Beginnings to Boardroom: Hillary France Discusses Her Career Journey and the Lessons She's Carried with Her


The beginning of a new year always invokes a sense of reflection while also encouraging us to lay a solid foundation for the next phase of our work. At Brand Assembly, our mission is to equip our community of emerging designers, collaborators, and professionals with the tools and resources so that they can reach milestone moments in their respective careers and businesses. And as we continue to push the boundaries of what we can do for our industry peers, we find ourselves asking just how our humble beginnings can inspire tremendous success and professional growth. That's why we turned to our very own Hillary France, a seasoned fashion industry veteran who proves that innovation, curiosity, and hard work are essential pillars in creating an enduring career.

On the cusp of fashion month, and to provide a little inspiration during these dreary winter days, we spoke with Hillary about her career journey (including the pivotal moment that led to the beginning of Brand Assembly). Discover her tips for making it in fashion in 2019, her go-to work style staples, and how even her earliest roles have helped inform the way she runs Brand Assembly today.

Tell us more about your career journey. What is the biggest change you've seen the fashion industry collectively face, and what do you hope the industry generally embraces more of in the coming year?

I started in this industry pre-recession at one of the oldest department store conglomerates, May Company, and even when I started in 2004, the executives were already commenting on how the industry was changing, especially with acquisitions. Back then there were fewer brands, and department stores were still the place to go shopping. In 2005, I made the change to women’s contemporary wholesale working at Cynthia Steffe, and shortly after at DVF. When you went to the Saks floor or any other department store, there were only the anchor brands (DVF, Vince, Theory, Milly, Nanette Lepore, Alice & Olivia, etc.). Additionally, sales associate incentives, buyer dinners, fashion shows, premiere hotels, and so on were the standard.

After 2008, that all changed, and even though making it in the industry seems insurmountable, I think this is the most exciting time to be a part of it. Things were the same for so long, and now they are changing rapidly. We have to stay on our toes to succeed and try new innovative initiatives to make a mark. The industry has had a taste of newness, and now they can’t get enough! The biggest challenge though is how the department stores innovate with the rest of the industry. For so long they have dictated markdowns and even if a brand makes money or not with margin agreements and returns. Now we’re asking how they will recover enough from the recession to innovate with the rest of the industry?

With the idea of new beginnings in mind, can you share an anecdote of an instance early in your career where you learned a big lesson that you've continued to carry with you?

My education at May Company (and also at DVF) really shaped my career and my confidence in the industry. What I learned at both of those places was the business and financials behind the brand, and I was able to get an understanding from both the retailer and wholesaler sides. With so many brands, there is less room to grow and develop to the size of a Theory or DVF, so these skills, though super important, fall to the wayside because designers are either trying to manage the brand themselves or have more junior staff.

Hillary’s Career Timeline

Kate Spade – My first job I worked as a Sales Associate selling bags in Washington, DC. Working there gave me the bug to pursue a role in the industry, specifically in sales and operations.

May Company – I was an Assistant Buyer for Hecht’s Department Stores. The buyer training program was invaluable to me, and I learned how to manage an open-to-buy and margins.

Guess Jeans – My first job in wholesale, though in Men's. I knew quickly that I needed to get to the Women’s side.

Cynthia Steffe – I started to work closely on managing eight to ten million dollar businesses with department stores.

DVF – This is really where I hit my stride managing department stores for RTW but then moved to handle the accessories, swim, and handbags globally, and was exposed to much more of the operations and logistics.

Rachel Zoe – I worked for Li & Fung, the largest manufacturer in the world. This is where I learned how hard it is to manage a company that big!

Kimberly Ovitz – Ran the business and managed all divisions. It exposed me to so many important things to be able to start and run my own business.

Think about your final job before starting Brand Assembly. Do you remember the moment you knew you wanted to take the leap? Tell us more about that time and what you considered before pursuing entrepreneurship.

I knew early on that entrepreneurship was the way that I wanted to go with my career, and that was due to a series of factors. Having a great boss at DVF helped me embrace diving into and exploring my curiosity and to go above and beyond what was asked of me. When I was at Kimberly Ovitz, I gained the confidence to either go for a higher executive job or to start my own thing, but also working there I knew that the need for what I wanted to offer was essential.

What is your advice for emerging designers or fashion professionals who are looking to succeed in the modern industry landscape? What steps do they need to take to make it in 2019?

Don’t lose your vision – I think it is easy to get discouraged in this industry, but I do believe that if you stay the course and keep your vision that you will come out on top.

Tap into your community – Networking and putting yourself out there nowadays is more important than ever to make yourself known.

Have patience – Know that navigating the industry is not easy and overnight success is rare. Be prepared to stick it out for several seasons both mentally and financially.

All of this might sound like it's coming across in a very serious tone, hah, but know that this industry is one of the most exciting regarding all of the possibilities! I love seeing the talent out there, and not just in design, but in business and retail innovation in general. It's definitely an exhilarating time to be part of it all.

Photos by Phoebe Cheong for Brand Assembly