Management & Leadership in the Fashion Industry


Emily Lane, Bret Schnitker


October 24, 2022


Emily Lane 00:08 

Welcome to Clothing Coulture. I'm Emily Lane. 

Bret Schnitker 00:12 

I'm Bret Schnitker. 

Emily Lane 00:13 

We speak with experts where we explore the global dynamics that shape trends in the fashion industry, 

Bret Schnitker 00:19 

Brought to you by stars Design Group, a global production and design house with over 30 years of industry experience. 

Emily Lane 00:34 

Welcome back, Bret. 

Bret Schnitker 00:36 

Thanks, Emily. 

Emily Lane 00:37 

I am really excited to be here today and explore this conversation of leadership. How are you feeling about this? 

Bret Schnitker 00:46 


Emily Lane 00:49 

Well, you have been a company owner for over 20 years. And prior to that you, you know, became the top of a multibillion dollar retail organization. 

Bret Schnitker 01:01 

Yeah, that's... 

Emily Lane 01:04 

Well, my question is, did you always have the desire to be a leader? Did you feel that you inherently, were a natural born leader? 

Bret Schnitker 01:13 

I don't know how many people are natural born leaders. And I certainly didn't have the desire to be one, I think, you know, coming from design, and, you know, from my background and design, a lot of it was you know, I just wanted to express creativity. And hopefully people would buy things. And I think, as I progressed through the ranks, I realized that that was a responsibility to achieve the goals that we had, from the design aspect, that you had to learn how to engage various people from all over all sorts of walks of life and all over the world internally and externally, to get things accomplished. And I think, you know, we had our share of mistakes and our share of good, good decisions and answers, learning that leadership role, but it takes a while 

Emily Lane 02:01 

I you know, mistakes are such a great way to learn. They're painful. 

Bret Schnitker 02:06 

But we all make sure you don't forget them. 

Emily Lane 02:10 

That's right. Yeah,absolutely. Well, we are in such a unique industry. Because it's such a blend of personality types and skill sets, you have creatives, you have those who are highly technical, and more on the left brain side of things, you have partners that are all around the world working with factory partners, and often third world countries, you know, how do you go about kind of navigating the complexities and the variety of styles that you need to, you know, work with this global team with varied dynamics and varied personalities. 

Bret Schnitker 02:47 

Again, that takes time, but I really think it's leading with a heart, I think you're dealing not only with all of that, that you mentioned, but also different levels of people's experience, and career experience and skill set. And I think really trying to take time to understand their motivations, you know, what they're looking to do understand who they are as people, where their strengths lie, where their weaknesses lie, are really important factors in helping you navigate what is a, you know, in our industry, it's a it's an amazingly diverse landscape, you know, coming from a, again, a creative side. earlier in life, I think we talked about previous episodes, numbers, were not something that really came supernatural to me. Today, they're a very important part of my life. And so I've also had to learn those skills. And, and recognize the importance and balancing both the creative side and kind of that number side to navigate these waters too. 

Emily Lane 03:53 

So really pressing yourself to also just ongoing learn, and 

Bret Schnitker 03:58 

Where life is a journey, we if you really have the right attitude, you, you understand, you're always learning. 

Emily Lane 04:04 

You know, I've had the opportunity to see you interview many people, and I found it so fascinating, because you do have this approach of like, I really want to learn who you are as a person, you know, it's not, it's not you know, you know, I remember being young in my career and going to an interview and going, I need to, I need to say everything I can to make you know what to impress and let them know that I'm going to work as hard as possible. You're though, but I think we're in a very different time. We've talked about authenticity, and the importance of it in building brands, many episodes now. But I find that in the workplace, it's, it's equally as important. And I always admired your approach to pull that authenticity out. 

Bret Schnitker 04:52 


Emily Lane 04:52 

In interviews, 

Bret Schnitker 04:53 

There are layers to people and I think every you know, the first thing I've recognized over the years is that everyone that comes in for interview, you have one objective secure the job, right? Just so you know, they're going to try to answer questions to help them secure that job. And I think, first, it's important to let them know that it's okay to discuss weaknesses, and it's okay to discuss mistakes, we've all made them. And I don't think if you're, if you're not making mistakes, you're not generally risking enough or leaning enough 

Emily Lane 05:24 

That's a good point. 

