Walk into any high-end luxury goods store, and chances are that warehouses, trucks, cargo containers, and forklifts are the last things on your mind. Luxury brand logos, thoughtfully tailored lines, shining leather, and sprays of richly-colored silk all elegantly presented under perfect lighting – it’s the kind of atmosphere that tends to take your mind off the industrial side of the apparel industry.
But make no mistake: the perfectly-attired manager who greeted you when you walked in the door thinks about the steps along the supply chain every day. It’s a series of connections that are critical to ensuring designers have the exact materials that spark their inspiration, and that store windows display the latest lines each season.
What is the Fashion Supply Chain?
Fashion moves fast, and so do supply chain managers in the industry. Although it’s effectively a part of the larger retail and clothing sector, fashion comes with different demands:
And all of this must happen with flawless timing that matches intensive seasonal demand with the right amount of supply to hit revenue goals while remaining exclusive. That makes it an industry where supply chain management is king… and the kings of supply chain management need college degrees in the field.
An Industry Built Around Shifting Trends Has to Have Agile Supply Chain Leadership
For decades, fashion moved at the pace of trendsetters. Top designers created a vision, crafted a product, sold it to an exclusive audience. Fashion wasn’t for the masses and didn’t need a massive supply chain. Indeed, the point of many fashion goods was to avoid the kind of mass production and volume that other products adopted. Driving down the cost was never a goal.
Eventually, though, markets expanded. Through outsourcing arrangements and new sources of supply overseas, fashion came to everyone… but it still wasn’t a fast process. Six months to more than a year of lead time were needed to make such cumbersome supply chains dance.
Zara completely changed the industry in the late 1990s, pioneering what has come to be known as fast fashion. They created a tight vertical integration within their supply chain to allow rapid production turnaround. That allowed designers to wait and see seasonal trends before submitting patterns. Today, the freshest products land on the racks exactly when trends peaked.
That is, as long as supply chain managers are doing their jobs.
New opportunities in e-commerce may be shifting the industry yet again. But one thing is certain: creative logistics pros are part of every new trend.
How Supply Chain Managers in the Fashion Industry Keep the Models Walking
Fashion can be demanding of traditional supply chain imperatives, but it can turn others on their head. Because part of the allure of fashion items is often exclusivity, it’s one field where supply chain managers may not always push their production capacity to the limits. Within reason, it might even be attractive to under stock some goods.
The production quality of fashion items must be superlative. That means only the best raw materials can be used, and production lines must operate at high standards.
Finally, last year’s hottest trends and items can become old news quickly and unpredictably.
When a celebrity is spotted with a particular watch or pair of shoes, demand can materialize for those items overnight.
So, supply chain managers may have to ramp up production quickly, divert shipments at the drop of a hat, and find homes for remnants and excess inventory that no one could have predicted.
It’s an industry unlike any other, and it rewards logistics and supply chain professionals who have taken the time to learn it.
Earning the Right Degree for a Career in Fashion Supply Chain Management
Few things can replace a keen sense of fashion, but a college education can give you the tools to capitalize on it.
Many different types of supply chain management degrees at every level of college show you how to run a tight and fast logistics operation. Available online and in traditional formats, the coursework covers:
And they come with the kind of arts and sciences education that a fashion professional needs to develop a sense of taste and style.
Two-year associate degrees and four-year bachelor’s programs can get you in on the ground floor with general SCM training, or with concentrations in logistics, procurement, or other specialties.
At the graduate level, master’s programs offer the opportunity to drill down more specifically into the industry. There is even a Master of Science in Global Fashion Supply Chain Management available.
Most supply chain management degrees today are available in online and traditional formats, which is handy if you’re also keeping up with the latest fashion trends from Milan.
Other degrees, like a Master of Science in Business of Fashion, offer a more general education in fashion industry ins and outs, but deliver at least some logistics training as part of the package.
You can also boost your supply chain management education through a Certificate in Supply Chain Management. These short, focused, inexpensive programs deliver a quick hit of relevant SCM training for people who have earned degrees in other fields. So, if you are sitting on top of a design degree but need a fast path to understanding the supply chain to get your millinery startup off the ground, a certificate could be it.
Certificates also offer specialized options if you only need to brush up on a specific aspect of SCM. Or you can go in the other direction; if you hold a degree in supply chain management, a Graduate Certificate in Global Fashion Industry Management can bring your fashion feel up to par.
Jobs in Fashion Supply Chain Management Are Split Between Industries
Fashion is a field that spans two industries: manufacturing and retail.
So, you will find jobs on both sides of that line.
Fashion manufacturers have the usual roster of procurement professionals who get fabrics, dyes, thread, and other materials in the door. Apparel product developers help design the processes to realize fashion designs. Operations and storage managers sort it, store it, and get it fed through the machinery that turns it into haute couture. Distribution managers take over to ensure it is packaged and shipped to either retail stores, or direct to consumers through online outlets.
On the retail side, fashion merchandise buyers are always in. With limited production runs available, competition stiff, and trends constantly shifting, a procurement manager who knows the industry and can get contracts inked fast is always in demand. Inventory managers are also big players in an industry where a garment that is unsold in a month may never leave the shelf. They also deal with an enormous number of customizations… command of colors, fabrics, sizes, and other unique aspects of fashion products requires sharp record-keeping.
And, of course, supply chain analysts are important on both sides of the divide to increase efficiency and stay ahead of next season’s trends.
These positions all come with their own range of specializations. You may spend your entire career in men’s shoes, for instance. Or if bags are your bag, you can devote your career to the ins and outs of purses.
Professional Certifications in Supply Chain Management Find Favor in the Fashion Industry
Professional certifications are always fashionable in supply chain circles. Different from the educational certificates offered by colleges, these are independent, third-party evaluations of your specific knowledge and expertise in SCM.
Some certifications, like the revered ASCM (Association for Supply Chain Management) CSCP (Certified Supply Chain Professional) cover the big picture of supply chain work, from risk management to returns. It’s easy to see how that can benefit senior managers and executives in the fashion supply chain.
Others go more into niche skills, like the CPIM (Certified in Planning and Inventory Management), which is a big deal for fashion inventory managers. On the buying side, the Sourcing Industry Group’s (SIG) Certified Supplier Management Professional (CSMP) or NLPA’s (Next Level Purchasing Association) Certified Procurement Operations Manager (CPOM) can give you extra heft in your negotiations.
Supply Chain Management Salaries in Fashion Will Have You Riding in Style
High fashion can mean high salaries. But then again, that’s true of supply chain management professionals across all industries.
How high is tough to pin down, though. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the agency responsible for tracking employment and pay levels for American jobs, doesn’t have a specific industry category for fashion.
They do, however, keep track of data for certain specific supply chain management roles in both the retail trade and manufacturing industries. So that offers at least a start on estimating fashion supply chain management salary levels.
On the manufacturing side, logisticians earned a median salary of $84,550 in manufacturing in 2022. In the retail trades, that average was $60,680.
Those jobs are the rank-and-file analysts, inventory staff, buyers, and contract managers of the industry.
More senior positions fall into the ranks of Transportation, Storage, and Distribution Managers. Those working on the retail side in 2022 earned an average of $65,960; in manufacturing, the number was nearly double that, $122,730.
It’s a fast-paced world where the glamour doesn’t always make it to the warehouse. But if fashion is in your blood, supply chain and logistics work can be a profitable place to participate.
2022 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Retail Trades and Manufacturing reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed September 2023.