Recently, California State University, Northridge hosted “Inside the Fashion Industry,” a panel discussion featuring experts from different parts of the fashion world. One of those panelists, Richard Cheng ’03 (Computer Science), ’06 (MBA), spoke with us before the event, offering helpful tips for people who are curious about careers in the fashion industry.
Cheng, a merchandise planner for apparel company True Religion, has a decade of fashion industry experience under his belt. His diverse corporate merchandising background encompasses all product categories for brick-and-mortar retailers, wholesalers, manufacturers and e-commerce. He also has served as an adjunct professor for apparel merchandising and consumer affairs courses at CSUN.
CSUN: What was your first job out of college?
RC: I actually went straight from college to grad school, so I did my master’s in computer science here at Cal State Northridge, and I went straight from that to my MBA [Masters in Business Administration]. After I got my MBA, I started at the Topanga Nordstrom as design handbag specialist. So basically, over one holiday season in November, my wife and I were walking through the mall; I was looking for a job at the time and she said, “Hey, why don’t you ask if they are hiring anyone seasonally?”
Honestly, that wasn’t a place I expected to actually go look for a job … At that time, I didn’t know I would enjoy fashion as much. Growing up, I always enjoyed art and art history. So I thought, “OK, I could just give it a try.” Sure enough, I got the job, and that’s when I got the bug in terms of interest in fashion.
CSUN: Could you explain your job as merchandise planner?
RC: We have a lot of different cross-functional teams that we work with, but merchandise planning is basically working with the buyers who will actually select the different styles that the design team has come up with. The planners will make recommendations in terms of how well that style, or that color, or that body has done for us in the past — and whether or not we should make that purchase.
All styles are not the same. So, some styles [buyers] probably really believe in, and they might buy a little bit more, buy a little deeper. Some styles they might not. They might be a little iffy about them if it’s something new that they’re trying. So, maybe they make a smaller-quantity buy, and they make it available only at our flagship stores. Basically, we’re the ones who make those recommendations. We’re the ones who hold the checkbook, and we’re the ones who actually tell them “you can buy this” or “you cannot buy that.”
CSUN: You have to have a lot of foresight in your job. How do you anticipate the trends in the future?
RC: It’s a combination of things: One, you always look at last year’s trend and the year before because, for example, every season we have new fashion styles that we might take a risk on. We know who our core customers are, and we know what they like. We can tell whether a certain color worked well for us.
We’re constantly surveying the market and seeing what our competitors may be doing. So, for True Religion, we might look at what Joe’s is doing this season or last season. We might look at Seven [For All Mankind] or AG, just to see what companies out there are doing, and what we like and don’t like. We may have a slightly different customer base.
CSUN: There is a saying, “It’s not what you know, but whom you know.” In the fashion industry, how much does individual advancement and success depend on what you know, and how much depends on whom you know?
AG: Well, you have to know your stuff first. Fashion is a big industry, but in many ways it’s a very small community as well.
I worked with my current manager at Guess. Now I’m at True Religion and a few months after I made the move, she joined the company as well. When I was at Guess, I had two co-workers there who I worked with at BCBG, so people do move around quite a bit.
Obviously, everyone is looking for jobs here in LA, so you know you have to know your stuff first, but you also have to develop really good personal relationships with everyone.
You have to always be professional. You have to develop good relationships because you just don’t know who might walk in for an interview and actually get the job. It may just be your enemy from three or four years ago, and you might have to work with the same person you didn’t like before. You have to know your business, and that’s really the best way to grow and thrive in this industry.
CSUN: What was the biggest reality check you got early in your career?
RC: I learned early on that it’s a business. I know a lot of people who want to get in the fashion industry because they think it’s glamorous. They think it’s fun and creative. And it is. We all like the creativity. That’s why we’re in this industry. At the end of the day, though, it is a business. If you’re on the payroll of a Fortune 500 company, you have to contribute. You have to have something that sets you apart from other people. If you aren’t helping the company make money, then you aren’t going to have your job much longer.
CSUN: What are the most rewarding parts of being a merchandise planner and working in the fashion industry?
RC: The most rewarding thing is the access to the entire center of creativity. Years ago when I started out at Nordstrom on the retail side, [I wondered]: Why do they make these decisions? Why did they give us these handbags to sell? And who’s ever going to buy this? I always wanted to work on the corporate side, and I feel that after I did, I started to appreciate why they make certain decisions.
I’m not saying people at the corporate office make all the right decisions, but a lot of times, they have their intentions and people at the store level just don’t understand that.
That was a good thing for me to realize and maybe appreciate — before any piece of garment [goes for sale] at the mall, it goes through so many hands, so many inspections, so many stages of design. Everything you buy goes through so many pairs of hands to get to the final consumer. It really is an amazing process.
CSUN: Can you set a level of expectation for a student or recent alum who wants to get into the fashion industry?
RC: Try to connect with the alumni who are in the industry. Whether it is fashion, athletics, entertainment or anything else. That is really your best resource, because if those of us who are working in this industry ever have the opportunity to help someone who’s going through the same process from the same school, we’re always more willing to help them than any other random people who might approach us.
There are a lot of successful Matadors out there in LA who are in the fashion industry, and I highly encourage people to look them up on LinkedIn, start a dialogue and talk to multiple people, because my experience may be very different from someone else’s experience.
I would encourage them to talk to as many people as they can and do their research, because if you actually want to be in this industry, you have to know what career path you should follow. A lot of people don’t even know.