I’ve Worked in Fashion For Years—Here’s What Matters For The Rest of 2023

Harsh truth coming… breaking into the fashion industry is no easy feat. There are numerous hurdles for designers, especially those from marginalized communities: finding funding, carving out a niche in an oversaturated market, and getting stock-listed at major retailers. Even if you overcome every challenge, that doesn’t mean overnight success or long-term relevance. So many small labels have gone viral overnight, only to shutter a few years later because they couldn’t keep up with the fast-paced production or create a profitable business model.  But one retailer is trying to change that harsh reality for new designers: Saks Fifth Avenue. Since its inception in 1867, Saks has been one of the pinnacles of high fashion—generations of creatives have aspired to see their designs lit up in the windows of their iconic fifth avenuelocation. That dream has become within reach for a rising crop of designers because of its New Wave accelerator program. Launched in 2021, the initiative was created in partnership with Mastercard to provide talent with the tools to build long-lasting luxury labels. Of course, other retailers have diversified their stockists in recent years to address calls for systemic change, but this isn’t a fluff PR move for Saks. The program is buying budding designers’ work and setting them up for long-term viability by sharing their knowledge and resources.  That distinction has made the program an achievement—it’s reached its aim of not only giving a platform to the most exciting talent of our era but, in the process, has made Saks the place to watch (and shop). However, success, especially in this industry, isn’t achieved without the people making it happen. One of the driving forces behind this program has been Saks’s very own SVP, GMM Women’s Designer Ready-to-Wear, Anna Irving. So, of course, we had to speak with Irving about her work, and luckily, she obliged. Ahead, you’ll hear from Irving herself about her buying career, the importance of the New Wave program, and of course, which trends and brands will define the rest of 2023. 

How did you decide you wanted to pursue a career in fashion? And what led you to your role at Saks as SVP, GMM Women’s Designer Ready-to-Wear? Growing up, I always had a passion for fashion—inventing trends, finding vintage pieces at thrift shops, and helping others shop for themselves.  In college, I studied economics and international relations, thinking I would become an ambassador or lawyer. I had no idea that one could build a career in fashion until I landed a job as a merchandising assistant at Barneys New York. Since then, I’ve gained a breadth of experience across buying, planning, and strategy at Saks, Macy’s, and LVMH, and I also received my MBA at Columbia Business School.  The highlight of my Saks career was overseeing the renovation of the iconic Saks New York Flagship main floor in my previous role as DMM of Handbags and Soft Accessories, and my leadership in that position helped lead me to my current role.

For those who might not work in fashion, how would you describe the duties of your role? In my role as GMM of Women’s Designer Ready-to-Wear, I set the merchandising vision for the designer ready-to-wear category across Saks.com and Saks Fifth Avenue stores.  I manage a team of divisional heads and buyers to select the right assortment across hundreds of brands, discover new names in fashion, and maximize category or key item opportunities.  I work closely with brand partners to curate exclusive collections and collaborate with our marketing team to develop exciting launches.  Throughout all of these actions, my ultimate goal is to ensure that Saks remains the fashion authority and that our category sales and profit goals are achieved.

You’ve been able to build a successful career and now lead an incredible team. But along the way to working to where you are now, is there any advice you wish you would have known? What advice would you give to younger generations wanting to work in fashion?  . I wish I had recognized earlier in my career how important it is to use and exercise your voice. Understanding how to advocate for yourself, self-promote, and not be afraid to ask questions early on is so important and will help you to become an inspiring leader as you grow in your career. I also advise anyone just starting out in their career to network as much as possible. I have kept relationships with people I met in the training program at Saks over 20 years ago, and I think that being kind and fair to everyone you work with goes a long way.

As a merchandising pro, what role do you think buyers play in fostering trends, talent, and the industry as a whole? And what do you think people might not know about how merchandising leads (like yourself) play in that process? Buyers play a significant role in fostering trends and ensuring talent finds its way to the consumer. By picking up products to sell at a retailer like Saks, buyers have the opportunity and privilege to platform a new brand that a customer might not have known about or promote a trend they didn’t think they wanted to wear.  One thing that’s made Saks one of the best luxury retailers is its continued dedication to curating and stock listing rising luxury brands. For you, how do you go about discovering new talent? What, in your mind, makes a brand worth buying into, especially when they’re starting up? I typically discover new brands through social media, editorial coverage, and word of mouth. Many times, new brands find me through cold emails and LinkedIn DMs. I keep a master list with hundreds of contemporary designers and constantly update and curate the list with our fashion office. A brand is worth buying into if the designer has a unique artistic vision that fills a white space within our customer’s wardrobe.

