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Image / Style / Fashion

My life as a fashion buyer – the glamour and the grit


By Abbi Gilbourne
19th Feb 2024
My life as a fashion buyer – the glamour and the grit

Abbi Gilbourne on what actually happens in fashion... darling.

Ten is a seminal age.

You begin to think about grown-up lives and how you are about to form your own. Back in the 80s, at the local newsagents (now progressively re-imagined as a supersize Tesco), my young eyes began to wander upward, and they clamped on titles such as Vogue, Elle and Cosmopolitan. Images depicted on those pages were my visions of perfection. Vogue won my heart forever. It shaped how I envisioned my future.

At ten, I was deemed too young by my parents to be buying Vogue. So on it went to my Santa list. Santa would never deny my plea. On Christmas Day, I carried it around the house with me like it was the Holy Bible – my Bible and what would later become my religion.  

The glamour

Years on, fresh out of college, the real world beckoned me.

My first fashion mission as a trainee buyer was to be drafted out of the office to dress the ‘Supers’. This was at an annual charity fashion show at the old Point Depot. I was an underling on the lowest rung.

My impossibly beautiful charges were Heidi and the indomitable Ms Hall  (one of whom, may or may not, have made off with a Vivienne Westwood blazer. But who was I to stop a kleptomaniac diva?).

This was Dublin in February of 2000, slap bang in the halcyon days of the Celtic Tiger, with Bono and Ali reigning supreme as King and Queen in the FROW. This world would become my new normal, the world I  had imagined all those years ago in the small town newsagents. Fashion Buying had led me to the epicentre of my fantasy. 

Over time I was deemed worthy enough to get on a plane, accompanying the buyers in a bellboy capacity for their laptops. I had arrived.

As a buyer, I was part of a tribe, a pawn brokering deals in the high stakes that is fashion gambling. One bad move and you fold. Entrusted with vast amounts of money, the challenge was to buy the fantasy that our customers dreamed of. 

From red-eye airport flights to vast luxury showrooms in Paris, Milan, New York and London, department store buying teams schlepped their suitcases and laptops, drip-fed on espressos and not much else.

Fashion forward

We were fashion’s nomads – instructed to dress for the world we were now in, permanently on the road. Our collective addiction to luxury brands during that time got so bad, we were hoarding shopping bags under our desks at work, hidden from our families.

My will to be ‘in fashion’ was frenzied. At 22, I was flying business class from Dublin to London, Marni clad, getting accustomed to an Aer Lingus champagne breakfast at 7am. Terrified of putting a foot wrong, I would stash the un-drunk mini bottles into my Prada handbag, the glass clinking away as I made my way through  Heathrow like a closet alcoholic. 

At ready-to-wear appointments, models clad in next season’s spoils would sashay by the desks and everyone would nod, ticking the best styles on their line-sheets.

As a buyer, I was part of a tribe, a pawn brokering deals in the high stakes that is fashion gambling. One bad move and you fold. Entrusted with vast amounts of money, the challenge was to buy the fantasy that our customers dreamed of. 

Frenzy

Working solo, I would steal glances at glamorous gaggles of immaculately dressed buyers and merchandisers at appointments. Teams from Bergdorfs, Lane Crawford and back then, a little-known Net-a-Porter, sitting squashed together, poring over the analysis of last season’s sales, sizes, styles, colours, and budget reports.

At ready-to-wear appointments, models clad in next season’s spoils would sashay by the desks and everyone would nod, ticking the best styles on their line sheets. Critical decisions that you would be solely held accountable for. A buyer’s bad decision has nowhere to hide. What is left on the rack in the January sales is the wreckage of a buyer’s toil. In order to keep up, I learned to run before I could walk. 

A tiny, ghostlike, shadowy blonde woman wafted silently through the empty showroom. Donatella, the fashion legend, appeared momentarily in our midst.

Showrooms were akin to maximum-security prisons. At Dolce, you were signed in at the door, given an access badge, and ordered strictly no photographs. We were there to view the prized handbags like tantalizing, sparkly jewels, pad-locked to plinths in the museum-esque showroom.

Buyers were forbidden to touch – staff wearing pristine white gloves would present them instead. Once I needed to use the bathroom. A burly security guy motioned towards the vast blank white walls. I couldn’t see any door. I prayed for divine inspiration. I walked as purposefully as I could towards the walls, squinting for a clue as to the door’s whereabouts, silently cursing myself for needing to go. It was like looking for Narnia. Being this cool takes a lot of work.  

Grit

One hot summer evening in Milan, our last appointment – Versace at 9pm – as I  wrangled my laptop leads into the Italian power sockets, exhausted from the long day, a tiny, ghostlike, shadowy blonde woman wafted silently through the empty showroom. Donatella, the fashion legend, appeared momentarily in our midst. Spurred on by sheer astonishment at the sighting of her, we ordered way too many Medusa-adorned Versace handbags that evening, budget gone out the window. The markdowns in the sale were a bloodbath, profit margins lost among the flotsam and jetsam of our misplaced enthusiasm. 

Outside the actual shows, it’s a fashion war zone, a swirling  array of personalities, each one more colourful than the next, grappling for attention  and in possession of their coveted invitations. The battle to be top dog among the attendees is fierce. 

Endurance test

The bi-annual circus that is the four weeks (four fashion cities) of the ‘shows’ is a marathon. Landing at Milan for fashion week, I found myself standing beside a fur-swathed Anna Wintour at the bag carousel (I can confirm that she lifted her own luggage off the belt bag).

Outside the actual shows, it’s a fashion warzone, a swirling array of personalities, each one more colourful than the next, grappling for attention and in possession of their coveted invitations. The battle to be top dog among the attendees is fierce. 

All of this dramatic theatre – the egos, the backaches, lack of sleep and damaged bladders thrown into the mix – makes fashion magic happen on racks, mannequins and store windows across the globe. This is a world that is woven together tightly, tapestry-like; the grit makes the glamour.

Buyers are privileged players inherent in the fabric of fashion. It was tough, it was glamorous and it was worth it.

This article was originally published in September 2021.