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MA Global Fashion Retailing mentorship programme

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  • Written byLondon College of Fashion
  • Published date17 June 2021
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Currently in its third year, the MA Global Fashion Retailing mentorship programme is open to students on the course who wish to undertake a mentorship alongside their studies. It was developed by the Course Director, Bethan Alexander who told us:

I'm delighted to say that the third year of running our MA Global Fashion Retailing mentoring network continues to surpass all expectations in what it achieves. The act of helping someone understand what matters to them, how to tap into their potential and work towards their goals is what an effective mentor-mentor relationship is all about. The power of mentorship is truly realised by all who have participated in the network.

We caught up with two of the mentors, Richard Wolff and Barbara Nigro to talk about their experiences as mentors, as well as some of the student mentees, Holly Rose Thompson (Rosie)Gemma-Lee Parker, and Nicky Dwyer to find out how it has enhanced their time on this specialist course.

Mentors

Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?

Barbara: I have over 16 years’ experience in international retail working for high street multinational brands such as Marks and Spencer, H&M and Mango, in over twenty countries. I started my professional journey with a self-taught in-store visual merchandising role; my creative approach, has taken me to a variety of Head Office roles, most recently as International Visual Manager and Digital Trend Content Manager at Marks and Spencer. Since 2019 I have been working towards transitioning into higher education and I started to collaborate with LCF as a guest lecturer.

Richard: I spent most of my career with Marks and Spencer. I was Director of UK stores and then Director of International Retail. When in charge of international, I led the team responsible for opening over 200 stores in 30 countries including our profitable franchise division. I then moved to Javelin Group which is part of Accenture. I was asked to set up a new International practice, and over 10 years we had clients across the world who we supported with their international ambitions. In my younger days with M&S I lived in the USA for 4 years in charge of Brooks Brothers stores followed by Kings Food Supermarkets.

What made you want to get involved in the Professional Mentoring Network?

Barbara: I have always been very passionate about training and mentoring. In 2019 I volunteered for “The Girls Network” charity yearly mentorship scheme, and since April 2020, I have been applying my professional mentoring skills within the academia at London College of Fashion. This continues to be a truly enriching and rewarding experience for both myself and my mentees and I am determined to continue to contribute to future pastoral activities within the academia to enhance students’ learning experience.

Richard: I have always enjoyed mentoring people over the years. I love my contact with London College of Fashion where I have supported Bethan with sessions and panels for the last few years.  I mentioned to Bethan that I was intending to do more mentoring going forward - when she asked me if I would be interested in supporting the students through the professional mentoring network I was delighted to be involved.

What kinds of activities do you do with the participants?

Barbara: I always try to establish a connection by sharing my professional background and ask students to share their personal, educational and professional background. We proceed in discussing expectations from the mentoring sessions and one frequent exercise has been to ask students to jot down their strengths and weaknesses, interests and passions. Some students have highlighted challenges related to peer-to-peer pressure, self-confidence, personal presentation and networking skills. Students, especially this year, have been feeling very lost, confused and uncertain about their future personal and professional journey, and these types of exercises have really benefited them in such a challenging year.

Richard: I like to ask the participants to give me their background to start with. We work together to identify which of their objectives I can support them with. I ask the participants questions that hopefully make them think of some of the answers themselves - it always seems the best way for people to own the answers.

How was the experience of taking part and working remotely?

Barbara: It was certainly different to deliver the mentoring remotely. Last year I had the opportunity to have a first IRL meeting with a mentee prior the pandemic however we needed to quickly adapt and take the meetings digitally.  I believe students have been very excited for this opportunity, regardless of the facility, and taking the mentoring sessions as a safe space to open up, feeling they could be listened and supported, therefore I believe the fully remote nature of the scheme this year did not impact the quality of the outcome.

Richard: Working remotely worked well.  Everyone was on time for the meetings and they worked smoothly.  However, my preference would be to meet face to face which feels more natural.

What are your highlights of being part of the network? Are there any particular students or projects that stand out?

Barbara: I feel extremely grateful for having had the fantastic opportunity to mentor students for the second consecutive year of this program. Mentoring students continues to be an extremely enriching and rewarding experience for me and always feels strange once it comes to an end as I wished there would be more of it! I also had the great opportunity to see them interacting in class during a couple of IRL workshops I delivered within this MA course. And it was really fantastic to see how the implemented some of the learnings and reflections we had during the mentoring sessions when interacting with their peers in class – strengthening their communication and interaction skills. I really felt quite emotional observing them in class, it was a hugely rewarding feeling for me.

Richard: There were many highlights. The feedback from the students was very motivating - there was a big change between the first meetings and the second.  During the first students were still in lockdown.  By the second it had been largely relaxed allowing attendance again at LCF.  People were happier with this of course.

