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How I #MadeIt: Natalie Kingham

Photographed by Eva K. Salvi
Over the past two decades, fashion has become one of the most competitive courses at university, with at least six applicants for every place at the top schools, and within the field, fashion buying is now one of the most popular pathways. So how exactly do you reach that much-coveted position and become a Fashion Buyer, and what exactly does the job involve?

Who better to ask than Natalie Kingham, the Buying Director at leading luxury retailer, who has worked her way up the ranks since her time as a sales assistant in Joseph, aged 20. We headed over to their Marylebone townhouse to talk to Natalie about career advice, changes within the industry since she first started out, surviving fashion weeks, and the criteria for finding the next It item.

Who or what was it initially that inspired you to pursue a career in fashion as a teenager?
It was magazines like Blitz, The Face, i-D. I was living in South London and those were my style bibles, as they were for a lot of people in those days. I was really drawn to the club scene as well. Because you couldn’t get all this fast fashion, we used to create it in our bedrooms; cut things up and go to second-hand stores and go through my grandmother’s wardrobe. The girls used to come round on a Friday night after school and we would decide what look everyone was going for. Initially it was styling or designing that I wanted to do but my school wasn’t great and I couldn’t draw and the door was firmly shut for me to go and do an Art Foundation course at St Martins. So I started writing to all the stylists in the magazines; some of them who I’m now quite friendly with are mortified because obviously they didn’t respond to me!
So your career really began at Joseph?
I went onto the shop floor as I needed work. I was lucky enough to start working at Joseph in Westbourne Grove and he [Joseph Ettedgui] was there all the time. He probably saw this very passionate, clubby looking, scrawny kid and took me under his wing. I learnt a lot about retail from him and I very quickly started buying for him. Within a matter of weeks I was out choosing things to bring in, which was great because there was a lot of British talent at the time. The shop was packed with Alaia, Yohji, McQueen, Patrick Cox and the Joseph line was really, really big then.

That’s how I started to fall into buying but I did leave that position because I fell pregnant with my daughter and once she got to about 3 or 4, I really started exploring photography, styling and I did have my own line for a little while as well.
It was only about 7 years ago that I wanted to come back into the retail part. I got involved in sales and then I came to Matches. When I was younger, there was a lot of admin to do and I admire all those young girls who want to get into buying because there’s just so much admin involved in orders and I’ve been very lucky in coming back later and I’m very hands on with product and understanding what women want. I’m very product driven. The styling part, working with designers and factories... I’ve got a good 360 degree angle of how the whole machine works within fashion and my job now is to make sure that the money I’m given is spent in the best place on the best product with the most integrity.
How do you select those products? What are the key criteria for choosing something you think might become a bestseller?
There are many times that I might look at something and I know that it’s going to be a really good seller but it wouldn’t be for us and our market and our customer. You can spot trends from the way people are living their lives and there’s a much bigger picture which I find very interesting but when I drill it down to looking at a designer’s collection there are so many things that could make it work.

You could really think this person is such a talented designer and they really know how to talk about their product, they look great and could talk to the press, they have their price points right and then it doesn’t sell. Then you might have someone who isn’t very eloquent about what they’re designing but then the product is so good the customer buys it and that’s that.

Our customer is really astute and fashion savvy so they do want newness and integrity. I’d only ever bring them what I think is the best design with the best quality and that’s really, really important to me. There is a very high bar that we’ve set as a company that you have to reach. It’s also about trying to spot talent and working with the talent to make the product work at retail.

Over the past few months we’ve seen Raf Simons step down at Dior and Alber Elbaz leave Lanvin. Hedi Slimane is reportedly parting ways with Saint Laurent. What do you think of the current state of fashion? If the biggest designers can’t keep up with the pace what hope is there for inexperienced, emergent talent?
I think things will probably have to change. Having so many collections a year: men’s, couture, pre-fall, swimwear… There’s far too much. I just saw the Pre-Fall Gucci and it was just a continuation. This is the DNA, this is what the brand is. It’s not a radical change each season, it’s fluid but when a customer loves that DNA they can just keep coming back. I think that will become more important rather than each season there being a new handbag or new shoe. I just don’t think that’s sustainable and actually some businesses have been built on one great show or bag anyway.
From your wealth of experience and years in the industry, how do you think it’s changed for the better or worse?
How has it changed for the better? I think the online visibility for brands means huge potential for everybody. In the bygone era, John Galliano would appear and it could take a long time for the whole world to catch up. Nowadays somebody can appear and the whole world has caught on straight away. I think that’s really powerful and a good thing. You used to have to wait for a magazine to plop on your doormat. You could never see the fashion shows until Vogue Collections put it out and now you can see them instantly.

There is a lot of fast fashion but I think good designers, good product and good style runs all the way through continually.

What does your job entail day-to-day?
It’s very varied which is one of the nice things about the role. I spend a lot of time travelling. It’s not just the fashion weeks, we do a lot of PR and marketing trips as well. I spend a lot of time at airports. Today it involves looking at the sales, looking at what’s coming in. Always thinking about ideas to keep the customer engaged and keep our customer excited about product coming in.

Why do you identify so much with and what sets it apart from its competitiors?
I always shopped here. Then when I got to meet the team and met Tom and Ruth, they’re a very dynamic and entrepreneurial couple to work for. I’ve really enjoyed the journey of how the company has grown and our .com business and that’s been really exciting. It makes it very personal and special. We’re essentially a family-run business which I really like.

What would be your advice for someone starting out?
Think carefully! I've been looking at some very nice letters and CVs recently and there was a lovely girl that wrote and said I’d really like to get into buying because I really want to go on the appointments and to fashion shows and look at product and make that selection. But oh my god, there’s so much to do and learn before you can really get to that stage. There is a lot of administration about making sure you’ve got your margins right, the right currencies, that you’ll make enough money on something, the shipping, have you got enough sizes… There’s so much of that which goes into buying that is really analytical. You need to be very good at that part and not just looking at lovely frocks. There’s a lot more too it. Fashion is business and whatever element of it you go into there’s a business element that I think people aren’t always aware of.
Who are the designers exciting you for 2016?
I’m very excited to see what Demna from Vetements is going to do at Balenciaga. I think he’s extremely talented. He’s really good at scale and volume and that’s essentially what Cristóbal was so good at, so his modern day take could be really interesting. Grace Wales Bonner’s collection came in a few days ago and is doing really well. I’m very excited to see how she progresses and moves forward. Then brands like Tabula Rasa who are really talented in knitwear are good ones to watch.
How do you pack for fashion month?
It’s tricky but I’ve learnt a few things. I have a lot of ready-made packages, like a medicine bag and sewing kit. It’s very gruelling and tiring so being able to get up everyday and feel polished and put together, good quality and simple products work well. A lot of cashmere sweaters, a good black pair of trousers, a lot of shirts. Normally fashion months tend to have transeasonal weather so it could start off very cold and end up very warm so that’s why the simple, clean minimal wardrobe is very good. I never travel without a tux. That’s always my evening go-to. White shirts and red lipsticks bring you to life.

Finally, is there any item you’d recommend for SS16?
I’m quite into the tracksuit. I loved the Chloe rainbow stripe tracksuit bottoms but I really also loved the Vetements tracksuits. Whether it’s luxed up or very casual, I don’t think that’s something I could live without.

Follow Natalie on Instagram @NatalieKingham

Photographed by Eva K. Salvi