Not only does your team do an incredible job of curating new brands, but in 2021, Saks launched The New Wave. And you’ve continued the program as a way to use the brand’s platform to help emerging high-end brands. For you, why do you feel this program is pivotal? And how does it aim to help the designer’s participating in it? The New Wave at Saks is a hallmark program within our overall strategy to discover, nurture and grow emerging designers overall.  Each year, we pick 8 incredible designers that we feel have enormous talent and commercial potential, not just at Saks but in the industry overall. These designers attend a 2-day boot camp at Saks, workshops with industry experts in topics like Digital Marketing, and roundtables with industry leaders like Samira Nasr or Thom Browne. They also receive personalized consulting hours with Launch Collective, Saks-supported digital marketing, and an opportunity to be featured in the Saks Fifth Avenue flagship windows. The program is pivotal because it has served as a catalyst for designer alumnae that are continuing to grow and succeed. For example, we launched Laquan Smith, Who Decides War?, and Ludovic de Saint Sernin through the accelerator program.

One thing that makes this program so special is the talent itself. This year’s program includes Armando Cabral, Awet, Bernard James, Elisamama, Interior, June 79, Renowned, and Sorellina. How does your team go about choosing who to be a part of the program? And what about these designers spoke to the Saks family this year? Our GMMs across all categories, together with the Fashion Office, nominate designers who we feel would benefit from the program and have strong potential to grow at Saks and beyond. In line with our commitment to increasing diverse representation at Saks, we ensure that at least half of the brands in the program each year are Black-owned. This year’s designers also represent categories that haven’t had much presence in past accelerator programs, including men’s ready-to-wear, jewelry, and kids, and we’re excited about continuing to add new categories into the program as it grows.

Outside of the New Wave program, are there any designers that you feel will be big this year? And if so, why? Loewe continues to be the most influential brand this spring with its mix of minimalist chic and hand-crafted globe-trotter vibes.  Jil Sander is also important with its clean lines, soft color palette, and tailoring.  On the other end of the spectrum, we are launching The Attico this summer, and our customers will be delighted by their party dress offering, cargo, and mix of materials.

We can’t talk about Saks’ excellent curation without highlighting the platform’s seasonal edits. For you, are there any summer-ready pieces you feel are essential investments for summer? For me, I like to shop for items in natural materials with a touch of color and artisanal details, like draped linen or appliqué fringe. I also love denim separates that can be styled with everything. And, of course, crochet is a must-have for the summer. 

Besides staples, are there any trends that you feel are worthwhile long-term investments? If so, why?

Denim head to toe, for sure! As long as the denim quality is good, you can pull apart the separates and match the denim back to anything to add a casual edge.

Tailored jackets are a big trend right now and are worthwhile long-term investments. Matched with denim, slip dresses, or a tailored pant, the jacket provides the perfect polish to complete an outfit. 

Wide-leg relaxed trousers are here for the long haul.  They feel effortless for the summer and can become that perfect statement anchor for a chic ribbed turtleneck knit in the fall, too. 

Sheer dresses and tops are also on trend right now and will be through the rest of the year. Opaque pieces can add a touch of softness if layered under slip dresses, knitwear, and or blazers.

Maxi hemlines were a significant trend on the S/S 23 runways and will remain relevant for the rest of 2023. While there are many ways to wear this trend, I love how we’ve seen maxi slip skirts paired with crisp shirting. 

Lastly, one trend I believe is a worthwhile long-term investment is the naked-style sandals we spotted in the S/S 23 collections of The Row and Khaite.

Lastly, what parting advice would you give our readers about discerning what rising brands, trends, or it-items are worth buying? Identify your style before expanding your wardrobe to ensure that new purchases will work with what you already own. You want to ask yourself: What is my signature color palette? What materials do I feel good in? Which designers inspire me? What style icons influence me? Having that sense of identity makes it easier to identify a trend or new brand that resonates and sparks more creativity in your wardrobe. Most importantly, have fun with fashion—trust your instincts but test your limits!

Next up, Long-Haul Report: 12 Spring Trends That’ll Be Around for the Rest of 2023