Want to Succeed in Fashion? Know the Customer, Lean Into Challenges

Patrick Mays is senior director of merchandising for Lucky Brand. Prior to joining Lucky Brand, Mays gained extensive strategic merchandising and product development experience at Gap Inc., where he held various merchandising roles for Banana Republic, with responsibility for key product launches.

Here, Mays discusses his career path, the importance of internships and how facing challenges head-on helped shape his career.

WWD: How did your education help inform your career decisions?

Patrick Mays: I attended LIM College and received a bachelor’s degree in management in 2012. While the courses I took at LIM were beneficial in providing the baseline of knowledge I needed to enter the business world, some of the most valuable experiences I had were the internships. I was lucky enough to intern across different segments of the fashion industry, including at L Brands with the Henri Bendel brand and at Full Beauty Brands, which was called Redcats at the time. This diverse exposure ultimately pointed me toward merchandising and buying.

Both of these internships were in buying and merchandising, and the experiences I had solidified that I wanted to take that particular path in the fashion industry. These roles truly were a mix of working with emotional fashion product and also using financial acumen to run a business unit within an organization.

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One important takeaway from these internships was learning the importance of knowing your customer. The Henri Bendel brand was a luxury retailer that catered to savvy and trend-focused younger women, while Full Beauty Brands catered to a more value-driven, plus-size customer. It was a huge shift, getting my mind into the two very different customers’ heads, but it allowed me to see firsthand how gaining a better understanding of the customer contributed to driving positive business results for the organization.

WWD: How would you describe your career path? What were some of the challenges you faced?

P.M.: I have been very fortunate in my career path so far. Unlike many college graduates, I knew exactly what I wanted to do based on the positive experiences I had interning in buying and merchandising. After graduating, I was accepted into a leading retail executive training program at Gap Inc., which accelerated my knowledge of the industry. From there, I was able to move up the ranks in various global merchandising roles.

Retail itself is a very challenging industry to work in. It moves incredibly fast, and if the company you work for does not move at that same speed, the business you are trying to drive will suffer. The massive shift to digital, new competitors entering the market, and COVID-19 have all been challenges.

To be successful, you have to be willing to take on these challenges, no matter what kind of brand you work for.

WWD: Have you had mentors? If so, how have they helped you?

P.M.: I had great professors at LIM, including Marla Greene, who taught me the basics of retail math and buying. I’ve also had many wonderful mentors over the years in my corporate positions. I cherish the honest feedback they have given me. It has helped me play to my strengths and snuff out weaknesses. I have also learned a great deal from just watching my managers do their job — and then pushing myself to operate at their level.

WWD: If you could go back in time and give career advice to your younger self, what would it be?

P.M.: Build relationships with the smart people you have around you as much as possible! When I was first starting out in the corporate world, I was shy about networking and while I have always been an extremely hard worker, I chose to keep to myself. After working for a few exceptional managers, they showed me that to be successful you have to swim outside of your lane, build relationships far and wide within your organization, and soak up all the institutional knowledge around you. Once I embraced this philosophy, my career trajectory accelerated very quickly.

WWD: What advice would you give someone considering a career in the fashion industry?

P.M.: You really have to have a passion for this industry if you want to be successful in it. Particularly when working for a specific retailer or brand, you have to love and have empathy for your customer in order to be able to understand them. If you do not truly understand your customer, you will not be successful.

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