HOW DID I GET HERE? – GARY ODA: O’NEILL’S DIRECTOR OF MEN’S MERCHANDISING AND DESIGN

January 4th, 2009 | By | 251 Comments
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I want to dedicate this  post to the undergrads out there who have been frantically stressing over their future careers. I have three words of advice: Drop. Out. Now. I’m not kidding. If you’re seriously thinking about pursuing a path in retail management, the best thing you can do is to get a job immediately and move yourself up the ranks. You just might end up working as a top level executive for one the largest manufacturers in the world. There are numerous retail giants who have launched their own buying and merchandising programs (Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Ross, Pottery Barn) that put entrants on the fast track to industry fame and fortune.
 
Particularly for those intrested in becoming a brand merchandiser.
 
Although often going unseen and uncredited, merchandisers play an enormously important role in a clothing line’s development and popularity. From the cradle to the grave, merchandisers are the ones who actually conceive the look and features of a garment, its “wearability“ with other items in the line, and its marketability as piece that accurately portrays the brand’s image. Hit or miss, it all comes back to rest on the merchandiser’s shoulders.
 
Sound confusing? It should, considering how many hats a veteran merchandiser should be wearing. Let me try to break it down. A marketing director creates the philosophy, voice and execution of a brand’s “personality”. The designer actually builds the clothes and is responsible for the fabrication, fit and feel. The merchandiser then works between the two, making sure the clothes feature the intended image set forth by the marketing director, while providing the designer with specifications as to how the entire line will be laid out. Additionally, a merchandiser is also heavily involved with sales and sales forecasting, thereby ultimately deciding that (A): “Short-sleeve plaid shirts were hot for us the last two seasons; we need more.” And (B): “We’ll design seven varying styles of short-sleeve plaid shirts, focusing on our trend expert’s suggestion of navy blue, silver and lime green colorways, which can all be interchanged with our five new styles of denim, and our eight new styles of chino fitted walkshorts.”
 
It’s an exhilarating and exhausting job, but one that pays extremely well. Merchandisers at the top of their game are highly sought after and regularly lured away by competitors offering even more pay, perhaps more say, and hopefully more recognition. Often times merchandisers were once successful designers or product developers. However, more recently they led stellar careers as top-level buyers whose keen insight and understanding of consumer spending make them incredibly useful in winning the retail war.
 
Such is the case with O’Neill’s Director of Merchandise and Design, Gary Oda. A former buyer for Macy’s (and graduate of Macy’s buying program), Disneyland, PacSun and Swell, Gary made the move to merchandiser a year and a half ago after months of solicitation by O’Neill’s Vice President of Merchandising and Design, Ryan Rush. Hitting the ground running, Gary has helped to expand O’Neill’s domination in the boardshort and walkshort categories, as well as provide double-digit growth in their boys’ line. In the following interview Gary provides a rare glimpse of the inner workings of one of action sports’ heaviest hitters, as well as valuable advice from a retail general who’s been-there-and-done-that experience is paving the way for the next generation.
 
Describe your day-to-day roles:
The great thing about my job is that it’s different every day. I’m involved from the planning stages for the line all the way through to reviewing sales reports and retailer results. On any given day I could be doing any of the following: Managing/directing the design team; planning the Mens and Boys/Kids lines (including identifying the style and sku count, wholesale/retails, competitor review); meeting with key accounts to uncover needs and identify opportunities; managing the catalog/line sheet (from photo shoots to proofing the pages); attending fit sessions; shopping our retailers and competitors; preparing for sales meetings; and attending trade shows. It’s pretty much anything you can think of…and then some. There’s NEVER a dull moment around here!

Best job perks:
This is the most fun part of the retail industry—It’s very social and there’s always an event or party on the calendar. I have a great work environment and great co-workers who are stoked to be part of the industry.  It’s also a casual work attire—when wearing a suit means you’re in the water and dressy footwear means leather flip-flops.

