Bergdorf Goodman's Yumi Shin reflects on how fashion buying has evolved over the past few decades.
For anyone interested in luxury fashion buying and merchandising, Yumi Shin's resumé would read like a dream career roadmap — what might happen if you worked hard, built the right relationships and made thoughtful decisions.
Shin started as a buyer at Barneys in the late '90s, went on to become a divisional merchandise manager at Prada, and then spent 11 years at Saks Fifth Avenue, overseeing the launch of e-commerce and the retailer's ultimate evolution into an omnichannel business. In 2018, she joined Bergdorf Goodman, one of the world's most iconic luxury retailers, as executive buying director; the following January, she ascended to the C-suite, becoming chief merchant, one of the most vital roles in retail.
Crucial to Shin's rise up the ranks, she tells me, has been passion — for fashion, but for luxury, specifically. "It's just been something that has been part of my DNA ever since I was little," she says. "I always knew that I wanted to do something with regards to fashion. I just didn't know what that was."
Shin got her foot in the door working in wholesale but realized, through working with buyers, that she wanted to be on the other side of the business. That's what led her to Barneys.
"What I really loved about merchandising and buying was that it is the perfect marriage of creativity and entrepreneurship," she explains. "I love to be entrepreneurial, I love the financial aspect of the business, but I also love product and being passionate and just the creativity that you are surrounded by every day… So this was a perfect role, I guess, for me. I was fortunate that I knew that early on."
As well-suited as Shin may be to luxury buying and merchandising, things in that realm haven't always been easy and glamorous, especially during the last decade or so. From the rise of e-commerce sites and DTC, to the increased reliance on data analytics, to the quickened pace of trend cycles, to a global pandemic, it's been a tumultuous time for retail, especially that of the brick-and-mortar variety.
Below, Shin reflects on her biggest career moves, navigating the omnichannel revolution, investing in emerging brands and how the role of a merchandiser has changed over the years.
What was it like working at Barneys, and why did you decide to leave?
It was a magical experience. When I look back at my experience at Barneys, and why it was so magical, at the time it was very different: We had exclusive partnerships with you name it, all the best brands, but really it was because I had incredible mentors and colleagues there.
My mentor there, she was a huge influence on my career. She created a corporate culture of acceptance and embraced inclusivity. I realize now that it was intentional and it was something that I've taken throughout my career. Although I was so happy at Barneys and I probably could have stayed there, I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to try something new. I felt like I needed to learn more. That's when I made a move to Prada, overseeing the merchandising in the U.S. — and that's when I really got a global exposure and perspective, working with an international team at a luxury brand.
What was different about that experience, working for a single brand as opposed to a multi-brand retailer like Barneys?
Prada at the time... I mean, it's still one of my favorite brands, but it was everything to me. I just loved the brand so much. Again, it's driven by passion. I also wanted a global perspective because I knew that going in, we would be working close with the merchandising team from Italy. I didn't know if I would like it or not, but I'm glad that I made that move to Prada. I feel like you have to make yourself uncomfortable in your career. I've always wanted to challenge myself and get uncomfortable, because I think that's when you really learn and grow. And it was a leadership role, so I moved from a senior buyer at Barneys to being a divisional [manager], so it was definitely a step up in my career.
Can you share a little bit about how the job changes when you go from being a buyer to a manager?
First of all, it's all relational. At any stage in your career, it's all about relationships, internal, external. But as you progress in your career and you move into more of a managerial role — and a buyer is a manager role, too — you have a strong team that's going to all help execute the vision. It's more high-level, big-picture. It's making sure that you're communicating the vision of the brand, that everyone is aligned and that we're all working together with the same vision.
After Prada — where I stayed at for about four years — I missed the multi-brand exposure. I also knew that e-commerce was going to be the future. And so when there was this opportunity to build Saks.com, I jumped at it. I moved to Saks.com initially to oversee the merchandising strategies and was part of a team to help build the internet business there, and also eventually to transition onto an omnichannel business. Back then, again, it was very different. [Omnichannel is] a given now, but back then you had separate internet businesses. It was the early stages of e-commerce growth.
Were there any challenges during that time, even explaining to brands the importance of e-commerce? Was there any convincing that had to be done?
Yes — early on, when there weren't that many luxury brands that were yet convinced of the online space. There was a lot of sharing of analytics and data, but I think everyone knew at that point that e-commerce was going to be huge eventually. Some took longer than others, but then you share those success stories and people just eventually all were very supportive of it. The beauty of e-commerce is that you have all this data analytics.
