Chris Kolbe, SVP of Global Design and Trend at Kohl’s, told his career story and discussed the importance of mentorship, opportunities in the industry, the integration of technology and fashion, and the rise of globalization with scholars. He shared his inspiring and untraditional path into design starting as an employee at his father’s sporting goods store at the age of twelve. Chris navigated his career through buying, planning, merchandising, and entrepreneurship positions before he reached his current position as a leader in design. A few of his recent positions prior to SVP at Kohl’s included being the President of Original Penguin, President & Chief Merchant Officer of Lucky Brand Jeans, and Brand President at Land’s End.
Chris’ career wasn’t always easy, however, he articulated that, “Although there are cycles in business, you learn the most when things are tough. I learned more in the two years during and after the 2008 recession than I did in the six good years that happened prior”. He explained that the adversity and uncertainty that the industry underwent in these years helped shape his perspective and made him even more tough and persistent. Chris also shared a few important points regarding selectin jobs and anticipating career changes. “Don’t look for immediate gain as the main asset of a new job. Ask yourself about what you could potentially learn from the experience, who you could meet, and what the culture of the workplace would be” he explained.
One scholar asked, “Have you had a specific end goal for your career? How did you decide when it was time to move on to a new position?” “I’m driven by potential,” Chris replied, “I value opportunity more than title, and I try to visualize how A can lead to B to C. The best thing to do is to think two steps ahead and to foresee how a current experience could help you achieve a future goal.” He discussed career management and stressed the importance of strategically planning your career steps as well as establishing long-term ambitions.
Another scholar inquired, “What were the differences in work environments between all of the places you worked?” “Oh, they were all so different,” he replied, “There were big differences in company culture, corporate values, and general structure.” He explained that he learned to value companies that are inherently good- good to their people, good to the planet, and good to overseas laborers. He told scholars that he values that goodness more than glamour and prestige.
A third scholar asked, “What advice do you have regarding mentorship? When did you come in contact with your first mentor?” Chris replied, “I actually didn’t have a mentor for a while; I read a lot and was a self-starter. But I would definitely recommend seeking a mentor early. However, no one is going to tap you on the shoulder unless you reach out to them, because what you don’t ask you don’t get.” He added that he manages about 250 artists and designers, and ensures that they all receive some degree of mentorship.
Lastly, the conversation shifted to the impact of artificial intelligence and globalization in the fashion industry. “The world has become increasingly borderless; no one has full exclusion anymore because consumers demand speed, quality, and lower cost, which can only be achieved when many different people collaborate.” “However,” he added, “Labor costs are also rising, so this is where automation will come into play. I can see automation completely replacing human labor in factories, so it will be interesting to see how that shapes the industry in the future.”
Chris Kolbe’s Best Tips from the Boss:
Good merchants are opportunists.
Listen to the customer.
The [fashion] business is always changing.
There is no straight line to success in fashion.
Be ready to roll up your sleeves and learn hands-on.
Look into company culture before choosing a position.
Change will happen two times faster in the next 10 years as it has in the last 10.
Don’t prioritize immediate gain.