Inside the mind of a fashion agent with Phoebe Garland

She is a mainstay in Fashion Exposed Online and regular columnist for industry mag, Ragtrader, but just who is Phoebe Garland?
Phoebe runs leading Sydney fashion agency, Garland & Garland Fashion with Robert Garland who was described by Ragtrader as `veteran ragtrader’ with over 30 years experience. Their agency represents middle to mature age brands including Black Pepper, Breakaway, La Dame and Adam Jacobs, as well as offering business mentoring and project management of marketing to the fashion industry.
With her rich history in the Australian fashion industry, we sat Garland down to gain further insight into how she started out, what a day in the life of a fashion agent is really like, and her prediction for the future of the retail industry.

When did you first get your start in the fashion industry?

We established Garland & Garland Fashion in 2002, my background was originally in advertising and publishing with over 17 years of advertising sales experience in magazines and publishing. My husband was the one from a fashion background with over 35 years in the industry, working as a buyer, National Sales Manager, retailer and agent. It was a perfect combination. We both know what sells and more importantly what is commercial, which is fundamental to running a fashion agency.
Also fashion was always, and has always, been a big part of my life. I find it extremely difficult to dress casually. The day you see me trudging around in track suits with no make up will be the beginning of the end for me. I remember being aged 10 climbing Mt Warning with a massive bag of garments and accessories, just in case I decided to change my outfit half way up the mountain!

Were you always interested in the business of fashion?

Yes, I came to this industry and observed that in a lot of ways the fashion industry is quite similar to publishing, but obviously with garments. From a manufacturers/designers point of view, forward funding is a big issue and the constant need for cash flow is the hardest thing for designers and manufacturers to overcome. Similar to publishing, everything has to be paid up front and you are only as good as your last range.
There are lot of issues in the fashion industry that provide extremely heated topics especially among retailers, wholesalers and agents, however I find them very interesting. The fashion industry, I find is one industry that is very slow to embrace change. One area I do find frustrating, and one which the fashion industry has been very slow to adapt to, is adopting certain technologies such as computers, websites and social media, especially when retail is so tough. I would love to see the fashion industry look at new strategies for their business whether or not they are retailers, agents, manufacturers or designers, as times have changed drastically.

For those who might not know the extent of what your business and career role entails, please explain the day in the life of a fashion agent?

Our business revolves around mainly two selling periods a year, which last for about 2 months for each of them, and can be very intense. Fashion agents are different from distributors as we don’t actually buy or own any stock. We are merely the middle man between the designer/manufacturer and the retailer. We receive sample ranges from the manufacturer and provide showings to the retailer. We have days where we have back to back appointments which can start from 8am showings and go right up until midnight. But in between seasons we have a lot of flexibility as well which makes it so worth it. I love what we do, I love talking with retailers and manufacturers and listening to them and helping them with where we can improve their business. We also spend a lot of time mentoring.

You recently spoke at the Fashion Torque event hosted by renowned fashion designer Jenny Bannister and stylist Philip Boon, about The Business of Colour – what was some of your main points?

We discussed colour trends and what colours tend to work well for ranges, as well as which colours don’t work in terms of sales. I observed that muted tones tend to sell well, and red and black as they were very safe to the consumer to purchase and suited most people. I also predicted Berry was going to be a big colour trend for the next couple of seasons and sure enough I am seeing it in everyones ranges from Sass & Bide to some of our more mature conservative ranges.
One thing I pointed out was the need for designers to sample ranges as much as possible in colour, especially for the smaller designers. Having too much black in our sample ranges is one of the problems we encounter with showing, and while there are different colour-way options, we believe we could sell more garments if they were actually sampled in colour. For example, we represent a brand of knitwear called La Dame (sister label to Zaket & Plover). While the range is not a big range, the owners Chris & Effie Vlahos, have been very clever in sampling most colour-ways and it really does give a perception the range is bigger. Sometimes retailers buy via the process of elimination, and sampling in multiple colours caters to this type of buyer.

What role does colour play in our daily lives?

Colours can reflect economic times and also seasons. We tend to see the bright colours for spring summer, but I am also starting to see more colour in winter ranges as well. We have seen a massive surge of colour blocking this season which always looks amazing. Strong greens, blues , reds orange, berry and it always makes retail stores look fantastic.

Media reports have described the current and future retail environment as bleak, what is your prediction?

There is no doubt about it, retail conditions are extremely tough out there. Having said that our retailers have come out of having an amazing winter season due to the cold weather. We are very careful about the brands we take on to represent. The most important thing is `sell through’ for retailers, if retailers don’t get `sell through’ we don’t get repeat orders it’s as simple as that.
We ensure we take on brands that are commercial and offer good margin for the retailer and value for money for the consumer and especially affordable price points. Retailers are also looking at unique pieces that aren’t represented in department stores or chain stores to make their point of difference in their boutiques and it’s a smart move.
We have an almost recession proof product in the Black Pepper label, the volume of sales this label does defies gravity. The consumer is holding onto their money during this economic uncertainty and Julia Gillard is certainly not helping the situation with the Carbon Tax. However, I think retail trading will definitely be tough for a few years and I cannot stress the importance of retailers adapting to extend their businesses online and looking at new innovative ways to improve their businesses through thinking outside the square.

What do people have to think about and put into action to brighten their business outlook?

Be prepared to be innovative and adaptable to this new retailing climate. From a manufacturers point of view it can be keeping ranges as affordable as possible and looking for good value in fabrications that offer better margin and lower price points which can result in stronger volume of sales. Be smart about putting together ranges and get plenty of feedback from your retailers and agents as to what the consumers want. My best advice to retailers is `don’t put your head in the sand and give up’. Constantly review what is working and what’s not. Don’t buy little bits of multiple ranges stick to the ones that work and back them strongly but always be open to look at new ones.

The new online vs bricks and mortar war continues to wage, what is your assessment of this?

Online is the new way to retail and it’s smart with minimum overheads. It will be the way of the future for many consumers, due to convenience and price. I think the fashion industry needs to accept that and stop trying to resist change by being in denial that it will affect fashion. There will always be a need for bricks and mortar, however you do not want to be the retailer that stocks garment customers can try on in store only to buy online from your competitor. The best way to address this, is to adapt and join the online movement as well. It beats having your staff sitting behind a counter doing minimum sales, while you continue to pay them a wage. And there is demand for Australian retailers to fight our overseas counterparts by offering goods that are unavailable overseas to people living overseas.

Do you think retail is dead, or is it the death of old retail and the beginning of new retail? Thoughts?

Retail is far from dead, however it is tough and it is changing. The online movement is simply the new retail and it’s smart. Minimum overseas and higher profits and margins. I think it’s unfair to criticise the online movement because everyone is going to purchase online if goods are cheaper, and they significantly are. The issue of implementing GST for goods under $1000 is not going to stop consumers shopping online either, as the savings can be 30 to 70% more. Done correctly, I think if retailers can educate themselves to online, they will be pleasantly surprised at the results and it will certainly offer them a chance to build their businesses hopefully to a point that they may not have to pay landlords for astronomical rents and have a much better retailing lifestyle.

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