In response to the COVID-19 crisis, Jing Daily is placing an emphasis on profiling the movers and shakers that together build the luxury industry. Our profiles are highlighting the individuals who contribute to the fashion community, from consumers and behind-the-scenes employees to business executives and influential creatives.
Gabby Hirata was removed by security on her first attempt to break into fashion. 13 years ago, while still in college, she made her way to New York City’s Garment District, resumes in hand. She went building to building, knocking on doors and asking about internships. At Ralph Lauren’s landmark building on Fifth Avenue, she decided on a bolder approach and sneaked into the freight elevator. The security manager, however, caught her on camera and chased her down.
Today, as the Head of Business Development at Diane Von Furstenberg for the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region, Hirata has come a long way. A Beijing-native born in the ’80s, Hirata made an early decision to come to the US for college, as comments from her family and school teachers about how she would never stack up to boys made her realize that “in order to fulfill my full potential, I need to be adventurous and explore more opportunities.” Upon graduating high school, she moved across the world to study at Franklin and Marshall college, a private liberal arts college in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on a scholarship.
Persistence and initiative have clearly paid off for Hirata. Her breakthrough in New York’s fashion world began at Anna Sui. And later, oddly enough, she returned to the same building she got kicked out of to work for both Ralph Lauren and Jill Stuart (and befriending the security guard). Then, while at a work conference, she introduced herself to the the CEO of DVF, Sandra Campos, initiating a conversation that would unexpectedly lead her to a position at DVF months later. In January of this year, Hirata then took the lead in DVF’s outreach to China amid the COVID-19 crisis — just three days after starting her new job.
Jing Daily recently met up with Hirata at Diane Von Furstenberg’s personal library at the brand’s headquarter in New York City. She was wearing an elegant DVF wrap dress that she described as no-fuss and “fundamentally feminine.” She told us about her career trajectory in the US, how she quickly turned her sadness over the COVID-19 crisis into strength, rallying the company to support the Chinese people and advising other brands on how to navigate the impact of the virus.
JD: How did you get started in the fashion industry? What planted the seed for you to work in the luxury fashion field?
Hirata: I studied Art History and minored in Japanese, but since day one I knew I wanted to work in New York City in the fashion industry because fashion is an exciting intersection between art and practicability. At that time, though, the only concrete image I had about working in the fashion industry was from watching The Devil Wears Prada. It remains one of my favorite movies to rewatch. Even now, when I have a big day coming up, I would still play KT Tunstall’s “Suddenly I See” [the movie’s theme song] as I get dressed in the morning.
How did you end up at DVF?
I met Sandra Campos, the CEO of DVF, at a conference about technology and the retail industry last year. She gave a speech on the journey of turning DVF into a digital, customer-centric brand. That talk inspired me so much. Even though I felt very shy, I decided to approach her after the talk and introduce myself. She gave me her email, and it took five months or more for me to find a time slot on her calendar.
“Being a native Chinese helps me do my job better. Take this charity livestreaming sale as an example, it gave me the confidence to intuitively know the right thing to do.”
When I finally came in, I was telling her about my upbringing in China and my constant effort to adapt to American corporate culture throughout my past experience working in New York. She encouraged me to think about my cultural background as a strength to help American brands to succeed in China. Eventually our friendly chat turned into a serious discussion about the role of Business Development Head for APAC at DVF. She took a chance on me as I wasn’t your typical candidate for a BD position — I have not worked in consulting or gone to business school. Sandra believed that I could learn very fast on the job. That trust in me gives me tremendous motivation to make DVF a successful, coveted cross-generational brand in Asia.
What has been a defining moment, or a particularly challenging moment, in your career?
When I started at DVF around the end of January, the COVID-19 crisis just began. I had been following the news from China through my circle of friends on WeChat and started to get very concerned — even feeling depressed — about what was happening there. Immediately following the lockdown of Wuhan was New York Fashion Week and DVF originally had an afternoon tea for some top Chinese KOLs to meet Diane. I brought it up to Sandra that no one might be in the mood to talk about fashion because the news in China at the time was all about the coronavirus and death. I didn’t realize it then but the fact I directly report to the CEO at DVF is such a significant benefit.
Because of Sandra’s support, we turned the afternoon tea into an intimate fireside chat in the evening about what was happening in China, women’s resilience, and what each of us do when we need strength.The positive outcome of that evening further strengthened our belief that DVF can act in a fast and powerful way to show that the brand cares about what is happening in China. I think that was the defining moment in my career, though it is such a recent event. It proves that I am part of a brand who cares about my home country with genuine respect and understanding of its culture and people. That is very significant for a Western brand.
Can you tell us a bit more about the event?