Bret Schnitker 05:24 

to get them in the right direction. So I think it's important in an interview to, again, peel back these layers of an onion, really get to know people start to get them comfortable with the environment, and realize that, you know, for us, to put them in the right place in an organization, and for them to survive. And last, it's important to understand both strengths and weaknesses. And I think that can be I think that can be a change of dynamic, you know, 

Emily Lane 05:53 


Bret Schnitker 05:53 

for people that are interviewing here. 

Emily Lane 05:55 

Is that something that you just kind of see happen, when you're asking questions like you can see when when they're being real, and when they're not? 

Bret Schnitker 06:03 

Some, you know, I think the ones that are in our organization, you know, you you get to a point where you feel like they're stepping into that place to be more authentic. Frankly, we've just met right, in an interview. So, you know, with that process, they don't know me, I don't know them. But you get to a point where you realize they start to realize that it's important that they that they're more authentic. 

Emily Lane 06:28 


Bret Schnitker 06:28 

And they have more of a dialogue. And that, you know, we want that to be part of our ongoing dialogue here. 

Emily Lane 06:35 

How do you go about really identifying that talent? 

Bret Schnitker 06:40 

Wow, that's really challenging. 

Emily Lane 06:42 

That's a big question! 

Bret Schnitker 06:43 

Sometimes it's pretty clear. Sometimes it's taking a little bit of a leap of faith, I can tell you within our 3D design department, you know, the first person I interviewed, he happens to be a pretty senior member here today, and has been here a number of years, came fresh out of school, no portfolio, very quiet guy. So you can imagine that interview. And I would tell you, in my case, it was just a feeling it was, again, I had a feeling that he was going to care, and he was going to care enough to move from where he's at to be better. And that's certainly born truth over the years. And then there's certain cases that you very quickly whether, you know, as designers, they're showing you portfolios, they're having technical people, they're discussing attributes, technically, we've sat down with some people that just immediately blow my mind, you know, with how technical they are, and we've had some that have been really pretty young, and you're just kind of amazed at the knowledge that they have, and that they're comfortable discussing, that gives you a really good platform to understand where they could be with continued education and support from within. 

Emily Lane 07:52 

Right, I've definitely that you speak to that continued education side of things I've seen you welcome people in with this kind of fluidity in their role, you know, so that people can shift and grow and really explore areas of interest. And I think that that is such a unique and special thing. How do you know when it's time for someone to, you know, move into another space within an organization or take an even bigger role as a, as a leader of a department? 

Bret Schnitker 08:25 

It's communication from the person themselves feeling comfortable enough to share where they're at, in their role. And I think that we have really good department heads that communicate that and allow us to begin the dialogue about finding the right space for them. We've had people that have come in and more of a project management roles, you know, fresh out of fashion school, and they really felt like that was a great start. And you find that some of them stumble quite a bit in, in that they tend to be maybe a little more creative. And the minute we move them over, it's, you know, they blossom, they immediately light up and you know, that they found at least the niche for, you know, this next journey or next step or chapter of their career. 

Emily Lane 09:13 

I know that you're not much of a micromanager. Is that something that you just if you've never been a micromanager, have you say have you tried that within your company and decided Wow, this is just not working? Tell me your philosophies on management and how they've evolved and why. 

Bret Schnitker 09:36 

When the company started in 1998, there were three of us. So you couldn't help because you were doing it all 

Emily Lane 09:43 


Bret Schnitker 09:43 

You kind of had to micromanage yourself to accomplish all the goals that you have. I think for a company to succeed and continue to grow. It's super important that you have staff that you can rely on that you can that you can trust to accomplish the goals and I think that's, that's the only way a company is going to be successful. I think having touch base points, having communication points, setting an example setting, you know, company goals, you know, engaging with them when they're challenged, or always to keep that path continuing, effectively, but I don't think there's any success with micromanaging. 

Emily Lane 10:25 

I'm curious about challenging personalities, you know, how what, how do you deal with that when somebody is, you know, creating making an environment that's uncomfortable for others, or, you know, that they're just, they themselves are chronically unhappy, or, you know, any variety of things that that make someone kind of a difficult person to be around? How do you? How do you? How do you work with that? 

