Jemma Cassidy spent her formative years documenting lifestyle and fashion trends in humble scrapbooks, ultimately piecing together the bigger picture idea for a career that took her from a buyer at Dunnes Stores to top-ranking positions at Donna Karan and Diane Von Furstenberg.
Despite obsessively curating scraps from catalogs and magazines, the Dublin native grew up unaware of how her affinity for forecasting and understanding trends could be a viable profession.
“I was constantly rearranging furniture, painting, and styling shelves growing up,” she said. “However I couldn’t draw so as far as I was concerned, design wasn’t a career option and at the time no college in Ireland offered buying, so I wasn’t sure how I’d break into that world - in fact, I didn’t even know the world I wanted to break into. I just knew I wanted it to be something visual.”
After dropping out of her college course in DIT (“unbeknownst to my family,” she laughed) she immersed herself in the world of retail with a job at Oasis. After a brief stint assisting the Field Visual Merchandiser on window dressing and store layouts, she successfully secured a full-time role and, as she says, “that was that”.
Another position at Topshop’s head office followed, where Cassidy discovered her ultimate passion revolved around the product itself. Four years later, she was offered a buying position at Dunnes Stores, where she worked in both menswear and womenswear.
“It was a truly beneficial role, not only from a professional aspect but a personal one. I learned how to manage some extremely tricky personalities, found my voice and assertion, and namely my passion; impacting the product,” she said of her time at the Irish retailer.
“From there I went to Bestseller and quickly learned that being in an office separated from the daily product decisions was not for me and that’s when Urban Outfitters and the USA came calling.”
After initially being approached by their recruiters via LinkedIn, Cassidy and her husband James moved to America in 2013, allowing her to settle into the role she “was meant to do”.
“It was a role that I didn’t know existed: Product Merchandiser. It’s a confusing title to say the least! In the UK, the Merchandising department is namely a financial one managing all planning and allocation for the buying team - and the Buying department in the UK are the people who drive the product.”
However, Stateside, Cassidy discovered that a Buyer is more involved with the financial side of things, as opposed to making the product and design decisions.
“In a nutshell, a Merchandiser in the US is essentially what we’d call a Buyer in the UK & Ireland with the additional aspect of working alongside the design team but without the financial ownership of the Buyer role.”
So, what does Cassidy actually do?
“People are always surprised when I say I don’t dress the mannequins,” she joked. “A Merchandiser dictates the number of styles needed per season to the design team down to price points, print versus solid, length, silhouettes and then works extremely closely with them approving sketches, fabrics, prints, etc.,”
When it comes to New York fashion, there are countless design talents. During her time as the Vice President of Merchandising at Donna Karan from 2016 to 2018, Cassidy had the pleasure of working alongside many of the city’s most promising stars.
“We had the most incredible, respectful, talented team in place,” she said. “It was a pleasure to go to work every day.”
Six months into her new role as Chief Merchandising Officer at longstanding fashion brand Diane Von Furstenberg, Cassidy is happy to report that the same daily sense of job satisfaction is still very much intact.
“An average day in DVF is an oxymoron: no two days look the same,” she said. “I oversee all Collection Merchandising, Buying, and Planning (and in addition, I am currently interim head of Architecture and Visual Merchandising.)”
With an incredible amount of daily tasks, living and working within a three block radius has been a savior.
“I start the day off by dragging myself to Equinox [gym] to see my trainer. I’m incapable of going by myself hence the trainer! Then I grab a coffee in 9th St Espresso in the Chelsea Markets and walk to the Meatpacking district where my offices are based.”
“On Mondays, I’ll usually have a one-to-one with my direct reports to set priorities and see where we are with ongoing projects. I’ll likely meet with Diane and/or Sandra our CEO. Then, depending where we are with relation to product cycle and the brand calendar, you could find me in a seasonal concept meeting, a print, fabric or sketch review, fittings, reviewing the store buys, looking at new store floor plans or meeting with our Head of Marketing to review Fashion Week plans. It’s incredibly diverse which is ideal for me as it keeps me on my toes.”
Cassidy maintains that every day with iconic designer Diane is a “life lesson”, and that she considers herself "very lucky" working for a female CEO.
“She’s so incredibly inspiring, she’s literally an oracle. She’s such a champion of women in all aspects of their life be it motherhood, family life, or professionally. Almost all of the senior executive team here in DVF is female so she really walks the walk. Seeing the energy and focus she has now at 71 is mind-blowing. She’s so tuned in to pop culture and lifestyle shifts as a whole. As president of the CFDA she also gives a lot of her time to young, up-and-coming designers. She loves to see people succeed. I think working alongside that every day and hearing her positivity daily is a gift.”
As for her own life lessons honed during a career trajectory that spans Dublin, London, and New York, Cassidy said that she learned most about the industry after the “economic nose-dive” in Ireland post-Celtic Tiger. Speaking of beasts, keeping up with the ever-changing retail scene is another wild ride altogether.
“In 2007, you had to be agile and quick on your feet to react to a drastically changing, price-conscious customer; everything had to have a reason to be. Now the landscape has changed significantly but in a different way. The big change is being driven by the widespread use and reliability on technology, be it social media, e-commerce, or shipping technologies.”
When she’s not making decisions that shape how you or I dress and shop, Cassidy can be found carrying out a pretty normal weekend routine in the ‘city that never sleeps’... albeit one that still sounds aspirational. Despite working in an environment that varies from day to day, she has cemented a solid blueprint for the quintessential New York weekend.
“I love how convenient everything is, it never gets old and it never gets boring. I haven’t been bored in six years! My weekends are usually all about food - I’ll rise at 8am and head out with my husband James for a coffee and some brekkie at Bluestone Lane on Greenwich. After which we’ll wander around the village and make our way to farmers market in Union Square and grab some bits for the week. After dumping them at home we’ll head to the gym or SoulCycle. I’ve the body clock of a 77-year-old so generally I’m a fan of late lunches or early dinners...I can generally be found with friends at Waverly Inn, Sant Ambroeus, Raouls, Don Angie, or Highlands, which fellow Dubliner Donal Brophy owns."
* Originally published on our sister publication, Irish Tatler.