The President and CEO of Diane Von Furstenberg on Building a Career in Fashion

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As a new graduate of art history and Japanese from Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, Gabby Hirata landed her first role in fashion by sneaking into the Ralph Lauren offices in New York to drop off a resume.

“When I look back, I cannot believe how crazy and how desperate I was. I just followed [someone] to the third floor — that was the Ralph Lauren floor,” Hirata told BoF in a Live event hosted on LinkedIn last week.

Despite security escorting her off the premises, Hirata was offered a role in the supply chain and production department at Ralph Lauren, where she worked for over 5 years, in the New York and Hong Kong offices, and assisted in the launch of Polo for Women. From there, Hirata took on senior management roles in production at New York-based Japanese luxury brand Adeam before joining Jill Stuart in 2019 as chief strategy officer.

In early 2020, as the Coronavirus pandemic was spreading across the globe, Hirata joined Diane Von Furstenberg as head of the APAC business before she was appointed president and CEO a year later — at the age of 31. Indeed, PwC’s “Unravelling the Fabric Ceiling” report in 2019 found that just 12.5 percent of clothing companies in the Fortune 1000 have female CEOs, while a Harvard study reported this year, the average age for a sitting CEO today is 58.

Now, BoF Careers consolidates Hirata’s advice from the LinkedIn Live event on building a career in fashion.

How did you land your first job in fashion?

Through the freight elevator in the landmark building in the garment district, I saw [offices for] Oscar de la Renta, Ralph Lauren and Gucci, but I couldn’t get in. I followed [someone] to the third floor — and that was the Ralph Lauren floor. I started talking to people and they [were] friendly and even took my resume.

Within two minutes, a security guard came up and said to me, “you’re trespassing,” and I was escorted off the building. […] I remembered [thinking], “One day, if I make it, I can tell this story.” Eventually, I went back to the same building and the same security [man] was still there. Whenever I see him, he’s a reminder for me that I still need to treat everyday as if it was that day.

How did you ensure you stood out?

If people tell you, “don’t go in the elevator” with the founders or CEOs [of your company], I’m going to give you the opposite advice — go in the elevator. No one is going to stop you. Any exposure to your founders and CEOs is a good one, and if you can, talk a bit about yourself: your name, who you are, and what you have that no-one else has.

Any exposure to your founders and CEOs is a good one, and talk a bit about yourself: your name, who you are, and what you have that no-one else has.

When I was in the elevator with Ralph Lauren, I just said “Mr. Lauren, I’m your only mainland Chinese employee out of your New York City headquarters. I love the brand and I think one day, I will be able to bring Ralph Lauren to greater success financially and from a brand awareness perspective in China, because I know the people there.” It just came out and that’s when he gave me […] a three-month work placement in the newly acquired Ralph Lauren Hong Kong headquarters.

How did a supply chain and production background lay the foundations for your career?

Production is interesting because, for the longest time, I did not appreciate a supply chain background. I looked around me and the CEOs of the other fashion companies [tended] to start in merchandising, or marketing, or design. I don’t think many started with supply chain because it is back of the house — you support, you don’t speak up.

So, I remember feeling that was not enough for me and I wanted to make a difference and get to the top. But my manager told me, “After you learn every aspect of production and making the garments, you can go anywhere because you have that product knowledge, that attention to detail, that math understanding, from wholesale price to retail margins. You know how to negotiate, how to find the middle ground.” She was right and I’m grateful for those humble production beginnings.

What core skills did you accumulate to receive a promotion?

I think for a lot of beginners, you don’t really know “this is the skill I need to have.” You go through everyday and you see what connects. For me, it was the ability to somehow convince people to come together. My manager [once] called me to rally the team, and I realised I enjoyed doing that. I love finding agreement.

Rallying a team is definitely key [to receiving a promotion]. As a leader, when you think about motion decisions, you want to go to someone who knows how to mobilise multiple people.

Another important skill set is to be able to quantify what you have achieved — to be able to elaborate with the data [and] facts.

Another important skill set is to be able to quantify what you have achieved — to be able to elaborate with the data [and] facts. Record clearly, with all the data in support of what you have achieved [and] quantified. Start the sentence with that number: “reduced”, “increased”, whatever that action word is.

What advice can you share for those entering or progressing through the industry?

One thing Diane [Von Furstenberg] taught me is that sometimes you need to follow your gut. There’s nothing you should be afraid of. Don’t wait for your turn to speak up — raise your hand in big meetings. I remember feeling nervous, but I wanted to speak up because I thought there’s a moment to shine.

Your managers will appreciate and embrace that because we live in a time where literally no one knows the future. Whatever I know, whatever any senior people know, five years ago, does not apply right now. So this is your moment, for the younger generation to shine.

What do you believe is essential to success in your field?

Know who you want to be. It sounds so easy — of course, you know who you are. Except, I would challenge you by saying that a lot of people don’t really spend enough time thinking [about] who they are or who they want to be.

I had a clear idea of what type of person I wanted to be. You don’t have to work on [your] individuality because if you are truly clear and passionate on who you are, who you wan’t to be […] you can’t hold back. I genuinely believe in that, and that gets noticed — that’s [what] got [me] noticed by Diane.

I’m on my journey to becoming the woman I want to be right now. Everyday, I’m getting the tools and support and the challenge to become that woman. That is how I stay motivated.

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