Bret Schnitker 10:55 

challenging personalities or difficult personalities, as you mentioned, a couple of them unhappiness in the workplace, things like that. They sort of paint the direction that, hey, they just, they're just not a good fit. But I believe that that conversation is a heck of a lot more gray in our environment, many times, it's their perspective, and their experience level. That creates a difficult situation, you know, they look at a a default, difficult country for manufacturer in one direction, hey, it's not easy. Why are you there? We should be only producing in countries that are easy. I've been doing this 30 years, I realized that every country that we work in has strengths and weaknesses. And they're all relatively they all have their challenges. And I think that when you hear a phrase, like why don't we just go where it's easy, or things are non complicated, it's, it's a conversation of skill level, and you have to kind of step in and have conversations with with them about that and understand why they're having that discussion. You know, they're afraid. In those cases, it's coming from a point of care, you know, they want to have a good result, they want us to have good results with our clients. And so when you understand that dynamic, many times, it's about having them step back and giving them an example, which provides them maybe a perspective in which I'm looking at I had a situation like that a number of years ago, and the individual was really upset, we were making decisions to produce in a specific country. And I likened it to, you know, an aeroplane in the middle of a thunderstorm. And I said, you know, conversations like that are like a passenger running up to the door of pilot pounding on the door and telling the pilot to get out of the pilot seat, because you were afraid of a thunderstorm. And what did he think the result would be if he is the passenger was going to jump in the pilot seat and try to navigate that plane, you know, the pilot has had 30 years of experience, 

Emily Lane 13:02 


Bret Schnitker 13:03 

Don't think the passengers gonna fare too well in a storm. And sure enough, then you, you know, you, you allow a certain amount of time to go by, and you see the light bulb go off, you see that they recognize why we made that decision. And once that goes off, if they're the right type of, you know, employer or team member, they, they sock it away, and they're like, Ah, that's why. And you and you start, I think it's for all of us, it's about understanding where we're at in terms of our skill level, our knowledge of markets and production, and you know, how long we've been doing things, you know, and we have to be patient with those people that the first step for them is the care thing, you know, they're concerned because they care. 

Emily Lane 13:55 

Yeah, it's, it's, it's making sure that you've got a team that has heart, as you often talk about, and it sounds like a lot of communication as well. 

Bret Schnitker 14:03 

Yeah. A lot of communication 

Emily Lane 14:05 

It reminds me of, of thinking, you know, my background in business development and so forth. in marketing is always asking questions, so that you can get to that deeper that, that deeper truth. And it sounds like you're talking very much the same thing. If somebody comes up to you upset or with a concern. It's asking those deeper questions to, to understand where they're at, and then help it help share your knowledge. 

Bret Schnitker 14:33 

That's absolutely one of the healthiest approaches. And when you have a million things going on, you really have to develop that as a, as a habit, because you kind of want to say, Hey, here's, here's the truth of the matter and you'll get it my way or the highway. It's gonna like you thinking about all the different, you know, challenges that you have during the day and you kind of want him to understand it, and they're not gonna step into your, into your shoes until they've had a little more experience that I think, you know, asking a lot of questions. It shows certainly that you care enough to, to bring them along that journey with you, and help them understand more of that landscape. And certainly, there are times that I and senior leadership makes mistakes. 

Emily Lane 15:22 

Well, yeah, well, like you said, You're not if you're not making mistakes, if you're not taking risks, you know, that you're not learning, you're not growing and, you know, evolving. So, you know, I'm curious about speaking of taking risks, you know, tough circumstances, difficult decisions. You know, oh, wow, as the leader, those are on you. Yeah. So, what is your process for making those tough decisions? And you have any examples of, of maybe where you've had to, you know, you've had, you've had to make that call? 

Bret Schnitker 16:01 

Yeah. You know, when I, when I look back over the business, and really any business that I've been at, a lot of people on the outside of business think that that just happens linearly, you start in this volume, and he kind of ended this volume, and it's kind of this linear, 

Emily Lane 16:19 


Bret Schnitker 16:20 

It's more like a roller coaster. 

