A leading fashion executive shares her hard-earned wisdom from her rise to the top—and the ways she's lifting others up with her
When Elizabeth von der Goltz began her career as an assistant buyer at the now-closed luxury department store Barneys New York, it was “the fashion industry as you’d imagine it in the nineties—egotistical and hostile”, she remembers. “Assistants were asked to do things people would never be asked to do today.” Specifically, one of her managers at the time, though talented at her job, was so disrespectful to those around her that Von der Goltz quit the business for two years. “I thought to myself, ‘If that’s the kind of person I’m meant to aspire to become, I don’t want to do this.’”
The experience, however, was a turning point for Von der Goltz, who vowed to leave a different sort of legacy when she re-entered the business. At her next role, at Bergdorf Goodman, owned by Neiman Marcus Group, Von der Goltz worked under CEO Karen Katz, whose eloquence, confidence and ability to hold her own on a board dominated by men taught her the value of having positive female role models. It’s one thing to know it’s possible, she says, but it’s so much more impactful to see a tangible example.
After taking on the role of global buying director for luxury e-commerce giant Net-a-Porter in 2017, Von der Goltz launched the company’s Incredible Women initiative, which highlights powerful women around the world who are at the forefront of their businesses and are using their platforms for change. Audiences are invited to panel discussions a few times a year or to listen to Pieces of Me, a recently launched series of podcasts with speakers such as artists and filmmakers.
On International Women’s Day every year, Von der Goltz also works with women-led brands like Stella McCartney and Gabriella Hearst to create exclusive T-shirts with profits going to Women For Women, a global organisation founded by Laurie Adams dedicated to working with female survivors of war. Adams’ podcast session was the one that Von der Goltz found the most moving. “Oftentimes we only see where successful women are now, but we don’t hear enough of the hardships they went through and what pushed them to start their businesses, which can be incredibly inspiring,” she says.
In the nineties, the world of buying was dominated by only a few luxury players whose ability to dictate fashion trends allowed for inflated egos. But retail has since ramped up at an unprecedented pace. “Today there’s so much choice thanks to social media and e-commerce, and designers are putting out so many collections, so you just have to work as a team to survive,” says Von der Goltz. “It’s no longer just about me and what I can do as an individual.”
Net-a-Porter services 170 countries and employs thousands of workers. Meetings on any single project could involve more than 50 people on a call, but Von der Goltz maintains that the key to a successful business is to make sure that talents are heard. “I think a strength that women have is a great sense of empathy and a way of making people feel included,” she says. “Some of the best leaders I’ve met are those who help foster the confidence to share their ideas and, in turn, that fosters the best ideas.”
At a meeting in Paris this February, Von der Goltz sat with her buying director of apparel at a table where they faced six men, negotiating, planning and asserting requirements for Net-a-Porter. Afterwards, her colleague expressed her awe. “She said to me, ‘I don’t know how you do it,’ and that’s when I realised, I used to be nervous and it took me a while to get [this sense of confidence] but now I don’t think about it any more,” she says.
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