Luxury Fashion & Brand Consultant
After an impressive career in fashion buying, which included helping found Avenue32, Erin Mullaney knows more than most when it comes to building brand identity. Now working as a consultant and advisor, she explains what it is that makes a modern brand stand out – and how she has got to where she is today…
What did you want to do when you were growing up? Were you always interested in clothes?
Yes! Even as a young teenager living in a remote town in Virginia I subscribed to Vogue and would cut out Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein ads to make collages from them on my bedroom walls: I was obsessed with luxury brands and the lifestyle they represented.
I got into the business side of things mainly because of my father; he is a self-made businessman, and was a Global Managing Partner at Accenture for almost 40 years. I always wanted to open my own store and he used to say, ‘go out and get some experience and then maybe I will back you’, which was the incentive I needed to go out and get my first buying job.
What was your first ever job in the industry?
After college, I did almost 4 years with Accenture in their strategy division, and then I left to join a very small start up called Hollywould Shoes in New York, which was founded by my good friend Holly Dunlap. Aged 25, I came on board as the Director of Sales, PR and Marketing and I thought I had finally made it. We had the best time and she was a real mentor to me: I will never forget when she made me cold call Anna Wintour on my very first day in the office.
Over four years, and with a team of five women, we built the brand to over $2.5 million in wholesale and opened three stores. It was inspiring to work with so many passionate and talented young people.
So when did you realise you wanted to move into buying?
At Hollywould, I always loved meeting with my buyers and hearing about their travels and the new brands they were picking up so, when I left there, I rang my friend at Kurt Geiger and she somehow managed to get me an interview with Averyl Oates, who was the Buying Director of Harrods at the time. It was all down to timing, or luck, because Mr Al Fayed himself walked into my interview, offered me a job on the spot and I started the following day!
I never looked back: buying was the perfect combination of my business skills and my passion for product and I think that, when you love what you do as much as I do, it is easier to thrive and develop.
And then how did you end up at Avenue32?
In 2011 I had just left Browns and started consulting – then, within a few weeks, a friend of mine introduced me to Roberta and Juri, the two founders of Avenue32. They had a great idea, which was to launch a platform for emerging designers that shared profit with them, and helped support them with everything from sales to press to ecommerce. At that time, if you weren’t stocked by one of the big online stores, then it was very hard to get your product to market – and, for a lot of young brands, Avenue32 solved that problem.
I consulted for them for the first year and we recruited about 50 designers on a consignment basis for the launch, which was a huge achievement. Many of the designers were big in their home country – like Ellery and Thakoon – but didn’t have a big presence either online or in Europe. We also picked up a few new things, like Kiini bikinis and Shrimps faux fur coats, which ended up being huge successes and helped us to become the cool new online platform for both emerging and established brands. I loved the project so much that I ended up staying full time for almost four years!
And then, how did you end up working as a consultant?
Although buying has always been my passion, the lifestyle is non-stop and, over time, it can take a toll on you. So I made a life decision to move from being a multi-brand buyer to becoming a product merchandiser and brand advisor, which feels like a natural step for me as I have been working with and advising designers for the last 15 years.
So now I am working with medium and large brands on developing their product range for a global audience. I advise on everything from product development to range planning to pricing to distribution strategy and branding.
How has the industry changed since you’ve been a part of it?
Buying has changed a lot since I started my career, mainly because of ecommerce. We used to buy whole collections and made sure that the buy sat beautifully on a rail or two in a retail store.
Now, you buy pieces that will catch the consumer’s eye online. That can be good and bad: for young designers, it gives them the opportunity to stand out with one amazing product or category like cotton shirts, or faux fur coats. But for the bigger designers it can be frustrating as buyers often only come to them for what they do best, and the only place that they can showcase their entire collection is in their own stores or on their own website.
It can be hard for designers to be at the mercy of wholesale buyers, which is why I think a big shift is happening and new brands are launching solely with direct to consumer business models that cut out the wholesalers.
What makes a fashion brand stand out to you?
I always say to the brands I consult for, you only have one chance to make an impression on a buyer, and usually that means having a strong lookbook. That, along with a strong social media presence, are both absolutely key to getting a good stockist to notice your brand.
Apart from that, I think it's important to do one thing and do it well: don't compromise, have your own identity and stick to it. Try not to follow trends too closely: be original and create things that you believe in. People will buy into a new brand if it's authentic because fashion is emotional, and you need to give customers a reason to desire the product you are creating.
Are there any brands you admire for their approach to digital strategy?
I think that some of the big brands, like Gucci, Burberry and Coach, are the obvious ones dominating the social media feeds, and with the largest digital marketing budgets.
Burberry understands that their consumer wants to buy into the Burberry 'lifestyle' so regularly uses backstage and behind-the-scenes content on their Snapchat and Instagram to give customers insight into their world. Coach has tapped into a younger audience by investing heavily in their influencer programme.
Gucci's recent collaboration with Farfetch was quite innovative: they offered customers a 90-minute delivery window on a small capsule collection in ten major cities around the world. I think that is what it's all about: making things easy for the customer.
What do you think is of paramount importance to communicating luxury in the digital age?
I think that luxury is all about customer service and putting the customer first. You have to be omni-channel and make sure your products are available in the right place at the right time for your clients. You must be relevant and participate in the social conversation in an authentic way.
The power has shifted and is now firmly in the hands of the consumers, who are more savvy than ever, so it's important to know your customer and use the data you have about them to improve your service and create products that are right for them.
If you could give someone looking to get into the industry one piece of advice, what would it be?
Don't give up! The fashion industry is changing so quickly and there is so much room for young talent, fresh blood and new ideas – that is what we thrive on.
If you are struggling to get your foot in the door, offer to do work experience for a smaller brand where you can see all the different elements of how that brand is run so that you can work out where you belong in the grand scheme of things.
We are all on a journey, and a job that you aren’t sure about could always lead to another opportunity. I never wanted to be a buyer when I was younger; it just sort of happened. If you work hard and are persistent and enthusiastic you will eventually succeed!