Emily Lane 16:22 


Bret Schnitker 16:23 

There's all sorts of stuff that occurs along the path. And, you know, that develops, what I think is important for success in a business is perseverance, you've got to have a longer term perspective, who want to go crawl and curl up in a corner. And there's many of us this year, that, you know, that could have certainly been a choice with COVID. You know, curl up, close off, and, and hope you make it. But, you know, it's about making sure that you stay focused on the long game, and, you know, difficult situations or circumstances. I think, for us, you know, my challenge over the years was always being a bit visionary. I think that certain leaders are kind of visionary and creative, or methodical, and rigid networks are different industries at different paces. And I have really learned to surround myself with people that were more methodical decision makers, because I know in myself that I tend to really, I want to be on the leading edge of technology, I want to be on the leading edge of production globally, you know, I really have a very good, you know, feeling, whether it's borne out by fact or not, that things could work out well. And I realized that it's important to surround yourself with people to say, hey, what if? And I think what are the biggest learning curves I ever had was, I think we were one of the first US companies into Ethiopia, years ago. And we spent time vetting the country, I believe that the future of production, could be Africa, you know, for us, and, and, you know, really was fascinated with the infrastructure that was being built in Ethiopia with state of the art equipment, huge factories, lots of support by European communities that were very, very experienced. And we certainly went through a lot of vetting opportunities exercises, as a visionary at that point, I had done these tasks. And I felt like now's the time to grab the country, you know, where we, you know, the labor rates are good we had, where it was a member of a go. So you had, you know, duty free to the US. And I just felt like that this was just a place to stake a claim in the future. You know, we had secured a really large order from a really great group, and it was more of a basic, uniform order, something that really works in countries like that repetitive 

Emily Lane 18:54 

Just kind of getting started, too, right? 

Bret Schnitker 18:56 

They can repeat the style over and over again, that's a really good thing for these developing nations. So I felt like we just had all the pieces in place. And I would say, maybe, what is it two weeks after multiple containers left foreign countries have all of our fabric for these, you know, this multi million dollar order? Heading to Djibouti declare in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian company had a huge issue with the staff. A disruption, yeah, yes. With the European staff that was on board and they kicked them all out of the country, or the majority of them. Oh, wow. And you know, 

Emily Lane 19:45 

How many were there? 

Bret Schnitker 19:47 

20 some that really managed. One of the factories was 3200 workers on the floor and that didn't include 

Emily Lane 19:52 

Oh my gosh! 

Bret Schnitker 19:53 

Cutting and sewing and it was a very, very large, very vertical and one of the most vertical from spinning knitting dyeing ever residing in the middle of nowhere, Ethiopia up in agua. And you know, I have millions of dollars of fabric and trims and boxes and poly, I mean, everything to produce the garment had to be imported. And they were all in route. And they replaced the head of the factory with a 25 year old Ethiopian IT manager that had zero experience in apparel. 

Emily Lane 20:25 

Wow, yeah! 

Bret Schnitker 20:25 

My life passed before my eyes. I think I cried a little to be honest. And I think you know, you had to roll up your sleeves. And subsequently, I think we spent a lot of time a good amount of our time over three years, living in the country really managing that factory on behalf of ourselves to, you know, to get things shipped out. And I have a bittersweet, you know, memory of that time because I love the country. I love the people. But it was a extremely challenging time. And it was certainly costly. It didn't go nearly the way that we had expected it. And while I still have that visionary bend, I still like to to be a leading, you know, thought maker in our industry. I definitely think a few times before I make some of those decisions and try myself with people that can really vet it accurately. 

Emily Lane 21:26 

Yeah, I was just curious, like, does that make you does that make you much more cautious when it comes to making such a, you know, visionary kind of decision? 

Bret Schnitker 21:38 

I definitely think I'm more cautious. Yeah, I think if you asked my methodical partners, maybe I could be more cautious still, but I don't think if you're if you're not risking, you're not, you're not progressing. 

Emily Lane 21:49 


Bret Schnitker 21:49 

And so while I have, we have taken a completely different tact when it comes to production, execution for the company for our clients, we're very, very conservative. No one likes an optimist for production, when we have some of these, you know, visionary thought processes that don't affect our clients. You know, we're still reaching, but I think we're, we're also discussing it a lot more about what the pros and cons could be. Mm hmm. 

