Fashion company leaders are being forced to make tough, smart decisions, and and when it comes to employees, that means prioritizing those best equipped to help save businesses. Following furloughs and layoffs, they’re leaning on pinch-hitters, who can pick up where others have dropped off.
Over the last month, more than a dozen brand founders and CEOs have shared with me their approach to making cuts to their business. On the employee front, they’ve largely said they’re holding on to those who can step into multiple roles. These workers are not only capable, but they’re also ready and willing, whether out of fear for losing their own job or authentic care for the company.
“My team’s never been in more communication and has never worked more tightly,” said Rebecca Minkoff, whose namesake company went through one round of layoffs in March, in step with the falloff of the wholesale business. “Prior to this, there would be the, ‘It’s not my job.’ Or, ‘I don’t know how to do that.’ Or, ‘That’s not within my scope.’ Now it’s like, ‘What can I do?’ And, ‘How can I help?’ You have to keep the business going.”
Ashley Merrill, founder and CEO of luxury sleepwear brand Lunya, said a “good portion” of her staff has been put on unpaid leave, declining to elaborate. “The staff — the lean machine we have — is taking on a lot of the work of their furloughed friends,” she said.
At California-based fashion brand Jenni Kayne, store managers have been furloughed, store associates have been laid off, and the corporate team has been cut from 25 members to 21. “We’ve all had to pivot,” said Julia Hunter, CEO of Jenni Kayne. “We’re fulfilling orders, taking photos versus relying on studio photography. What I’m most grateful for now is the talent on the team. Everyone is doing work 10 levels below where they were before all of this, but they’ve really rallied.”
For many decision-makers, the current circumstances are working to accelerate lingering ambitions to trim the fat.
In January, a brand founder and CEO vented to me on background about her young team: “The coasters are the worst, because they fly under the radar,” she said. “They don’t do anything very wrong, where you have real reason to let them go. So you just let them coast.” In late March, the company laid off a small percentage of its corporate team.
“Coming out of this, a lot of people who suck at their jobs are going to be gone,” said Ana Andjelic, a brand and marketing strategist. “That sounds brutal and horrifying, but a crisis is a great opportunity to get rid of people who were just spinning their wheels.”
Of course, brands best positioned are those that hired well in the first place. Catherine Pike, senior director of retail at activewear brand Vuori, said the brand has remained conservative, in terms of its employee headcount, and thus far has not laid off or furloughed any employees. It’s also been “smart and disciplined” in hiring generalist workers who are game for anything. She said the company loves hiring athletes, based on the mindset that playing a sport requires the type of agility and versatility that’s also beneficial in the workplace.
“It makes a huge difference in people’s resiliency, their perspective, and their abilities to goal-set, be curious about different things and get out of their comfort zone,” she said. “They have a unique ability to live in discomfort for a bit, which is what happens when you have to tackle something you’ve never done before.”
Since March, Vuori has redeployed the 39 workers from its five stores — all temporarily closed — to other areas of the business to gain training or provide support. The hope is that, in spending time in every department, they’ll feel more connected to all pillars of the business. “In the end, we want them to walk into that store like it’s their own; they’re going to speak with confidence, because they’ll better understand the ‘why” behind everything we do.”
The exercise has shown the potential of collaboration between the retail and marketing teams. “It’s so hard to build a connection between those departments, and having people actually straddle those roles is a really innovative and new way of approaching it,” said Pike.
“It should be that, when one part breaks down, other parts can take over,” added Andjelic. “Companies need more networks; their [employees] need to be more connected and work with everyone else. They should also have one budget, so everyone is forced to collaborate toward the common goal. With that type of focus, you’ll have better resources. Someone on the merchandising team who knows wholesale and distribution can help the company better understand the direct-to-consumer channel.”
And it will be easier to pinpoint who those power players are, before a crisis.
“Right now, the question is: ‘Who do you fire?’” said Andjelic. “And you can’t make a stupid decision, because it’s a matter of survival.”