Whether we’re design or business oriented, whether we have a passion for marketing, product development or buying, all of us share one common goal: Finding a job! After our breakfast with Debra Malbin, President of the fashion industry executive search firm Debra Malbin Associates, the daunting task of landing a job began to feel a little bit more approachable. In addition to her unparalleled talent for industry recruiting, Debra has played an extremely instrumental role in the YMA Fashion Scholarship Fund—she has remained on the Board for over 25 years, currently serving as Co-Chair after being Co-President last year. Having watched the organization grow for many years, Debra has a unique perspective that has been beyond valuable in developing the internship, mentorship, ambassador and alumni programs. She coached the scholars on careers within the fashion industry, as well as the ins and outs of interviews, resumes and job offers, providing each scholar with a packet of information and advice to take home. Our one-on-one mentoring experience with Debra was informative, engaging and above all an immense opportunity for personal development.
The Boss' Journey: Steps to Success
Born and raised in New York, Debra graduated from the University of Florida with a business degree in marketing. As she explained, “I really had no clue what I wanted to do in those days,” a feeling that resonates with many of the scholars. Debra entered the fashion industry as a menswear buyer at Bloomingdale’s, where she remained for eight years, learning from the best. After leaving Bloomingdale’s, Debra was recruited to Oxford Industries, Inc., where she switched over to the sales and manufacturing side and eventually came to manage several different fashion divisions within Oxford as Group President. She launched Jhane Barnes, a men’s designer brand, as well as R.E.N.N.Y., a women’s private label sweater and knit division. Thirteen years later, armed with twenty years of retail and wholesale experience, Debra began her own executive search firm. For nineteen years, Debra has been placing talented individuals in jobs within the industry through DMA, a talent cultivated and strengthened throughout her experience in the retail and wholesale industries.
Debra Malbin Associates is a creative executive search firm that services the needs of both the wholesale and retail industries. The DMA recruitment team, lead by Debra, carefully interviews potential candidates in order to a comprehensive understanding of individual talents, strengths and weaknesses and how they can best be applied as assets to specific companies. Having worked in both the retail and wholesale levels of the industry, Debra and her team have placed candidates on a spectrum of professional levels in the sales, product development, design, merchandising, licensing, sourcing and marketing sectors. DMA primarily offers mid- to senior-level opportunities. Additionally, the firm offers career counseling in person and by phone, preparing candidates for their job search process with resume critiques, interview tips and a lot of other professional advice that we had the wonderful opportunity of hearing firsthand.
Words of Wisdom
Careers in the Fashion Industry:
To start off, Debra provided us with a chart detailing job positions within the fashion industry. She explained the tasks each position entails, taking note of the specific skill sets, interests and characteristics of a potential candidate that best fit each role. For instance, Debra highlighted product development as an area well suited for a detail-oriented individual who likes the bridge between merchandising and design, whereas someone with a passion for travel would likely best find a home in sourcing and production. For a student who has strong left-brain and right-brain capability, merchandising, which involves both numbers and creative skills, might be a good option.
Debra’s “Do’s and Don'ts”
Next, Debra went through a list of resume, interview and networking advice—words that she has lived by and coached many students on over the years. Here’s just a portion of the critical advice she offered!
- First Impressions Count. “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
- Have a firm handshake. “Nothing is worse than a weak, clammy handshake.”
- Dress appropriately, and dress for the company.
- Look directly into the eyes of your interviewer—be sharp.
- No fidgeting. Sit straight up, have confidence.
- If given the choice to, sit in the center. “The most confident people I’ve seen, the best interviewers, take that middle seat.”
- Resume and Cover Letter.
- Know your resume. Be prepared to explain, justify and expand on everything on it. Be excited about your accomplishments!
- No spelling errors!
- Bring multiple copies of your resume. “You never know how many people you are going to meet. Don’t expect them to make the copies!”
- Give your cover letter a special flair. “Why should they respond to you vs. someone else?”
- Do your Research. “Go to stores to see product, visit their website, read blogs and industry trade publications. Follow the company on Twitter and Facebook to gain insight into their social initiatives, target audience and positioning on current events.”
- Be prepared. Let the interviewer speak and lead the discussion, but have your list of questions.
- Answer the question being asked! Listen to what the interviewer is really asking.
- If it’s a phone interview, aim to sound perky and engaged. Let the interviewer lead the conversation to avoid speaking over one another, and be concise in your answers.
- Just Go For It. “Go for it all the away around—from the beginning with how you show your experience on a resume, to how you write your cover letter, to how you present yourself in the interview, to how you write the follow up thank-you note, and finally, how you accept your job offer…this all represents you. You want them to really think, ‘I have a winner here.’”
Q: Oliver Selby (Savannah College of Art & Design)- “I am currently in the job search process--I recently met with a small womenswear design company and they offered me an internship. Do you think I should take that internship while looking for a job, or should I wait for a job?”
A: “If that internship is in the realm of your interest, I think it’s good experience. If you’re interning, tell them that you will do it, but if you have a job interview you’ll need time out. I’d continue with it—why not? In the design world, a lot of times, to get a full time job, you have to intern. You may not get a job at that company, but I’d stay with them until you find something else and get your job search really geared up. That being said…while a small company is advantageous from the standpoint of seeing many different areas, the advantage of a big company as your first job is that it has a big appeal when people see it on your resume. Also, if you’re trained in a big company, people know you’ll be well trained—at a smaller company, people don’t know what skills you’ve necessarily picked up. It may not be the product category that you really want to do, but [starting in a larger company] wouldn’t be a bad thing if you can land an opportunity. Once you get going in the design world, things will happen for you. It’s getting that first job, that first start, that’s the hard part.”
Q: Daniela Gallo-McCausland (Washington University in St. Louis)- “I’m currently working in planning, but I find that I’m missing the creative side a bit. I’ve been looking at merchandising…do you think there’s a part in the analytical side of merchandising that overlaps with planning?”
A: “Absolutely. Many small companies really don’t have planning departments, so it’s the merchandisers that do the planning work. A smaller company would give you both sides of that more so than a larger company. But being a buyer in a retail establishment involves both numbers and creativity. These are questions to ask on an interview—what does this job entail?”
Q: Jenna Pace (Texas A&M University)- “I’m interviewing right now—I got through the first round of HR and I’m moving on to interview with the people on the team I would be working for. What questions do you think are especially important to ask at this stage in the process?
A: “Ask them a lot of questions about the specific job. What does the day look like? How will you actually spend your time? You want to understand the roles you’ll be taking on. You’ve already gone past one round of interviews, and now it’s time to make sure that YOU will be interested in the job, in addition to them being interested in you.”
Many thanks to Debra for your priceless knowledge, support, guidance and kindness throughout this exciting yet challenging process!