Languages are in vogue in the fashion industry
International brands and overseas supply chains make languages essential for a career in fashion
Katie Forster – theguardian.com, Friday 17 January 2014 07.00 GMT
[ Rif. original piece on The Guardian online at
Aldo Liguori couldn’t do his job without languages. Liguori is global head of PR at Fast Retailing, the Japanese company behind international clothing giants Uniqlo and French label Comptoir des Cotonniers. He is fluent in five languages, including Japanese, which he says gives him “a complete advantage” when liaising with the media and his senior colleagues around the world.
We meet at the Uniqlo headquarters in Tokyo’s tallest office building, looking out over the city of people in bright T-shirts and puffer jackets below. Aldo believes his language skills have elevated his career by giving him the flexibility and adaptability to work in many locations. He has expanded his knowledge of companies, products and media “by being able to speak their language and not assuming that everybody’s going to be speaking mine”.
Although English is widely spoken in the fashion industry, foreign language skills are becoming increasingly important for those aiming for the top of this highly globalised trade. The UK’s second and third favourite high street shops, Zara and H&M, are based overseas, while New Look, currently at number one, recently announced plans to expand its presence in Europe and enter the Chinese market for the first time.
International brands like Uniqlo look for language skills when recruiting. Total fluency is not always necessary: the company offers language training for employees who need to improve and Aldo advises against pretending you know it all. “If you are not able to fully understand what someone is asking or telling you, take a step back and ask them to repeat. Even though I started many years ago, that has been a true success factor for me”.
Language study may not be à la mode, yet the British Fashion Council has highlighted the power of languages to extend the worldwide reach of UK-based designers and brands. In its latest report, they want to improve the British fashion industry’s world standing by focusing more on languages.
Kat Shallcross thinks her degree in French and Spanish helped her land the position of marketing administrator for New Look, checking stock levels in their European stores. “It would definitely have been difficult to have done the job without my language skills. To be able to speak in French rather than just English made everything more efficient.”
Her languages proved essential when she had to give a nerve-wracking but successful French presentation at a European team conference, and on visits to Paris and Belgium where “the store managers couldn’t have explained everything in English that they explained to me in French”.
Foreign travel is one aspect that makes the fashion industry appear glamorous to outsiders. However, you won’t get as far speaking only English on these trips, says Patrick Clark, another languages graduate and online editor for glossy magazine Schön! When we speak he is about to leave for Milan to report on Fashion Week, where networking outside shows is a vital part of the job.
“Anyone you meet at Fashion Week is potentially a colleague. I’ve created a lot of links in Milan with people by speaking Italian – a photographer we’re working with now is a friend of a friend.” Press releases translated into English often have mistakes, so he always reads them in Italian to get a better feel for the label’s image.
Native Russian speaker Jana Reynolds works as the international development manager at the exclusive N°10_Showroom in Paris, where her mother tongue is invaluable: “If I did not speak Russian 98% of my Russian clients would not be my clients.”
Yet she has found that speaking fluent French and Italian, as well as English, has been useful when building her international career. “If you speak French or Italian, or you’re a designer showing in France or Italy, you show you belong. Fashion is an industry that survives on symbolic value so heavily.”
Just after we speak, she emails to let me know she has just sealed a large deal at a trade show with an elderly Italian customer who owns multiple stores in Udine and speaks zero English, which “would have been a massive opportunity missed if I couldn’t communicate”.
The more languages, the better, it would seem, but which to learn? “Most of the trade happens in France and Italy, but the real money is not in Europe – the buyers are from China and Japan,” says Jana. Patrick agrees, noting that many people working in Milan showrooms speak Russian and Chinese to attract high spenders from the East.
This trend has been picked up by Asos, which launched its Chinese site in November, and Topshop, which will soon open its first stores in the country. “There are plenty of times when English isn’t enough for work,” says Timothy Parent, founder of China Fashion Collective. “Many of the designers I work with only speak Chinese. Building relationships and meeting people are incredibly important, and in China you are extremely limited if you don’t speak the language.”
Despite the allure of the foreign catwalk, there are currently no joint undergraduate fashion and language courses available in the country. This means students interested in developing their international prospects must arrange to study a language in addition to their main degree, sometimes at an extra cost. Some institutions, such as the University of the Creative Arts, offer no form of language provision whatsoever.
This may be due to the demanding nature of practical degrees, says Jason Clapperton, head of careers and student recruitment at London College of Fashion. He does stress that all the college’s courses emphasise the global aspect of the industry. “If you set up your own label, you’re going to have to know how to deal with people in the industry, and they may be from a whole variety of different countries.”
London College of Fashion students are encouraged to make use of the university language centre and Erasmus links to study textiles in Lyon or design in Denmark. His colleague Emilie Gautier is keen to point out that learning a new language and going abroad is a form of creative and cultural exchange, which can influence a designer’s visual, as well as verbal, communication skills.
Nottingham Trent University claims that languages are “definitely beneficial” for all their fashion students, yet among those from the UK, only around one in 10 choose to study a language on top of their course. This suggests that by making an effort to acquire a different vocabulary, students hoping to work in the industry will indeed stand out from the crowd.
Being multilingual can help you make the best of opportunities in the competitive fashion world. Although English remains the industry’s current lingua franca, the flexibility gained by learning another language can take your career to the top. As Jana puts it: “you can get by with English, but it’s more about the quality of communication. Fashion people are very irrational, emotional, neurotic people, and the safer they feel in your company, the further you’re going to get with them.”