June-Mee Hong is the Merchandising Director for SMCP, whose porfolio of fashion-forward brands include Sandro, Maje, and Claudie Pierlot. And June-Mee has fashion chops galore, with experience developing global markets for brands like Tory Burch and Neiman Marcus. Today we're picking her fashionable mind.
Tell me about how you got your start in fashion. Any advice you’d give to someone starting out?
Fashion was always a very important part of my life since I was a little girl, inherited from both sides of my family in Korea, most notably my maternal grandmother and mother. After graduating with an English Literature degree, I moved straight to Williamsburg in 2005 (what a different world it is now comparatively!) in hopes to find an interesting opportunity and started applying for Fashion and Editorial jobs. Luckily, I had secured an internship with the Italian luxury suit brand Brioni in NYC that summer so I had a few months to create a network and test out the industry. I got my foot in the door at Ralph Lauren, then found my passion for Merchandising at Theory, and the rest is history! My advice to someone starting out is to follow your real passion and intuition, and have faith in yourself to be able to survive the (almost always) harsh beginning years of finding your path in fashion.
Which parts of working in fashion are the most rewarding? What’s most challenging?
As a merchant, seeing my everyday creative ideas, business analyses, and collaborations come to life in the product and sales figures is definitely what drives me. The most challenging is keeping up with the extremely fast pace of the industry and simultaneously attempting to maintain a work life balance!
There’s been plenty of talk about how there are educational gaps in certain creative functions within the fashion business. Do you have any insight on this from your personal experience?
I definitely think there is opportunity for enhanced business education in fashion, especially with how directly linked the retail business atmosphere is to both micro and macro economic factors and spending power shifts between global markets. After working in the NYC fashion industry for about 5 years, I personally felt like I was lacking a strong financial and business background in order to jump to the next level of global merchandising which is why I decided to pursue an MBA at INSEAD. It was one of the most beneficial decisions I made in my career, and it enabled me to excel quicker with a keen business mindset and opened me up to amazing high-level job opportunities that allowed me to directly impact businesses in various markets around the world. Many fashion businesses get bottle-necked due to lack of talent and true global mindsets, so it’s important to invest in enhancing business education and acumen.
Speaking of smarts, it seems as though you have to use both left- and right-brain thinking in your job. How do you balance the two?
Not only does my job require maintaining the ever elusive balance between left and right brain, but I’m also a Libra so balance is the driving force in my life! Being a strong merchant means having the ability to effectively merge your creative and inner fashion intuition with the numbers and analytics of your sales. I try to juggle back and forth on an everyday basis between creativity and business through spending equal amounts of time balancing both: touching and feeling the product at our stores versus reviewing daily numbers by store, buying trips at the Paris HQ to work with product and design teams versus providing these teams with detailed financial analyses to prove product opportunities and ensure regional needs are met, staying competitive through physical market visits versus monitoring rankings and business updates on competitor brands.
Despite the major ‘growing pains’ that many brands are currently undergoing, what, from your point-of-view, does the white space look like for fashion brands?
It’s an extremely tough retail atmosphere out there with so much volatility and uncertainty for what the future holds, particularly in the US. The market remains highly promotional and the department store domination has dwindled, so it’s important as ever for brands to adapt to the climate by concentrating on higher full-priced sell throughs, optimal inventory levels, storytelling, and omni channel experiences. I’ve always been a firm believer in brick and mortar, and though the digital space is arguably the most important these days, storefronts will always remain the most crucial vehicle to tell the brand story to the consumer. This is where the omni experience becomes the key to businesses surviving current challenges, and the seamless experience for the customer will be make or break. Technology has spoiled the consumer so the expectations on customer service are too high. 'Buy-now, wear-now' product, ability to shop seamlessly at any location, and creating excitement around exclusivity and unique design are all important initiatives for companies.
I do believe that fashion companies can jump back but only with a highly cautious approach focusing on brick and mortar profitability with attention to the number of physical doors even if it means closing a large number of them, out-of-the box thinking on technological innovation and how they can be leveraged both online and in-store, transparency and collaboration between regional business units to offer an effective global consumer experience, and continued investment in the right people to passionately deliver the brand’s vision and design to the end consumer. Faith in brand DNA and human connection cannot be lost!
You’ve worked in several roles where you help brands move into new markets. What are the biggest learnings you’ve had from that experience? Anything that surprised you?
Launching and expanding brands in new markets has definitely become a specialty and passion of mine. The risk factors associated with new markets are extremely high, so a project that you may end up working on for countless hours and that has a promising prospect of success based on business analysis and exhaustively thorough preparation can at any point in time crash and burn. Because of the unpredictability of new markets and obstacles in building brand awareness, I’ve learned that the most important qualities to possess are resilience and adaptability. If you can’t be comfortable with failure, it will be difficult to successfully launch and build strong regional businesses. During my time working in Asia (HK and Shanghai), what surprised me the most was how many brands failed to learn from the common mistakes that were seen repeatedly in mainland China expansion, especially when it came to highly aggressive store counts while being blind to how this could negatively impact a sustainable regional expansion strategy.
Which retail brands do you love and identify with? Why?
Apart from my long lasting love for the brands I work for now, Sandro and Maje, I identify the most with a mix of contemporary and street brands. I was following and wearing Sandro and Maje for the past 7 years ever since I discovered them in Paris when I moved there for business school, so my current job is a dream come true. Our brands have not only very unique brand identities and beautiful product, but also a highly unique business model that merges luxury and fast fashion.
On the contemporary side, I’m also very loyal to Helmut Lang, Theory, Rag & Bone, Acne, Alexander Wang, and Isabel Marant. Clearly, in terms of aesthetic, I identify with a sleek downtown edge mixed with the effortless style of Parisian women!
On the more casual street style side, I love Public School, Off White, John Elliott, and of course, Nike for sneakers. Currently obsessed with NYC newcomer The Arrivals that have gorgeous leather pieces and Swedish brand Axel Arigato that have amazing minimalist handcrafted sneakers.
You’re stranded on a desert island but at least you’re sporting your favorite outfit. What is it?
Sandro Women's "Doris" black patchwork jeans, Sandro Men's black "Clash" t-shirt and "Vega" navy hoodie, Maje "Basalt" black leather jacket, black Nike high top kicks, and Ray-Bans... in true New Yorker-slash-Parisian fashion.