Interview with Joan Bergholt, Fashion Merchandiser

Professional & Academic Perspectives of Fashion Merchandising

Joan Bergholt is Director of Fashion Merchandising at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Ms. Bergholt's career spans 25 years of upscale fashion retailing, encompassing brick and mortar, international, catalog and e-commerce. She spent much of her career at I. Magnin, where she held numerous executive positions in buying and management, culminating in the position of Senior Vice President, General Merchandise Manager over several apparel and accessory divisions.

Ms. Bergholt's experience also includes merchandising and management experience with DFS Limited, Burberry, and Styleclick, Inc., a USA Networks Information and Services Company, where she most recently held responsibility for the e-commerce merchandising initiatives for multiple websites.

Ms. Berghold & Her Career   |   The Actual Work   |   Education Information & Advice   |   Job Information & Advice   |   Closing Remarks


Ms. Berghold & Her Career

How did your career unfold? How did you break into your field and how did you advance to where you are today?

After college, I spent the first few years working as an editor for a publishing company, but I quickly realized that my first love was fashion retailing. I targeted I. Magnin as the company for which I most wanted to work and was given the opportunity to join their executive training program. From the minute I started at I. Magnin, I knew I had found a company I would love.

Over the following years, I had the opportunity to merchandise virtually every division in the company, which enabled me to move into different categories of merchandise following the closure of I. Magnin in 1995. Fortunately, I was always supported and promoted as new positions opened up.

What do you enjoy most about your job, your career?

The fact that the business is constantly changing, creating new challenges and opportunities, is the wonderful thing about fashion retailing. There are never two days or months or years like any other.

You are now working as an instructor at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. How is the transition from the private sector to the academic working out for you? What are the biggest differences?

I joined the Academy of Art University in July 2001 as Director of Merchandising in the Fashion Department, and I must say that I am really enjoying the contact with students. One of my favorite parts of retailing is training buyers and merchandise managers, and this allows me to spend full time doing exactly that! I do miss the traveling and the market contact; I happen to love planes and hotels, and that's essential if a person is to enjoy a career in fashion merchandising.

What was your greatest success and biggest setback?

It's hard to focus on one element in a whole career, but I would say that I was most proud of the outstanding fashion accessory and jewelry department that we put together in the late 1980's at I. Magnin. It was a wonderful time in retail, and I had always felt that being the merchandise manager for women's accessories and jewelry was the very best job in the store. I had a wonderful group of buyers, and we went all over the world looking for the most special items for our stores.

Biggest setback, hands down, was the closing of the I. Magnin company in January 1995. There really is no store today that approximates it, and the closure was a true loss to many communities.

What are some of your favorite projects that you've completed in your career and why?

One of the most important things about fashion merchandising is that you have bottom-line responsibility for projects or departments at all levels of your career. Over the years I have built new businesses, opened new stores, launched new lines, and even launched and managed web sites. Success at any point creates a great sense of accomplishment in retailing because you can actually see the results of your efforts.


The Actual Work

Describe a typical day of work for a fashion merchandiser.

As I mentioned earlier, one of my favorite things about a career in fashion merchandising is that there really are no two days that are alike. However, every day does involve working with multiple time frames. The day normally starts with an evaluation of the sales from the previous day (or week or month), followed by planning and decision-making for future sales. This could involve planning future merchandise purchases, planning marketing events, etc. This future planning is always done in conjunction with an evaluation of past performance, so your mind is always in the past, the present, and the future.

Are there any common myths about fashion merchandisers which you can dispel for us?

One common myth is that merchandising is really just like shopping, that is, looking at lots of merchandise and picking what you like. In fact, the fashion merchandiser has to strategize and execute a complex business plan targeted to a specific customer. Success in fashion merchandising comes from an ability to forecast trends and then translate them into a profitable business plan for a specific company.


Education Information & Advice

If someone has the talent already, should they go to school for fashion and why?

It is very important to develop creative talent through disciplined study to direct that talent into a successful career.

How does a prospective art/design student assess his/her skill and aptitude for fashion merchandising?

Fashion merchandising is all about the business side of fashion and offers great opportunities for students who love fashion and want to make a career of buying, product development, management, or fashion marketing.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school? Are there different considerations for those who know that they want to specialize in fashion?

Students should look closely at the qualifications of the faculty, the specific fashion curriculum, the facilities available, and the reputation of the program within the fashion industry.


Job Information & Advice

What kinds of jobs are available for graduating students who specialize in fashion? What are all the specialties of your program?

There are many, many jobs available in fashion design, textile design, knitwear, and fashion merchandising within both the wholesale and the retail fashion industries. One very real advantage to a career in fashion is that the job opportunities are truly worldwide in all the areas, including design, product development, buying, marketing, and management.

How often do people work in both fashion design and fashion merchandising? How important is it to have experience in both?

It is extremely important for design students to understand the merchandising process and for merchandising majors to understand design in order for them to work together successfully in a company to develop lines that will be successful at retail.

What are the best ways to get a job in the field?

Students should embrace any opportunity to gain experience in the fashion industry, including retail selling and internships. Working with experienced faculty, with current industry connections, is important for students to meet key industry personnel who have open positions.

What is the average salary for fashion merchandisers in the U.S.? What are people at the top of the profession paid?

Salaries vary tremendously among companies and geographical regions. The most important thing is that fashion merchandising is a performance-based career, and someone can move up vary quickly to a senior position if they have the ability and demonstrate that ability in their performance.

How available are internships in this field?

Internships are widely available, both paid and unpaid. I would encourage all students to avail themselves of the internship opportunity prior to graduation.

What are some of the trends that you see in the field of fashion merchandising that could help students plan for the future?

The growing globalization of the fashion business, along with the ubiquitous use of computer software programs, has changed merchandising dramatically over the past 20 years. Information can now be shared instantaneously across all time zones, resulting in quicker response time for forecasting, product development, and sales evaluation. One direct result of the computer explosion was the development of entire planning and distribution organizations to assist the buyers and merchandise managers to manage the business more profitably. Technology is increasingly important, with the addition of the Internet and e-commerce to provide instant communication as well as the ability to purchase directly from suppliers or sell directly to customers.

Identifying a target customer and creating a merchandising strategy uniquely suited to them will be key to differentiation among brands and retail operations.


Closing Remarks

Fashion merchandising offers a wealth of exciting, fast-paced careers in a number of different areas and much opportunity to move among them, including buying and product development, planning and distribution, wholesale or retail sales and management, and marketing. The one prerequisite for success in any of these areas is that someone must have a true passion for the business - and then there is no better career!

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