On July 10th, Fashion Scholarship Fund (FSF) scholars and alumni attended a Breakfast with the Boss hosted by FSF Board of Governor Electa Varnish, as well as a surprise guest, Steve McSween. Electa and Steve both spoke about the parallels they have observed between the changes in the industry and the changes within Nautica as a company. They discussed the evolution of the retail landscape and the newfound demands of the modern consumer. Building on that, they shared their thoughts on how various fashion companies, Nautica included, plan to continuously develop a progressive business strategy which suits the speed, savviness, and technological advancement of their target audiences.
Electa began the discussion, mentioning that she has been in the industry for over 30 years and has been with Nautica for 15 of them. She talked about how the mission and heritage of Nautica has always resonated with her; the brand has always had a strong image of quality and reliability in the minds of consumers. Electa then gave a summary of her own career path. She began her career as a Field Coordinator out in the midwest after attending The Ohio State University. She was then offered an Account Executive position in New York City. Excitedly, she accepted it, and moved to the Big Apple. In that position, she had extensive leverage as a wholesaler and explained that, although the position was challenging, she truly enjoyed her work and the flexibility given to her. In 2009 she accepted a management position at Nautica. As an integral part of her role at Nautica, she has truly embraced the importance of collaboration. She values how much a good team can make or break the quality of work done and the overall work experience.
Electa then spoke about the many changes she has seen the industry undergo just in the last five years. “With the rise of digital, there has been a significantly reduced need for inventory, which has caused retailers to reassess their business models,” she explained. Nautica, specifically, has had to be innovative in seeking alternate methods for growth other than the traditional department stores. A focus now is on digital platforms like Amazon as well as their own e-commerce space. Electa discussed how, in addition to expanding new channels, Nautica edited their assortments and found several novel ways in which they could differentiate themselves as a company. They did segmentation work like ethnographies and focus groups and found the consumer wanted authentic, logo’d product that spoke to the DNA of the brand. The work has paid off and with the help of collaborations like Lil Yachty, the business has strengthened and gained momentum.
Next, Electa turned the meeting over to Steve who then shared details about his career path. He started his journey into fashion by attending Parsons in Los Angeles, now known as Otis and one of the FSF member schools, and studying Menswear Design. Upon graduation, he bought a one way ticket to New York, initially working as a freelance illustrator and hand drawing sketches for clients for six months. Later, he interviewed with Club Monaco and was hired after showing his illustration skills and impressive portfolio. There, he had room for creativity and growth, which led him to become the design director. Since it was a small company at the time, he worked with a wide assortment of product and “touched” everything from belts to pants. He worked there for six years, and then moved to a GAP as Head of Men’s Global Design. It was a wonderful and challenging role where he stayed for six years. His background was perfect for the new position because GAP was looking to be more fashion forward and move away from simple basics. Steve had previous experience designing for the fashion-forward Club Monaco which made him a success for Gap’s new vision. After GAP, he took time off with his family, until he got a call from Karen Murray, FSF Board of Governor, and the President at Nautica at the time. She explained that the company was looking for a talented and creative Head of Menswear Design, which he then interviewed for and accepted the position.
Steve also discussed and shared about Nautica, saying that, “It has always been a loved and trusted brand”. He spoke about the collaborations Nautica has done, the most recent one being with Lil Yachty, an avid and lifelong Nautica fan. He explained how these kinds of unique and genuine collaborations have the capability to attract new audiences to a brand and keep it fun and fresh. “However, the journey doesn’t stop there,” Electa mentioned. “Nautica was just recently purchased by Authentic Brands Group, which is exciting because it will draw more attention to the brand and give us an amazing marketing arm while providing us with support and resources.”
One scholar asked, “Both of you have had incredibly successful career journeys and I would like to know if you have a specific piece of advice that stood out to you enough that you keep it with you to this day?” Steve thought about it for a moment and replied, “I’ll give you an example. When I meet with a new designer who has a portfolio they ask me to take a look at, I look for their special gifts. Designers can do a portfolio by simply hitting all the points, drawing the flats, etc., but I truly believe in providing a story which showcases the aspects of your talent that are particularly memorable. Make sure you let your strengths shine and don’t be afraid to stand out - hone in on what your true gifts develop into as you take steps throughout your career.”
“I think for me,” Electa said, “It’s mentorship. I’ve had some amazing mentors and I would do anything for those mentors, to support them and make our team look good. They knew they could count on me, that I would always have their back, and those relationships always worked both ways. Definitely find a mentor or multiple mentors and use them as a support system throughout your career.”
The scholars were intrigued and thankful that they got to hear both Electa and Steve’s stories and words of wisdom. They were fascinated by the history of Nautica as a brand as well as what the near future will bring for fashion.
Electa and Steve’s Best Tips from the Bosses:
Find a mentor or multiple mentors.
Stay true to yourself and your personal strengths.
Keep your mind open to different possibilities in the industry as it changes.
Stay up to date on the direction that fashion is going in.
Maintain good relationships with people in the industry and don’t burn any bridges.
Be forward-thinking and be open to new ideas.