What can we hope for and expect from the next generation of the fashion industry?

Barbara: In my professional evolution into an international leader, I learnt how it is important to nurture values such as trust, respect, empathy, collaboration, cross-cultural awareness and inclusivity. I strongly believe that guiding students in nurturing these values will support them shaping in the positive leaders of the future.

Richard: Based on the conversations I feel very optimistic about the next generation entering the fashion industry. Despite all the current challenges they are proceeding with determination and realism. Their course has clearly equipped them well - they are impressive.

What would your advice be to students and graduates starting out in the industry in a post pandemic world?

Barbara: Be brave! Be yourself! Be humble! Collaborate and learn from others! Empathy is trust! Never stop being curious! I have been constantly striving with both my previous international teams, students and mentees to encourage self-expression, versatility and resilience, both as an individual and within a group. I believe this will prepare them more effectively in their transition to the current and future volatile professional landscape.

Richard: My advice would be to ‘chase’ your objectives and not to be discouraged. Keep networking as people are generally only too pleased to see if they can help.  Don’t be shy!

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Mentees

Why did you decide to take part in the mentoring network?

Holly Rose Thompson (Rosie): Prior to starting my MA at LCF, I basically had no experience in the fashion industry; I'd come straight from an unrelated undergraduate degree at Durham University and had just one short fashion internship. Though I knew I wanted to work in fashion, I quickly realised that there were jobs out there that I didn't even know existed. I jumped at the chance to take part in the professional mentoring network so that I could feel like someone was on my side in a very competitive industry.

Gemma-Lee Parker: I decided to take part in the mentoring network as I wanted to discuss my feelings regarding where my skills could fit into the fashion industry. I wanted to do the mentorship network as I wanted to understand the pathways I could follow, which I definitely gained from the experience.

Nicky Dwyer: I decided to take part in the mentoring network because, coming straight from an undergraduate degree in Business and Economics, I had very little knowledge of – and connections within - the fashion industry. Further, I was quite unsure of what career path I wanted to go down. I wanted to ask my mentor for advice on how to build a network from scratch and how to figure out what career path was right for me. I also wanted to hear more about trend forecasting and consultancy jobs in the fashion industry.

What did you gain from the experience? How did you find working remotely whilst also working collaboratively?

Holly Rose Thompson (Rosie): My sessions with Richard were better than I ever could have expected. Not only was I able to have informal chats with an industry expert about my options, but Richard took this one step further and introduced me to his colleagues to also garner their advice. I no longer feel as if I am in uncharted territory and have been given the invaluable gift of direction.

Nicky Dwyer: Barbara gave me great advice on how to network with people in the industry and how to be more confident when reaching out to people. Further, Barbara’s career journey was very interesting. She had worked in various different roles within the industry and as she spoke about each of these roles and what was involved in them, I got a good idea of what appealed to me and what didn’t.

What has been the highlight of the mentoring network for you?

Holly Rose Thompson (Rosie): The highlight of the mentoring network was the confidence it gave me; previously, networking seemed very intimidating, but I am now comfortable connecting with industry professionals online.

Gemma-Lee Parker: The conversation was almost therapeutic; Barbara’s people skills are as good as her knowledge of the industry, meaning the session was so well balanced and it being remote wasn’t a hinderance at all. I left feeling very positive and proactive about my future in the industry, which was a key highlight!

Nicky Dwyer: The highlight of the mentoring network for me has been knowing that there is someone there to go to when you need advice or when you find yourself stuck at a bit of a crossroads. Also, Barbara gave me a new lease of motivation. I left the session with excitement and hope for the MA and for my future.

What would be your advice for anyone looking to join the mentoring network next year?

Holly Rose Thompson (Rosie): My advice to anyone looking to join the mentoring network would be to never turn down an opportunity - take every chance possible to meet someone for an online coffee or to be connected with someone new.

Gemma-Lee Parker: I would highly recommend joining the mentoring network if you need a safe space to talk about your skills, job worries, or place in such a demanding industry. My advice would be to question the mentor on their entire industry journey, as their knowledge from lived experience will be invaluable to you - getting that chance doesn’t come around very often.

Nicky Dwyer: My advice to someone looking to join the mentoring network next year would be to really prepare for the first meeting with your mentor in order to make the most out of the experience. Really think about what you want to get from the session and have your questions ready in advance. Also, no question is stupid and your mentor is there to help you, so ask whatever is on your mind no matter how small it may be. Also, if you have a few areas of interest that you’re looking to explore but your mentor is not involved in, ask anyway – you never know what connections they may have or what advice they may be able to give on an area that is unrelated to their field.