In your opinion, how do the roles of being a merchandiser differ from that of a buyer’s or designer’s?
One of my jokes about my job is that I don’t actually DO anything, but manage the whole process through others. This definitely can’t be said about being a buyer or designer.  The merchandiser role is probably more related to the buyer function—essentially you want to put the best possible assortment together to drive your business.  As a merchandiser, you get to influence the actual product and design details whereas a buyer selects from a completed line.  A successful line has both strong design and strong merchandising.  You need designers to push boundaries and try new ideas, but it’s the merchandiser who needs to manage the content of the line and determine when to take appropriate risk.  My background gives me a “buyer’s eye” when I build the line—this helps when it comes time for the painful editing process when we drop styles from the line.

 

How does O’Neill ‘s office environment compare to others?Let’s face it—an office is an office.  It’s really the management within an organization that’s responsible for setting the tone.  The great thing at O’Neill is that it’s casual and low-key, but still very professional.  Compared to some of my more corporate experience, it’s definitely more of a team-driven atmosphere versus individuals clawing their way up the ladder.

 
What do you think are the biggest misconception an outsider to the action sports industry would have about about working as a merchandiser?
That the people you work with are a bunch of pot-smoking surfers or slacker-skaters (Okay – there are some of those, too). People don’t realize the level of talent and business knowledge the industry has developed and recruited.  The industry has come a long way.
 
What advice can you share with high school graduates who want to pursue buying or merchandising? Where should they start?
I actually think getting a part-time job in a retail store is pretty educational and a great place to get your feet wet.  Being on the selling floor gives you direct exposure to working with customers, and seeing the best and worst sellers and their effect on the business.  Fashion school could be a good way to go if you’re certain about your future career goals (i.e. know you want to be a designer), but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to everyone.  A regular college degree wouldn’t hurt your chances for success, especially if you want to be a buyer with a major retailer.  I’m not trying to be evasive here, but there are many paths to success in this business. I didn’t go to fashion school or get a 4-year college degree.
 
In your opinion, what sets a “great” resume apart from a “good” one? 
A resume is only a piece of paper, but still can get you an initial call.  A great resume shows a progression of responsibility, a list of accomplishments for each position, and employment lengths of a minimum of 2-3 years at a company.  You want to highlight your contributions to each company and try to draw the connection between them and what you can offer to the prospective employer.
 
Are you more interested in skills or personality?
Ideally you look for both, but personality trumps skills for me. You can teach skills but you can’t change someone’s personality.  A positive attitude, willingness to work hard and learn new things are keys to success in any job.
 
What characteristics should a future top-level merchandiser possess?
 Most importantly, you have to know your customer. Shop stores and meet with buyers, absorb culture, identify trends/ideas to apply to your business.  You need to have a good sense of both fashion dynamics (color, trends versus fads, etc.) and retail business dynamics (consumer behavior, analyzing risk/reward, business math).  You need to be able to analyze your business for past hits and misses and apply those learnings to capitalize on opportunities. You want to be able to identify key items within your assortment and expand that success to other categories.  Lastly, you need to be able to separate your personal likes and dislikes from your business decisions. You have to do what’s right for the brand and customer, not necessarily what you like or want to wear.  My background as a buyer has been a big plus in this job.
 
Everyone recommends starting off as an intern, but with the current economic fallout, would you still suggest working for free? 
Interning is a great way to get your foot in the door and see if you really like how a company operates on a day-to-day basis, and most importantly, gives you exposure to the jobs you want to pursue.  That’s how a lot of people in our industry got their start, so if you have the means to do it, I recommend it.  Smart companies take advantage of using the talents and time of interns, but also benefit from an easy new hire transition if a permanent position works out.  If you can’t afford to intern, get a job at a core retailer, go above and beyond for your employer, and develop relationships with the sales reps.  Start building your network immediately—meet people in the stores, at events and trade shows. Show your enthusiasm for the brands and your passion for the industry.
 
