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Tech, Education Progress Careers in Fashion: How the Industry Is Responding to COVID-19

If it wasn’t already apparent prior to the coronavirus pandemic that advances in fashion, retail and the modern workforce including artificial intelligence (AI), immersive technologies, automation and data science were essential to business operations, it is certainly evident today. COVID-19 is disrupting work as we know it today, but technology has been disrupting the job market for quite a while now.

To understand what that means for the trajectory of fashion career paths, Rebecca Cenni-Leventhal, CEO of Atrium, a talent acquisition and workforce solutions firm, is collaborating with curriculum expert and interim dean of Parsons School of Fashion, Jason Kass, and Whitney Cathcart, co-founder of body data platform, 3DLook. Together, they broached several questions not only to learn each other’s unique perspective, but also understand the challenges each of their respective networks face today.

Q1: As the fashion industry continues to evolve, what are the most significant changes you are seeing when it comes to a career in fashion?

Rebecca Cenni-Leventhal: The shift that has resulted from COVID-19 not only impacts how fashion and retail businesses are modernizing to safely reopen and integrate the digital and physical aspects of stores, but also what new roles are emerging and what talent exists or can be developed to meet these new demands. Coming from a talent-driven market where employers were competing for top candidates, the landscape has completely shifted. While there are many new job seekers today, they do not necessarily have the tech expertise that fashion and retail companies are depending upon to revolutionize their brands. Skill development and education are more important than ever.

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Whitney Cathcart: At a high level, a successful career in fashion today will require both left brain and right brain thinking. This doesn’t mean that everyone needs a degree in computer science or engineering, but certainly having some knowledge of and training in important areas such as AI, 3D, and data science will make a candidate more valuable over one with a more traditional background. As AI seeps into every area of our lives, there is an amazing opportunity to understand how a career in fashion will benefit from this technology and its subsets. I’d ask yourself, with so many incredibly talented people out of jobs, what makes you stand out? A traditional fashion education won’t be enough in the future, not even for the most talented.

Q2: Based on all that is changing within the fashion industry, what trends are best addressed through new educational programming, degrees and certifications?

Jason Kass: It’s encouraging to see that the fashion industry is acknowledging some of its problems and taking steps to change. At Parsons School of Fashion, we approach the urgent need for sustainability and access within the industry as structural issues that can only be tackled by acknowledging and undoing the systems and policies that keep things as they are. We take our role and responsibility as an institution of higher education very seriously and understand that we too need to recognize and address what we must do to better ourselves.

The good news is that digital technologies and data science have the potential to help shape a better future. I say potential, because they are only tools and how we use them and to whose benefit will make all of the difference. Artificial intelligence, machine learning (ML), automation and data science are all areas that students are engaging with, especially within our marketing and management programs that have core courses dedicated to technology and innovation. We tend not to approach our curriculum development in terms of trends but rather based on what skills and knowledge students will need to both succeed and initiate positive change within the industry.

Q3: What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in fashion within the next 5-10 years?

Whitney Cathcart: As a 30-year veteran of the fashion industry, I have seen incredible changes and both extreme highs and lows in manufacturing and retail as consumer trends and habits have evolved over the decades. I can tell you firsthand how vital it is to be open not just to learning, but also learning how to think differently. I think people who go on to have amazing careers are willing to be uncomfortable and to be open to learning. Curiosity is always a trait I have looked to in hiring. As we leap into this new decade, which was already going to be incredibly disruptive for the fashion and retail industry, COVID-19 is already functioning as an accelerant. This means that your thinking needs to change to keep up and to allow you to find those pockets of opportunity. Disruption to traditional business models will produce new types of businesses and platforms and consumer behaviors. This is an opportunity! Leaning into this inevitable change means leaning into research and learning to upskill yourself digitally.

Q4: Jason, we’ve been talking a lot about data science, but how can Behavioral Science be leveraged for a successful career in fashion?

Jason Kass: As I suggested earlier, digital technology and data are tools that can be used in different ways and to different ends. Data without analysis means very little, and analysis without an understanding of aspects of human behavior based in psychology, sociology, and anthropology, for example, likewise provides limited insights. To that end, knowledge gleaned from the behavioral sciences positions graduates to make better, human-centered choices and contributions. The fashion industry can absorb a limited number of new designers every year but there are so many roles within the fashion industry that are equally as important as design and for which a firm and scientifically grounded understanding of human behavior is beneficial. Our fashion students have the advantage of access to courses across The New School and regularly investigate fashion and the industry through a behavioral lens and via fields as diverse as philosophy and political science. Understanding of data science and behavioral science—and ideally a combination of both—will position graduates to confront issues of the present and what lies ahead.

Q5: What steps can those who are currently working within the fashion industry take to remain competitive in the future talent market?

Rebecca Cenni-Leventhal: The new job landscape is still shifting as we prepare for less seasonal collections, fashion shows and events. The swing that has resulted from COVID-19 not only impacts the new roles that are emerging as a result, but also the availability of talent to meet the new demands. It’s clear that technology, data and analytics play a key role in the evolution of fashion careers. However, it’s important to not lose sight of the soft skills that are unique to individual talents. Communication, persuasion and creative thinking are invaluable attributes that keep people as an essential component of this digital transformation.

Whitney Cathcart: Over the last few months I have had so many fashion designers reach out to me and ask me for advice. The one consistent piece I give them is to learn 3D design and understand how 3D will play into consumer experience over the next decade. The opportunities to express oneself and be creative are going to be fueled by immersive computing and the businesses that are built on top of these technologies. I believe these technologies will create some of the most engaging and personalized experiences for consumers that we have seen in this century. This goes back to my previous comment about left-side and right-side thinking. I have never believed that technology takes away from creativity, but rather propels it.

Jason Kass: The industry should be investing in and cultivating growth in their employees at all levels. It is beneficial to everyone involved for companies to offer training and education, and it should be viewed as a mark of success if an individual feels ready to move on to a new opportunity, taking with them what they learned. This is especially true when it comes to digital technology and data science, and I think that the brands and companies who will thrive moving forward will recognize the advantage of a more supportive environment that nourishes individuals and sets them up for continued success.

The convergence of three unique perspectives demonstrates the value of continually balancing experience with education. Remaining relevant in an ever-evolving market depends on adaptability and the ability to consistently develop and learn new things. Whether furthering your career or beginning your journey, you can harness your full potential by growing, innovating, and honing your experience — now is the time to do so.

Atrium is a collaborative partner dedicated to addressing tomorrow’s workforce challenges. Atrium Works innovates contingent workforce programs. Atrium Staffing provides recruitment solutions. When it comes to finding and retaining talent, Atrium has the resources your business needs to succeed. WBENC-certified and honored by the Women’s President’s Organization as one of the 50 Fastest-Growing Women-Owned/Led Companies in North America, Atrium is recognized as a champion of supplier diversity and tops the lists of 2019 North America Staffing 100, Inc. 5000 and Diversity Business as a leader of Women, Diversity and Privately Held organizations. The firm’s devotion to people is demonstrated by recent recognition as Crain’s New York Business as one of 2019’s Best Places to Work, Clearly Rated 2020’s Best of Staffing and SIA’s 2020 Best Staffing Firm to Work For.