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Fashion

What to do when you’ve been laid off

By Rae Witte
02 Jan 2020

An industry in flux leads to shrinkage and job cuts. Former fashion employees and career coaches share their best practices.

Key takeaways:

  • Store closures and strategic repositioning in the fashion industry lead to layoffs. 
  • Experts recommend employees navigate a layoff by keeping online portfolios up to date, knowing their rights and working industry connections to land a new role. 
  • Employees who have weathered layoffs emphasise that fashion is an industry that prizes relationships.

The fashion industry has been through a year of highs and lows, and the lows can lead to layoffs. The bankruptcies and closures of retailers and brands including Barneys, Topshop US, Forever 21 and Zac Posen have left store associates and HQ employees suddenly without jobs. More store closures across companies like Victoria’s Secret, Payless and Charlotte Russe contributed to the year’s more than 9,300 retail store closings. Unemployment in the US is at a 50-year low at 3.5 per cent, but a fashion industry in flux sometimes means letting employees go.

While layoffs are most frequently due to downsizing and restructuring in a volatile job market, it’s still a difficult-to-navigate blow. Career coach Latesha Byrd says it can be one of the most challenging moments in one’s career. “Even if you see it coming, it still takes an emotional toll.”

Steps can be taken that will help employees land on their feet following a sudden job loss, according to experts as well as former workers who have weathered a layoff.

Stay prepared

Layoffs are typically unanticipated. But experts recommend employees keep personal websites, portfolios or résumés up to date at all times, even when you’re not job searching. Having your professional footprint current means work is more likely to find you, and that means an unexpected layoff will leave you in less of a lurch or on a desperate pursuit. Robbie Simmons, a New York-based visual artist, says that an updated website and Instagram, Twitter and Facebook accounts help facilitate the most work.

Beyond keeping your public profiles in pristine condition, compiling proof of your past work achievements can go a long way in future job searches. Former employees recommend planning ahead. Mary Mitchell Fuqua, former director of women’s sales at Calvin Klein who was laid off following Raf Simons’s exit and subsequent closing of the luxury division in March this year, says she keeps a personal template specifically for tracking sales analyses no matter the state of her job. “They’re quite hefty files to create, so I always keep a formatted draft of different selling components for my records.” 

Byrd also emphasises the importance of keeping a network of industry contacts and friends close. Supporting the work of people you’d want to work with and helping to make introductions for other people helps keep your own work top of mind for future opportunities. “The fashion business is quite small,” Fuqua says. “People will look out for you.”

Know your rights

If a layoff is happening, navigating it properly will help the transition. Byrd says employees should get an understanding of why they’re getting laid off by requesting a reason, preferably in writing. She adds that employees should remain professional, no matter how upset they are in the moment. Still, she adds, don’t sign anything until you understand your full rights. 

Typically, these include severance pay, payout for accrued vacation time, career displacement services and health benefit processes, and Byrd says employers are responsible for covering logistics and expectations during a layoff.

Checking state and country laws helps clarify what’s available to you. For Fuqua, the circumstances at Calvin Klein fell under New York State’s revised WARN Act for private sector employers with more than 50 employees. The act states that either laying off one-third of the workforce or 250 employees at one site requires 90 days advance notice of the actual termination date, leaving time to get a head start at looking for new opportunities before their final day. 

Exit interviews are also important to prioritise, even during an unexpected layoff. If one isn’t offered, Byrd recommends requesting one and being open with the feedback you give. Finally, exporting email contacts and removing personal files from work devices is an important last step. 

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Land on your feet

Following a layoff, Byrd advises former employees to be strategic with their time. “Outside of job searching, find ways to fill your schedule so that you are not sitting idle,” she says. Working on a personal website or portfolio is a smart way to spend downtime.

Having a financial strategy in place, meanwhile, can help to avoid missteps. When Tamera Darden was laid off from her position as an associate product manager at Macy’s corporate after six years, she cashed out her 401k to live off of while she job searched, a move that wipes out a future safety net and leads to tax penalties. In hindsight, Darden says, it’s not a move she recommends. Speaking to a financial advisor can help newly laid-off employees weigh their options while they get back on their feet.

When job searching, online boards like LinkedIn feel like the obvious place to start. But going beyond a job post and working network connections gives potential hires a boost. Check for current employees at a desired new job who can refer you. While it’s important to take an active role in the job search, making yourself available online can help. Fuqua landed at her new role as director of global sales at Khaite thanks to a connection reaching out on LinkedIn. 

“Take what I call a ‘networking inventory’, which essentially is taking a mental note of everyone in your network in your industry,” says Byrd. “Sometimes we avoid looking at directly who is in front of us, or we go above or around our own circle that would be more than willing to help us.” Start with who you know and people you’ve worked with, and reach out to them to let them know you’re looking for work. 

Darden says her existing network helped her land work as a freelance creative director and photographer for brands like Ase Naturals and Base Butter, a content creation job with Macy’s and a prop styling job for Harper’s Bazaar. She adds that these jobs, especially with international brands, would not have happened without her leveraging the people she already knew. 

Fuqua, who worked with an industry network outside of her company in her former sales role, says keeping in touch with past buyers she worked with facilitated her new sales role as fashion is an industry that prizes relationships. In two months, she landed her new job. 

When working freelance following a layoff, Darden points out that you have to promote yourself to get your work out there, something former full-time employees may not be accustomed to. Darden says she became more intentional on Instagram in communicating her work and proactively reached out to brands she wanted to work for without worrying about hearing “no” in response. 

If possible, workers should still prioritise finding the right role instead of jumping into the first opportunity that comes along. “I wanted to give my new role the same consideration I would have taken even if I was still in a full-time role that I loved,” Fuqua says.

Ultimately, a positive perspective can ease the blow. “Nothing is permanent,” says Darden. “The only thing that you can control is how you take action.”

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