When people think about a fashion buyer, they usually think of glamor, shopping and exclusive fashion shows. In reality being a fashion buyer is tough and requires a lot of analytical thinking and mathematical skills. There aren’t that many people of color on the corporate side of the industry which can (sometimes) make the job more intense. Another misconception people have about fashion buyers is that they got the job by being “well connected” or going to school for fashion. Bijou Abiola has been able to dispel that thought by thriving in her career without a traditional background in retail. She has led workshops where she demystified the international stocking and buying (myths).
Bijou Abiola is a successful retail executive who is known for bringing the best of apparel to one of the leading department stores in America. She studied economics but was able to successfully transition into the fashion industry. Bijou has worked with top brands such as Chanel, Dior, YSL, Donna Karen and Ralph Lauren. Making the decision to move into more strategic roles in the industry, she recently completed the Program for Leadership Development at the Harvard Business School, where she will officially become an Alumni in July. She shared her career journey with LFE:
You have an interesting academic background, how did you transition from studying economics to being a fashion buyer? Honestly, as you’ll find with most successes in life, it wasn’t as well thought out as it sounds . I remember the sense of “dissatisfaction” sneaking in only a few months out of my graduate program at Columbia. I was sitting in my office at the Nigerian Mission to the United Nations at 22 years old and -this sounds shallow – but was legit tired of wearing a suit to work everyday. I knew I wanted a more fast paced environment and decided my next move would to be to the private sector. Up until that point, I thought I wanted to work in the public sector – hence my academic background. While waiting for an offer from a leading bank, I got inspired (by my desire of wanting to be more fashionable at work lol) to explore a different route. Another thing to note is, that was in 2007, right before the financial crisis so in hindsight, I’m thankful I chose a different industry.
One thing I learned quickly in America was it was a land of passion and “doing what you loved.” Well I’m Nigerian. “Doing what you love” only matters if it’s being a Doctor, Lawyer, Banker, Nurse, or Engineer. Noticeably absent from that list is the fashion industry. But I loved Fashion and had worked at Jcrew through grad school to be able to afford clothes – at an amazing discount! My mother had a similar track – went to Columbia for her MIA but became a designer years later- I get everything related to style from her. However, I knew no one who had a career on the corporate side…and so I went where every logical person goes for answers- GOOGLE. That’s where I found the executive training program at L + T. 12 years and 10 different positions later, I wouldn’t trade any of it (the ups and downs) for any other career in the world- except maybe being a doctor…but that’s besides the point lol.
Millennials are increasingly multifaceted and ditching boring careers to do what they love, how did you discover your passion for fashion buying? I wouldn’t actually call any career “boring”. You’d be surprised at the passion people have to do the most random things. The important thing is to have a sense of purpose. Many people don’t think of working in a creative industry – like fashion- as one where purpose can be found but there are so many layers to the retail business. I know people at work who do their jobs with more excitement than say a doctor or lawyer. My journey was a bit of an “accident” and I had no real idea what I was getting into. I loved clothes and I loved math. Google said buying was a good combination of the two so I took a stab at it. I worked my way up and was fortunate to end up in offices with brands by icons I’d always admired – such as Donna Karan. I found more passion working with those brands than say a fast fashion one primarily because I believed in the importance of quality over quantity.
African parents aren’t always open to creative careers and following your passion. How did you tell you nigerian parents you were going to be a fashion buyer ? Lol! Yeah no. I think I remember the story of Yvonne Orji telling her parents she wanted to be a comedian and her mother quipped “so you want to be a clown??” Hilarious! My family is a lot more liberal than most traditional families and because my mother had built such a successful business in this sector, it wasn’t foreign to them. I also really believed it would be short term- that I’d go back to school and get a PhD in behavioral economics or something like that. So when I told them what I was going to do, I phrased it in those terms. Once they saw the success behind my work, it was no longer an issue and my mother sorta uses it as bragging rights now lol. Plus I have two cousins- Amede, who runs her self-named line in Lagos and Odini who owns Res Ipsa – both attorneys by trade that ventured into retail – so this fashion thing is becoming quite the family affair 🙂
Your job is SOOO cool !What did your younger self do to prep for this role? Other than never leaving the house from the age of 2 until I was dressed to the nine? (Insert flip hair emoji here) lol. Legit I’ve heard stories of me crying as a kid when they’d get me dressed with a bag that didn’t match my dress #rude. I’d say I never fully “prepared” for the role. I did however grow up with a strong set of spiritual and moral values that kept me grounded and true to myself even when my environment sometimes requested an “alternate version.” Life has a way of preparing you (organically) for your next step- whatever that might be.
Your masterclass was so informative! What advice do you have for Nigerian brands who want their products in big name retail stores like Lord & Taylor, Nordstrom etc? I think I mentioned this during the class but it’s 2019 and the world of retail is a very different place than it was just 5 years ago. While distribution at major retailers is still an amazing accomplishment, I encourage brands to start small. Build an e-commerce presence and use social media to generate brand awareness + loyalty + traffic. Find out what your customer base wants and cater to those needs. Prepare for being at a big box retailer by dealing with “yourself” first so that by the time you get to the door, they’re expecting you + ready to let you in!
What challenges have you faced as a woman of color in the fashion industry? Especially in a niche space like fashion buying. Sigh. This is a tough one to answer because I’ve made the conscious decision to block out memories of my most negative experiences. Not because I’m naive but because I’ve found that in order to move forward, it’s often important to cast off weights from society (and even yourself). First let’s face it, sometimes being a woman of color can present itself as a “double negative” – woman and a person of color. But it’s important that you don’t narrate your story from that vantage point alone. As a matter of fact, I’m learning it can be quite a powerful blessing if approached from a place of contentment and self awareness. And you often don’t get to that place until you’ve faced your fair share of “you don’t belong here” and “you don’t deserve as much as x, y, or z”. Those moments only make you stronger – cliche but trust me, it does. And then you come to find that the people who don’t think your contribution is worth much are actually a very small % of the population! So why pay that much attention to them?? What you’ll find is if you work hard and show up at your best, eventually (and listen eventually can be 5 years after it happened for someone else of a different race or gender), your work will be recognized. Nothing worth having comes easy. This is one point I try to drill into the minds of my darling gen Z and younger millennials friends.
What advice do you have for young women who want to pursue a career in the fashion industry In terms of advice, there couldn’t be a better time for people of color to consider joining the corporate side of retail. I can make a list of brands going on apology tours and hiring directors of diversity – both a step in the right direction – but a lot of their problems would be solved if there was more diversity at every level , especially at the junior level. So there’s a huge appetite at the moment to attract candidates of color at all levels of the industry. And we need it! Diverse working groups help you see things from different vantage points. A lot of these companies don’t mean to be offensive. They just don’t have someone in the room that can see it from our point of view. If I’m being honest, it won’t always be welcoming and you’ll have moments of being uncomfortable as the “only one” in the room. But it doesn’t mean you have to leave. Or that that you’re not welcome. See it as an opportunity for growth and expose yourself and your coworkers to things they wouldn’t have experienced in their world if you weren’t in it (and vice versa).