FSF Scholar Genevieve Cenower: “SOVL” @ Bryant Park Holiday Market

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By Genevieve Cenower

The full scope of the fashion industry is arguably much larger and varied than it ever has been in the past, and that’s probably what makes it so scary, intimidating, and ultimately exhilarating when you’re trying to get into it. On the design end of the spectrum, any designer in my generation probably knows that there are easily a thousand people just like him or her, struggling to showcase talents and unique aesthetic offerings through a wide array of social networking platforms, fashion networking events, older media (e.g. print magazines), and to establish a sellable brand name or label.  On the business end of the spectrum, entering into the industry is equally daunting for those in my age bracket, though there are admittedly nuances: depending on what field you plan to enter in the business, you’re likely to face different challenges.

With that said, however, I’ve now learned that the challenge of entering into the business side of the fashion isn’t the scariest aspect about working in it; the reality is actually that the scariest part of entering into the field isn’t found in the process of securing a summer internship or beginning your first real job search as it is to transition from a student desiring to learn and gain experience to a full-time employee who is actually responsible in any part for the success—or failure—of a company through the decisions you make. I know I can’t say this with complete certainty, but I’d posit that, generally speaking, we all as FSF alumni initially approach the notion of entering into the fashion industry with an anticipation of what we can do. We have ideas, we have dreams, we have goals about what we can—but have not yet been able to—do once we graduate and enter “the real world.” After being and working in that “real world,” though, I’ve begun to see that the mindset we have as students isn’t quite the full picture: the way you think as someone truly contributing to a business is the hardest, scariest, and ultimately most rewarding part of entering into the fashion industry.

Shortly after receiving my own FSF award for creating a new private label concept and detailing a business plan for its execution, marketing, and sales, I began the process of searching for an internship that would help me get a greater understanding of how a retail business within the fashion industry operates. This summer, I worked at Beyond the Rack, and I learned quite a bit about buying, off-price retailing, and the e-commerce sector (among other facets), and I walked away believing that I had a further developed platform upon which I could launch a buying career. This September, however, I realized that I was only partially right: through perhaps a stroke of luck in personal connections and a “right place, right time” phenomenon, I found myself talking with the owner of a company that specialized in business development – particularly with fashion labels – over a new store concept called “SOVL” (pronounced “soul”) he was planning on debuting in the upcoming 2011 Bryant Park Holiday Market. The mission of the concept—reflected in its acronymic name “Sustainable, Organic, Vegan Lifestyle”—was supposed to parallel the rising “eco-friendly” trend in the overall commerce sector through offering consumers ways to buy environmentally-conscious items that cohered with a range of lifestyles.

What ultimately sold me on working with SOVL came up in a later discussion: I was told that, if the store succeeded in its Bryant Park testing, there would be room to create a fashion label that mirrored the same values. It was the prospect of contributing or perhaps potentially overseeing such a new endeavor that I knew I couldn’t pass up: I believed in the mission statement from a marketing perspective, and I knew it had a lot of potential, but I believed even more in the fact that people would want to buy ‘real’ fashion from a label that was—in a discreet, more subtle way—entirely eco-friendly.  Volunteering to jump on board and help start with the company’s first foray into the retail sphere, I started on the path to learn what it was like to operate as an actual buyer, merchandiser, and business developer.

Since my decision to work with SOVL, I’ve learned a lot about what it’s like to be an employee in both the fashion industry and the retail sphere. For starters, I’ve learned that you have to truly believe in the products you plan on selling if you expect to make any money — you can’t just go through a wholesale catalog and say, “oh, I think people would probably buy this – let’s make an order for it” because, at the end of the day, you’re the one spending money that you could potentially not see back. The thought process that occurs when you, by your own decision, place a thousand-odd-dollar order for a set of bags made from recycled bicycle tires; a bunch of watches made from recycled rubber; or half a store’s worth of bracelets, cuffs, necklaces, and earrings made from recycled records, is one distinctly marked by some sort of giddy apprehension. If you’re buying it to sell it because you really believe in it, you can’t wait to see how it sells, you can’t wait to sell it, and you can’t wait to walk away at the end of the day with the satisfaction of seeing your decisions result in the fruition of profits and a business at large. When you’re buying it, though, you can’t help but wonder sometimes “what if I’m wrong?” The answer is so obvious that it’s painful: if you’re wrong, you’re losing someone else’s money and failing the person who took a chance on you to make the right decisions.

With that said, working at SOVL has been great. Not only do I really believe in the store’s concept, I enjoy working there because I’ve contributed part of myself to the whole operation: I helped design the actual store, down to the paint colors, wall displays, and merchandise placement; I spent hours trying to program the register with all the items and prices; I’ve talked to customers and helped them make purchase decisions; I’ve observed quietly and listened to customers talk about the products to get feedback about what’s liked and what isn’t. In some ways, being an assistant buyer with this kind of up-close-and-personal approach has been a lot more rewarding than my past experiences with working in an office – I’ve been able to really see the entirety of the process, of which buying is only one part, and I’ve been able to see what I’ve really doing, from start to finish, in the grand scheme of things. Since the store’s opened, we’ve had CBS News and a few bloggers filter in and show to their respective networks what we’re doing. It’s an incredible affirmation to see that what this one store is doing is generating a greater consumer interest in the company’s mission, and it’s a great feeling to know that I’ve been a part of it.

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