashion's increasingly tech-y future. Changes are already being seen, but schools can't always keep up with the rapid pace of the industry on things like technology, equipment and new ways of working.
"Not that long ago, companies wanted students who excel at math, merchandising, buying, product development and planning. But now, companies are also looking for students who want careers in virtual customer experiences, sustainability and data analytics, just to name a few," says FIT's Sackin. The fashion trade school's Jay and Patty Baker School of Business and Technology is currently working with New York's School of Art and Design and the School of Liberal Arts to develop and re-engineer courses: "The goal is to allow for more flexible learning while giving students more choices in new areas of the fashion industry."
She brings up a course in predictive analytics, which incorporates how weather will impact buyers' retail decisions, and "The Business of Virtual Merchandising," a course created in partnership with ByondXR, a virtual showroom platform. "FIT continues to invest in updating the technology that is being used for teaching and learning," she says.
Other top schools are doing the same, to varying degrees: IFA Paris now offers an MBA in fashion tech and courses covering data science and analysis; Parsons is teaching 3D-design tools; and Ravensbourne University launched a course on digital technology for fashion that encompasses digital avatars, virtual garment design and virtual reality.
How do you stand out as an applicant?
We already covered some of the qualities and qualifications fashion-tech employers tend to look for in prospective employees, but how else can you stand out or have an edge over other applicants? One advantage hasn't changed since the analog days of fashion: experience. If you've worked at a similar — or better yet, higher-profile — fashion or tech company, even in a low-level role, you're in a pretty good spot.
"If I see someone who's had a summer internship at another fashion company or another startup or anything, they're just automatically more qualified," says Bornstein.
"Get in the door of brands that you admire, because there's something to be said when we get a resumé in and someone is experienced and they were at Warby Parker for two-and-a-half years," says Davis. "That name on the resume alone is going to get people interested in talking to you."
"They all pull from their competitors," says Shaeps.
That said, there are also ways to compensate for a lack of professional experience in this relatively new, Covid-disrupted landscape.
"I think companies now more than ever, because of the limited amount of jobs over the past few years, are open to candidates with less experience if they can show that they have talent," says Shaeps. If you have a large, active personal social media following or have gone viral on TikTok, you shouldn't have a hard time nabbing a social media marketing position. You could also take the time to create something visual that illustrates your creativity and skill.
"Do a mock project for someone that you're applying for and send it to them with your application," Shaeps says. "Go the extra mile. Create a website."
At startups especially, many employers just want to see commitment, genuine interest in and knowledge of the company and the space it occupies. Show that you've spent time on their site; ask specific questions; share insights you've had, even if they're not based on professional expertise — random thoughts that popped into your head while online shopping or reading an article might impress an interviewer.
Rasool looks for interest in The Folklore's mission to celebrate African design and create economic opportunity on the continent. "I always ask [applicants], 'What attracts you to this position?'" she says. "If I don't hear that they're passionate about our mission, there's no reason that they're going to want to stay because this is not going to be the job that pays them the most. It's not going to be the job where they work the least amount of hours."
If you just want a job, you might not need to try that hard though, TBH
Of course, in the era of the "great resignation," employers can't always be picky. With some roles, there's enough demand that applicants have the upper hand and employers end up competing with each other to appeal to them. One reason tech companies have been so successful in poaching from fashion ones (and it rarely happens the other way around), for instance, is that they have more money to offer. This will only continue as tech giants like Meta, Amazon and (weirdly) Netflix try to get more involved in fashion, unless fashion can compete — and it is starting to try.
Shaeps says salaries for sought-after roles in e-commerce, social media, influencer management and digital graphic design have been driven up significantly: "I've never seen that before; for the most part, fashion isn't the highest-paying industry, so it took something like Covid, or such an incredible demand, to really bring up the rates."
In addition to salaries, employees also have more leeway to negotiate on things like benefits, hours, PTO and working remotely, and turn down offers that don't appeal to them. So if you're desperate to keep working from home indefinitely, that option is absolutely on the table.
"The reality is that there's no brand that can require people to work in the office right now," says Davis. "There's too many options for people."