We decided to go with a very direct approach: a charity sale via livestreaming, since everyone in China was staying at home and livestreaming has quickly become an important channel of not only retail but also marketing. The event was a great success, raising 175,493 RMB (roughly $25,315 USD), with 100% of the proceeds going to the Adream Foundation (真爱梦想公益基金会) to help elementary schools in China to sterilize equipment and classrooms.
We set up a small stage at the gallery space that is part of our flagship store. DVF’s long-time China partner, Shanghai Fairywood, generously provided the products. Diane personally designed a tees with “Be Strong Wuhan, With Love From DVF” on the front.
We started with an audience of around 500 people watching and the number just kept climbing all the way to more than 20 thousand people. My colleagues would stop and pop in to say “be strong China!” and I would explain to the audience in Chinese the meaning behind the art installations and what “in charge” means. When we eventually made it to the penthouse floor, Diane and Talita (Diane’s granddaughter) appeared in front of the camera wearing the “Be Strong Wuhan” tees. Diane talked about how Chinese people always overcome adversity and said “Jia You Wuhan, I love you!” in Chinese. The livestreaming audience was bursting with excitement.
As you said, the COVID-19 news broke on your third day at work, did it disrupt your workflow and the goal you set for the company?
A huge component of my job is to translate and present Chinese customer insights to the cross-functional teams in New York. I spend a lot of time talking to our China partners about what our customers and store managers think and want. COVID-19 put a sudden stop to my usual work routine because our business in China is mostly based on retail stores. We have 38 stores in mainland China, plus 16 additional stores in countries like Malaysia and Thailand. Because of COVID-19, we had to close all of our stores in mainland China, and have only now began slowly opening them.
We have a very ambitious vision for where DVF should be in China. The wrap dress is so versatile – you can wear it in the morning all the way through your evening at work and go on a date; you can wear it to drop your kid off in the morning and go attend meetings right after. Most importantly, it is quintessentially feminine. Functionality and femininity are two elements that are particularly indispensable for Chinese women. We want to help Chinese women become the women they always wanted to be, whether that’s an executive or a stay-at-home mother.
Making the livestream event happen so quickly, do you think that this has something to do with your seniority at the company and being a native Chinese?
When I approached Sandra for advice after meeting her at the conference, I confessed to her that from a personality, linguistic, and cultural perspective, I have to constantly adapt myself throughout my twelve years of working in New York. East Asian culture is all about modesty. We don’t speak up unless we absolutely believe we have the most important thing to say, so most of the time we stay relatively quiet, which was a consistent observation I had throughout the different organizations I have worked at.
At my current role at DVF, I’m encouraged to speak up on the subject relevant to China. As part of the senior leadership team, I am incredibly well supported by the cross-functional teams as well as the CEO and Diane herself. It helps me to leave my cultural reservedness behind and push through big initiatives and visions DVF has for the China marketplace.
You asked about being a native Chinese. I see it as my strength to help me do my job better. Take this charity livestreaming sale as an example. Because I’m a native Chinese, with friends and family in China, I have a genuine emotional connection with the people back home. It gave me the confidence to know intuitively what the right thing was to do.
What’s your advice for other brands managing the COVID-19 crisis, given your past experience managing the production side of fashion businesses?
We care deeply for our supply chain partners in China. When the factories were closed for an extended period of time due to the virus, our VP of production communicated with them every day, stressing that safety is the number one priority; and she has personally shipped face masks to our Chinese sourcing partners.
“The time has changed for the next generation of native Chinese people seeking a fashion career within a Western brand.”
Sometimes when a problem cannot be solved, you have to find ways to work creatively. Since many raw materials are also produced in China, our production outside China was affected, too. Therefore, we must strategize how to adapt the existing visual merchandising and marketing strategy when the spring collection is only partially present. Our sales, merchandising, and logistics teams reviewed the SKUs that are able to ship, the SKUs we know would be delayed, prioritized the key looks to be rushed, and collectively made plans that minimize the impacts of supply chain disruption.
Lastly, is there a piece of advice or something you’ve learned that you would want to share with fashion hopefuls, especially with those who are native Chinese?
Be persistent, genuine, and able to articulate your competitive advantage. Be a long-term thinker who can paint a future for a brand on a global scale. Find your advocate who understands and supports your vision. But most importantly, be confident in yourself, and own who you are. The time has changed for the next generation of native Chinese people seeking a fashion career within a Western brand. You don’t need to always start with a set trajectory, such as the back of the house (manufacturing, tech design, etc.). China is leading the world in innovative retail. It is important to always learn what is happening technology-wise in China regardless of whether your desired job is directly related to the China market or not. Things happen so fast in China. What was true six months ago may not be the case now. It gives a huge advantage for the next generation – Chinese or not.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.