Many of us dream of going abroad in search of greener pastures. For one Cebuana, the story seemed like a fairytale: she landed a post in her industry of choice—fashion, natch—by simply walking into one of her favorite stores. In an interview with Preview below, find out how Sara Abbu, a 27-year-old graduate of BFA Information Design from Ateneo de Manila University, became the Operations and Merchandising Officer of contemporary French label Anne Fontaine in Sydney, Australia.
Your story with Anne Fontaine sounds a bit like fate. Tell us how it happened.
“I was strolling around Sydney one day and walked past this French label in the Queen Victoria Building, and I immediately fell in love with everything that I saw—from the products to visual merchandising and styling. There was a hiring sign on the window for a sales position, and thankfully I had a copy of my resume on hand. I got an interview two days after and did a two-day trial. I nearly missed out on the job for looking ‘too young’ (laughs), but thank God I was able to charm my way in.”
What exactly do you do there? Walk us through a typical day on the job.
“Now I focus on managing the back office and all of the merchandise. I deal with the stocks in the Sydney stores and all communication with our head office in Paris. I also organize what pieces we need to get in and arrange reports to plan for the future collections.
“My day usually starts with checking emails from Paris—usually details of the incoming collection and weekly reports from the main Honfleur warehouse—and double checking all the visual merchandising. Because the brand is very exclusive, everything is made in France and we only carry one piece per size. How each piece is displayed is crucial as we simply can’t get pieces restocked. I also go through the all the stores’ sales from the day before to evaluate how the selection of the current season’s stock is performing. I then move on through my endless list of things to do.”
But you didn’t immediately land a job in Sydney, right? What was it like when you were still trying to find your place in the fashion industry?
“After graduating with a Fine Arts degree from Ateneo, I went to study Fashion Design and Industry Practice at the Sydney Institute. I got an internship with Nicola Finetti, a Sydney-based designer who specializes in women’s ready-to-wear. [I spent] three months in his design studio as a production assistant. The job was primarily preparing the samples, getting the fabrics and patterns right, and assisting visiting stylists who’d pull out.
“That gave me a formal exposure to the industry. But with little to no real work experience, it was still very difficult for me to break through and get the opportunities I wanted. Looking back, I probably did not try hard enough (laughs). Thankfully, my family fully supported my stay, so I got by.”
How long did you continue to look for work after that? I understand you went home to Cebu. Things didn’t pan out back home?
“I came home as soon as my fashion course had finished. I figured that with the international credential I had just gained, I would have a stronger edge in the fashion industry back home. But as soon as I got to Cebu, I felt very lost, not knowing who I was or what I wanted. In my first year back, I practically dipped my toes into everything! I started to design a ready-to-wear line, created made-to-order formalwear, even opened a restaurant—and I couldn’t cook then! But ultimately, none of these worked out.
“It was after all my failed ventures that I decided a formal day job [might] be where I could start. I first joined Forever 21 as a Visual Merchandiser and Stylist. After less than a year, I was promoted to Assistant Store Manager. I can honestly say that my career at F21 was so much fun yet painful at the same time (laughs). Opening the SM Seaside store has been one of the biggest challenges I had to overcome. I had to work extra hard [to the point that] it got me rushed to the ER the night before the opening (laughs).
“[My experiences in F21] not only taught me the ins and outs of fashion as a business—staffing, merchandising, operations—but also gave me so much strength and confidence in myself. It was where I learned about my capabilities. I’m still very grateful for the support of my senior manager and the rest of the team.”
What it's like working abroad? How would you compare the retail landscapes?
“The retail industry here [in Sydney] and in the Philippines are totally different spectrums. For one, the working hours are much shorter as shops are only open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. It’s also much easier to voice out anything to your superiors as working environments are much more relaxed that you don’t even have to address them as “sir” or “miss.” [With Anne Fontaine,] I’m easily able to make decisions on what pieces I need to get in, and what I would like to cancel.
“Sydney is also very multi-cultural, which I love, so you get to work and deal with people of all backgrounds who may have different ways of doing things. So you have to know how to be very flexible and open.”
Any interesting stories you’d like to share?
“I personally caught Lucy Turnbull, the wife of the Australian Prime Minister, on a news segment. She was wearing one of the jackets we recommended to her. Since then, we've been receiving messages from our other VIP clients, saying they've seen Mrs. Turnbull on TV or on print wearing the same jacket they've purchased. So now, we're always on the lookout for any of our VIPs who are public personalities, because they might be wearing one of our pieces.
“Recently, Jennifer Westacott, the head of the Business Council of Australia, met with US President Donald Trump in one of the many Anne Fontaine outfits we had recommended to her. Our head office in Paris is always as excited as us when we see all these great women wearing our pieces.”
What else is on your plate right now?
“I’m also taking up a diploma [course] in Project Management. Coming from my creative background, there was a point when it [became] an everyday struggle to remain competitive within the business aspect of the industry. I had no formal background in business and management—I just learned the ropes along the way. It’s always important to stay knowledgeable and relevant.”
What advice would you give someone who also wants to land a fashion job abroad?
“I would totally advise them to go for it! Fashion after all is still about fun, creativity, and expressing yourself. So venturing into the fashion world abroad will be your best adventure yet!
“The best thing I’ve learned in my career—and my only real advice to give—is that you truly need to value a good work ethic and a sense of professionalism. Even when something is bothering your personal life—as long as it’s not a matter of life and death—you draw on that perfect eyeliner flick, swipe that red lipstick on, and get to work.”