Emily Lane 22:19 

So I'm curious now, having, you know, having evolved into this, this place of leadership, do you find it easy to recognize, like, oh, here's, here's somebody who's going to, you know, take the world by storm and lead their own company someday? Or do you see these qualities in others? and quick follow up? What are the qualities you would look for in a good leader? 

Bret Schnitker 22:48 

I think many times I do see the qualities, but that's always borne out by time. I get excited about people, I, I think that there's, there's individuals that we put on that I really, at the beginning, you know, you see your future in their hands, and you like, where that where that place is. But I believe that that is distilled correctly, over time, there has to be this consistency, and you have to really know people. So I don't think, you know, it's not like love at first sight, you know, you have some good indications that they can have that skill set and do the job. Right. But I think it really takes it takes some time to really be sure of that. And that's, that's been our, our case here. I think really important things that that helped me make decisions for future leaders within the organization. And we've discussed it before, but for me, it's hard. I mean, 

Emily Lane 23:42 


Bret Schnitker 23:42 

I think, I think they have to care about what's going to happen to the company for the future, they have to understand that that leaders are always responsible for the employees that are here. They have to care about the clients. You know, too much of our business in the USA is this, you know, very short thinking exchange. 

Emily Lane 24:08 


Bret Schnitker 24:08 

And I think it's very important, at least in our company, to make sure that we have people that really understand that we're in it for the long term. And I think long term relationships are critical, may not be shared by both sides. Many times, industry and relationships in our in our business today are very transactional. But I would like to believe that the right relationships that are gonna last a long time or that there's this mutual understanding, and, you know, care about each other, each other side, and I think that goes a long way. So hearts important. I think understanding proper skill sets, you know, our industry is getting more and more technical all the time. And that that's a huge challenge. You know, for the US we don't we've mentioned other episodes, we don't support manufacturing. So really having skill sets that can stay up to the level of the changes in the industry can be difficult to find. So there we reach outside of the US we're in a global economy. We as a, we, as a people in the world work, we're connected. And, and this is certainly a global business. So we really look outside, we look globally for to plug in, you know, those strengths, but skill is, is really important. And then, you know, the last key is talent, I don't know if you can really teach talent. I think that it's it's, it can be, it can be improved. I think it can be honed over time, if you will, but talents, just something that you You see, maybe earlier throats Rost form and over time with a much more eloquent impression. But we have some really dynamic people. And I think when you when you combine skill, talent, you know, the ability to embrace technology and heart those things are really, really important for me. 

Emily Lane 26:06 

I think that's all those are really great thoughts. Do you have any other little nuggets to share for those who have goals of, you know, owning their own company or are leading their team or evolving into that next stage of their career? 

Bret Schnitker 26:24 

I think, you know, I urge patients, and I urge communication. Those things have served me well over time. And certainly perseverance there are definitely times and many times over 30 years that you know, you you look at a situation that goes south and you think, "Oh, my God, are we going to survive this?" We have been through those in the past, and we have survived them. And people that have these longer businesses that have been around for a number of years, they all have the same stories. And it really comes down to, you know, this perseverance, certainly perseverance individually, but also having a team that can help hold everything up that has that same perspective of perseverance, because there will be good and bad times, no one expect, you know, expected COVID to hit us. 

Emily Lane 27:17 


Bret Schnitker 27:18 

I think it's important that you have a team around you and that you really continue to move forward, regardless of the circumstance. 

Emily Lane 27:28 

Really speaks to the importance of, you know, curating a team of people that you genuinely really like. Also, 

Bret Schnitker 27:36 

Hopefully, yeah, right. 

Emily Lane 27:37 

I do think that that's important, especially knowing that you can you can lift one another up when you need it. You can celebrate, you know, on the good days also. 

Bret Schnitker 27:45 

Absolutely. Right. 

Emily Lane 27:46 

Well, thank you so much, Bret. I really appreciate these insights. And looking forward to having more conversations and upcoming episodes. Make sure you subscribe so that you can stay apprised of upcoming episodes of Clothing Coulture! 

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Management & Leadership in the Fashion Industry