 Would you ever want to launch your own line or retail store?
I have thought about both, actually. I think it’s only natural when your job is to drive a successful, profitable business…it’s easy to feel like you should be getting more rewards for your labor or that you could do things better with less committee approval.  At the end of the day though, working for a company provides me more stability, benefits for my family, and more personal time.  I’m lucky to get to apply my passion for creating product in my current role.
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DONAVON FRANKENREITER COLLECTION FOR BILLABONG

January 3rd, 2009 | By | 2,544 Comments

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Fresh from the furry-lipped musician Donavon Frankenreiter, comes a collection of free-spirited, surf and ocean-inspired gear. The line is a reflection of his melodic tunes and soulful surfing style. “The collection embraces my surfing philosophy and the musical side of my life and everything that surrounds it,” says Donavon. “It’s a reflection of my life over the past 15 years. “If you like Donavon’s earthy vibrations and retro style, you’ll dig his harmonious collaboration with Billabong.

WE’RE BRINGING SEXY BACKS

December 30th, 2008 | By | 185 Comments

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Spring’s favorite dresses are all about adding subtle sex appeal without baring it all. Sultry style comes without minis or plunging necklines that beg for wardrobe malfunctions. With ground-dusting lengths, relaxed, flowing cuts, and sassy exposed shoulders, these dresses have got your back.

Featured Looks (from left to right):
Indah Jett Dress; Hurley Electric Warrior Maxi Dress; Indah Hourglass Maxi Dress; Lost Paula Dress; Hurley Cooper YC Dress

SURFRIDER URGES: REDUCE, REUSE FIRST. RECYCLE AS A LAST RESORT

December 29th, 2008 | By | 2,435 Comments
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Rise Above Plastics is a new-ish Surfrider campaign, which hopes to bring attention to the problem of marine debris that is generated most typically by you and me and which you probably see floating in the line-up everyday. Other ocean junk tends to break down into its constituent elements in the ocean over time, but plastics are forever. They break down into smaller pieces of, well, plastic, all the way down to the molecular level – fish eat it, you eat the fish… you get the picture, and, ironically, the plastic.Recycling seemed to start as a “good” thing way back when, before drinks were dispensed in plastic bottles, but now often suffices as the knee-jerk, feel-good justification for picking up a few extra pallets of individual-serving water bottles. One of the original tenants of the Rise Above Plastics (RAP) campaign is that, “We all rely and use many forms of plastics each and everyday – but much of that use is a convenience choice, a choice that can be swayed toward the proper environmental path, often requiring no more effort on your part.” It’s not just flexing your purchasing power or exercising the right choice, it’s about a fundamental change in personal paradigm. The solution: Lead an “examined life,” turn off your automatic pilot to take a look at your actions that may affect the environment. Then ask yourself, “Is it worth it, to buy a plastic bottle drink versus one in a glass?” For me, the answer is a resounding no. I actively recycle SUPs that other people generate, but if I have to resort to recycling a SUP item that I’ve “created” because I chose to use it, then that’s a failure on my part. Recycling as a failure – think about that. Recycling as a last resort – act on that.

Even if 99% of all single-use plastics (SUPs) make it to the recycler (the hard part) and are actually recycled (the unknown part), we still have a monumental environmental waste problem (the tangible part). The dang stuff is produced in unbelievable volumes and just doesn’t go away. It takes energy and resources to create, ship and dispose of that bottle — a bottle that really only has a useful lifetime of 15 minutes — then it takes more energy and resources to render that same bottle into something else. Waste, followed by waste, and compounded by more waste. Lots of efforts put together just to produce and handle waste — efforts that, when realized as a waste, can and should be avoided.

Perhaps too abstract or radical a shift for the average Joe, but, like it or lump it, it’s where we all eventually need to be, and is the conceptual pillar of Rise Above Plastics — rise above the concept that single-use plastics are worth the price of the unseen repercussions of their use. Believe it or not, it’s a pretty easy change to make.

Now, with the economy hitting the skids, reports are showing that markets for recycled materials have died as well. Recyclable materials are sitting in piles, unused and unwanted — an ugly reality. Climb aboard the RAP train. Visit www.riseaboveplastics.org and help staunch the flow of garbage to the sea.

Scott Harrison is the Chairman of the San Diego County Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.