Does that make your job easier in a way, to have that information?
Definitely not. [laughs] What I mean is that the speed and the pace of everything has become exponential. I think data definitely plays a role in that as well: You have access to data to inform a lot of your strategies, and there's a lot that you want to do and there's a lot that you can do. It's just quickened the pace and the opportunities.
So what does a Chief Merchant do? I'm sure that role has evolved a little bit over the years. Can you share a bit about what your day-to-day is like at Bergdorf Goodman and what you're responsible for?
First and foremost, I think it's managing the overall merchandising vision for the company, with the customer journey and experience in mind. That includes brand management and creating experiences that connect the Bergdorf brand to the customer. Then, you're responsible for inventory management and for bringing in new brands and deciding which brands you want to grow. It's a lot of analytics to drive high-level strategies. It's building relationships with your brand partners. And it's always having a pulse on trends. It's overseeing the seasonal merchandise planning process. It's all of those things.
To peel back the curtain a bit, how much is interacting with the fashion versus doing strategy and math and working on financial targets and managing other people?
I would have to say that the day-to-day is mostly driving strategies, executing strategies and inventory management, but it's so important to make sure that product is part of what you do every day. At the end of the day, product drives our strategies. I intentionally make sure that it's part of my day-to-day, but it's definitely much heavier on the business aspects of the job.
When you joined Bergdorfs, did you personally have any specific goals of what you wanted to bring to that retailer and that job, whether it was bringing on new designers or changing the assortment in some way?
I think for me, new and emerging brands have always been a priority. When I first started almost three years ago, we started a program called BG Radar, which now our customers expect from us, which is really exciting. It's a platform that supports new and emerging talent and we have a mission to help cultivate their business long-term.
It's intuitive in a way, too. It's understanding the '90s trend is happening, so let's get behind it now, before it's gone. I think everything is so fast-paced now. You have to have a pulse on what's going on in fashion and just everything globally. That's been my passion coming to Bergdorfs, just making sure that we're always on the pulse of fashion, being a fashion authority, making sure we're supporting new and emerging brands.
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There's the pace and obviously that there are a lot more brands now than there were probably when you were working at Barneys. There are a lot more retailers that exist now, too. How do you deal with all that in your role?
It's so important to have your vision, because there's a lot of movement and a lot of access to new brands. It's just making sure that we're on it. We look at new products through a lens of unabashed luxury, and that's always going to be how we look at collections. It's important to know what your top customers are looking for, but also the global perspective: What is it that we want to stand for? We always have our strategy that we set at the beginning of every season, making sure that we're referring back to it.
Department store retail, in particular, has been challenged and evolved a lot over the last several years. How has that impacted the role or the career trajectory of a merchandiser? What are the biggest changes you're noticing?
I really do think that each year it's incredible to see how the pace quickens. And it feels even more that way, because brands are experimenting with different cycles of when to show or they're experimenting with more of a see-now-buy-now moment... The pandemic really has just accelerated everything. I mean, we've already started seeing this pre-COVID.
What skills would you say are important to have to become a buyer or merchandising manager? What advice would you give someone who wants to follow your career path now?
I would say definitely find a mentor. I think it's so important to find that mentor and the organization that speaks to your values because that can really make a big difference on your experience. I also think it's important to have a global mindset. And you have to be passionate about what you do. I know people say that a lot, but I really believe that. It shows.
And I think because things are changing every day — change is the new constant — you have to be innovative and you can't be afraid of taking risks. And having great communication skills and knowing how to build relationships, because you take your relationships with you. I still have relationships from over two decades ago that have become very important. And also just to think overall about the total vision of the brand you work for, not just your own silo.
What would you say overall is the most challenging part of your job? And then conversely, what would you say is the most fun or rewarding part?
I think the most challenging is not having enough hours during the day to do everything that we want to do. I want to be at the scene. But you definitely have an amazing team that you partner with.
And then for me, it's always the product; that's what drives me. That's what informed a lot of what we do: seeking new brands, sourcing new trends, building businesses, driving businesses. It's really rewarding also to see when you bring in something new and it's successful, or to see how your strategies have evolved and they're working. It's so rewarding when you see results. Also it's having and building those relationships, too, with the brands. The design talent that we have out there is incredible.